Sign Language

IN SOME RESIDENTIAL spots, they dot the landscape like dandelions on a spring day. In other areas, yard after yard remains unblemished. It's campaign season, and yard signs advertising political candidates throughout the Twin Cities once again are vying for a precious few seconds of attention from drivers and pedestrians.

There are plenty of skeptics who say the tiny billboards have about as much influence on voter behavior as the alignment of the stars, but according to people who earn their keep by creating or deciphering these images, depending on the design, lawn signs can either help or hinder a candidate's chances.

Even to the artistically challenged, a quick glance at a few signs reveals some guiding principles behind lawn advertising: First, a candidate's name gets two-thirds of the sign, and party affiliation the rest. "Name recognition is key," says Steve Clift, director of Democracies Online. Compared to campaigns in other parts of the United States, Clift contends that graphically the Twin Cities are still in the stick-figure stage. "Minnesota is behind the trend for visuals in campaign literature," he says. "A lot of the lawn signs are defined by what they can do on a Mac." Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, he complains, has great Mac skills, but so does everyone else in town. "No one wants to look weird, so they all end up looking the same."

Which, this year anyhow, seems to be blue signs with white block lettering--the choice of a host of local aspirants, including Sayles Belton and Minneapolis City Council hopefuls Niel Ritchie and Karen Wilson. "Candidates are concerned that their signs pop off against the grass," says HMS/Ruhn advertising executive Tim Pearson. Besides, he says, the signs are cheaper because they're one-color printing jobs.

Speed down a Minneapolis boulevard littered with placards, and mayoral candidate Barbara Carlson's high-concept gold signs stand out in the sea of blue. Larger than their neighbors, the signs are emblazoned with Carlson's ultrafeminine signature. "We wanted something that would separate her design from the rest of the candidates," says Pearson, who designed the signs.

"They're distinctive," acknowledges University of Minnesota psychology professor Randy Fletcher, explaining that the signs capitalize on a psychological phenomenon known as the von Restorff effect. When people are given a list of words or images, they'll remember an item that's noticeably different. "It has to do with recall," explains Fletcher. "If you name a bunch of fruits and vegetables and add a word like 'wrench,' people will typically recall that first."

However, he and other experts caution, getting voters to notice a sign doesn't necessarily translate to gaining their votes. That's far more subjective and unpredictable. "You really can't draw any dependable conclusions from things like font size and color," cautions Bill Wells, a UM journalism professor, adding that pinpointing factors that influence voter behavior "is kind of a wild goose chase."

Case in point: the signs Carlson designed herself for her 1989 City Council race. That particular piece of yard art, claims Sayles Belton staffer Amy Phenix, is still being discussed (read: dissed) by local designers and publishers. "It had her face on it, with some kind of scribbling behind her head," recalls Phenix. "It looked new-wavish."

"It was a bit Warhol-ish," concedes Carlson campaign manager Brian Sweeney. "I don't think there was a favorable reaction." The sign, he adds, went over well with at least some portion of the voting population. "People would steal them from lawns."

City Council member Lisa McDonald also scores points. "She did something different with the type," says Pearson. "Her logo looks different." So different, in fact, that some Minneapolis residents have phoned CP staffers wondering what or who "USA McDonald" is. "That certainly wasn't our intention," laughs McDonald. She maintains that the only people who could be confused by the signs, on which the word "McDonald" obscures the bottom leg of the L in Lisa, are voters from outside of her ward. Besides, she says, "If they're talking about my signs that's good because it means they aren't talking about my opponents'."

Do people really talk--or think--about the overall image conjured by the signs at all? Political consultants in other states certainly think so, carefully choosing typefaces that make them look forward-thinking, conservative, hip, or decisive. Fletcher concurs, but adds that while a red sign may not cause someone to vote for a candidate, there is some evidence that lawn signs have some effect; witness Walt Dziedzic's Northeast Minneapolis Park Board campaign signs, which are dark blue and gold, just like the football jerseys at Edison High School.

"Psychologists who study these things [memory and recall] have found that familiarity increases comfort level," Fletcher says. He pauses, then sighs. "But it's depressing to think people select candidates on that kind of basis."

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