Friday, February 26, 2016

Scored! Maasai shuka

While I was in Kenya, it seemed like all the cool kids were wearing some Maasai shuka cloth. Traditionally worn as a wrap by Maasai men and women, these cotton blankets have been marked out as being an identifiably 'African' look. Usually found in the striking red color favored by the Maasai people, they can come in a variety of plaid or checkered patterns.

I haven't yet obtained my favorite variation: red base with a wide bright blue check pattern. I prefer to think of the basic check as being 'identifiably African' because the variations that introduce tartan elements in multiple colors start to remind me of Scotland.

It seems that the shuka has become a hip cloth due to many young Africans (myself included) looking to their heritage for aesthetic inspiration. The Maasai themselves began to replace animal skin wear with this commercial fabric in the 1960s. I'd like to know more about what began that transition. Based on how enthusiastically other types of textiles have historically been assimilated into the African lifestyle, I can only guess that the commercial processes that make these cloths so bright and bold (as well as their durability, ease-of-care and affordability) made them an attractive option for the Maasai.

Friday, February 19, 2016

The 2016 Presidential Campaign Logos

This election year, American voters are once again being asked to sort through the cacophony of inflammatory rhetoric, hilarious sound bites and campaign promises in order to choose their next president. An essential part of a candidate's call to action is their visual self-representation.

A strong visual self-presentation, usually cleverly encapsulated in a logo, speaks of self-confidence and self-awareness. A campaign logo should not only communicate the strength and patriotism of a candidate, but also feel true to that candidate as an individual, pointing out the ways in which they are unique among a field of prospects.

One design challenge campaign logos present to the lucky few that create them is this: the logo must balance the crushing pressure to conform to the highly recognizable clichés of American patriotism with a particular candidate’s unique core vision.

Most of this election cycle's logos are just a mush of patriotic half-thoughts and sigh-inducing blah-ness. All I can see in those mushy logos are clichés (stars, stripes, a soaring eagle) and bad type. Mike Huckabee’s looks like a butt crack farting stars, Scott Walker cribbed a corporation’s logo to emphasize the least important letter in his name, Bobby Jindal’s just looks like a candy cane (a missed cross-promotional opportunity?), Kasich and Santorum feature poorly set type complemented by uninspired graphics, and Chaffee, Graham and Pataki didn’t even try.

The worst campaign logo, though, belongs to Rick Perry. I look at it and I am immediately beset by questions: why is the centered red letter P such a strange shape? Why does the shooting star have so many colors? Who thinks that setting his name at a size only slightly larger than the word “President” below it looks good?  This logo is far from self-confident and self-aware, it basically says to me “I will be a puppet leader guided solely by focus groups.” This one is just pure mush.

In a class above those rejects are the logos of Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. They rely more on clean and simple typography. Happily, they restrain themselves to a single patriotic gesture: one star or the colors of the American flag. Notably, though, Trump doesn’t make any direct patriotic gesture in his logo, nor does he reference his tendency to slap his name, max size, in all caps and 24-carat gold on almost anything else. His logo feels uncommitted somehow; I can see why so few people believed him at the beginning when he said he would run for president.

The only memorable logos in this batch belong to Rubio and Sanders. They both go for a very approachable feeling, communicated almost entirely by the typesetting. Bernie’s just gone for his first name and Rubio’s decided he’s so humble he won’t capitalize his. They both, however, disappoint in the details. The waves under Bernie’s name chop up the slabs at the base of the type, creating useless visual detritus. Rubio, like Bernie, has decided to elaborate the dot on the letter I, and for some reason he’s chosen to shrink the continental US to fit there. From far away it looks like a smear and from up close you realize what it is and there’s absolutely no payoff.

My favorites this year include Carly Fiorina’s sweet and simple use of the star motif, Rand Paul’s seamless integration of the torch of freedom into his name, Ted Cruz’s stars-and-stripes flame, Hillary Clinton’s “click here” arrow, Brian O’Malley’s speech bubble and, my number one, Jeb Bush’s exclamation mark.

Jeb’s logo has been widely derided as a way for him to avoid using his family name, and has been mercilessly ridiculed to great effect on late night television, but it remains my favorite. The round letters, slightly over-size exclamation mark, even just the sound of the name feels warm and casual. I think his campaign would have done a better job defending it if they had just rolled their eyes and said, “Of course he’s a Bush. You all already know that. Why would we waste time advertising that.” That aside, I would have liked a bigger ball terminal on the J to balance out the huge dot on the other end. Where this logo succeeded in communicating approachability, it failed in communicating strength and excitement. The only reason people noticed was because the candidate himself didn’t exude either of the later traits.

Ted Cruz’ flame has a definite religious connotation. Evangelical religions commonly use the flame to represent the Holy Spirit. This logo must have been very tightly rendered: too wild a flame would bring to mind a burning flag, and too solid a shape would have resembled a tear or a raindrop.

Hillary Clinton’s arrow logo is a very middle-of-the road. There’s nothing much to react to, positively or negatively. It just is, like a traffic sign or a medical form. This isn’t a purely negative criticism, because the comparison is to two quotidian objects that may not inspire but are functionally integral to their respective uses. Looking at Hillary’s logo from that angle makes me think that it gets the job done, no muss no fuss, and time will tell if communicating that about herself will draw voters or leave them cold.

For some more design commentary from the likes of type designer Tobias Frere-Jones and designer Sagi Haviv, Politico made a slideshow.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015


Cruising along streets and highways, matatu are among the most exuberant graphic statements in contemporary Kenya. In larger cities and towns, other public graphic statements, such as billboards, are professionally produced in a generic international marketing style, while smaller, independent shops or franchises, particularly in smaller towns and neighborhoods, employ hand-painted text and images. Matatu, however, utilize a freewheeling graphic language of their own.

Matatu are buses that provide public transportation for the majority of Kenyans who do not own cars. They are often covered in dramatic text and brightly colored images, often freely layered and scattered across their exterior. The most dominant typography bares the name or theme of the bus, for example “The Premier” in vinyl space-age typography across the back window, or “A$SAP” (the name of an American hip hop collective) in a condensed serif along the side. “A$AP” uses a black, white and red punk-rock theme: figures in red hockey masks present the passing car with a raised middle finger, politely blocked by a censor bar, and anarchy symbols float around the matatu’s title.

This rebellious attitude suits what I’ve seen of the matatu industry in Nairobi rather well. They’re often not only the loudest-looking things on the road, but also the rudest. I’ve seen many matatu swing from lane to lane with little warning, stop to pick up passengers in the middle of the road, and, once, block several lanes of traffic and scatter pedestrians in order climb over a traffic island and make a u-turn.

Matatu are independently owned and operated. Each bus is designed express its independent spirit, even when a fleet of them is owned by the same operator. Eschewing generic uniform brand building within a fleet, each bus attempts to make and individualist fashion statement. However, I have noticed some common themes: sports stars (particularly footballers), rap and hip-hop artists, appropriated corporate logos, and a few Christian figures and sayings.

“Cool Gang” has a hip-hop theme: spray-painted on its side are graffiti portraits of Tupac Shakur and Jay Z, surrounded by cool-sounding English statements like “150% dope,” and a dozen Rocawear logos filling one window. Passing by in a bus like this in a car is akin to reading a graphic stream of consciousness text. It posits a theme and then any associated visual or textual statements that come to mind are added one after the other.
The smaller buses that I’ve seen (white minibuses with fewer than 15 seats) tend to have more Swahili text. “Karuri Karuri” has what looks like a Swahili joke on its back bumper: “.C JUI”,  which sounds like sijui, meaning “I don’t know.” But why spell the first syllable with a period C? Is that the owner’s initial and part of his last name? Unlike the larger, rebellious-looking buses, the only graphic statements on many of the smaller buses are of what co-op, or sacco, they belong to and the towns at which they make stops. Sometimes, though, this is accompanied by a more demure adoption of corporate logos, like one bearing an Ecko Unlimited logo, and another covered in the names of rap and hip-hop stars. These appropriated graphic statements confuse me: are they advertising for that company or has the operator adopted a graphic statement to represent himself?

Business and city conditions seem to favor the larger, wilder looking buses. They carry more people and relieve the traffic gridlock that plagues city commuters. The look of each bus is designed to appeal to a hip, young urban workforce. At night, you can see them speed by, lit up like space ships or Vegas casinos, ferrying travelers cross-country. On the crowded side streets of Nairobi where I’ve seen matatu gather to pick up passengers, the operators call out to the crowds, advertising their destinations, rates and amenities. The wild look of the buses adds to the cacophony, drawing the eye just as the barkers draw the ears of passing trade.