What those Kansas abortion amendment yard signs are really saying
One of the many yard signs weighing in on the Aug. 2 constitutional amendment vote in Kansas states its case. (Eric Thomas/Kansas Reflector)
Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.
Kansas neighborhoods have been flaunting new landscaping in the form of political yard signs during the run-up to the Aug. 2 vote on whether the state constitution protects abortion rights.
As next-door neighbors advertise their conflicting worldviews, it’s easy to use the number of yard signs on either side as a proxy for the upcoming vote. Whoever has the most signs is most likely to win, we think. Some Kansans might be tempted to count yard signs.
Or maybe you are using the signs to suss out your neighbors’ politics so you don’t say the wrong thing during the next Little League game. (You might alternately learn exactly who you want to confront at that same ballfield.)
Me? I’m obsessed with the design of these posters and what those decisions say about the groups that made them.
As a lifelong visual communicator, I love to pause and stare at the visual choices made by any brand: Juul or LEGO or the GOP. I teach my students to critique designs, photos and videos for the visual messages they are sending — conscious or not.
After taking my visual storytelling class, a student said: “I can’t enjoy anything anymore. I’m constantly critiquing the stuff I see.” If she is still curious, this summer’s yard signs urging us to vote “yes” or “no” should be giving her lots to analyze.
Here’s my breakdown of the visual choices each group made in designing their yard signs.
This sign has been the most common in my travels around Kansas, partially because it is just about the only “yes” sign I have seen. This kind of unified messaging is a hallmark of contemporary conservativism. One bold voice leads an unwavering chorus.
The sign itself is effective in a few ways. First, it speaks visually and verbally. The choice of purple is sly: it nods to both femininity and royalty. Purple also functions as a midpoint between conservative red and liberal blue, positioning the pro-life stance as centrist.
The illustration at the left of the poster creates a symbol with three literal meanings. The silhouette of a mother and a baby — with hands holding one another — is the most obvious. The two figures combine to create the outline of a heart, although completing the shape of the heart involves decapitating the mother, a grim prospect. The other odd twist to the illustration? The negative space between the mother and the baby creates the shape of a hammer.
The wording of the poster leverages one of the biggest advantages provided to those hoping to pass the amendment. Because voters will select “yes” on the ballot, the campaign poster is able to be positive in its language. Add the exclamation point to the all-caps “YES,” and you get a message of enthusiasm. (Imagine the scolding tone of an exclamation point combined with “NO” from the opposing side.)
The concision of the poster is also admirable. It takes just 12 syllables to read the sign aloud. This careful word choice allows individual words to be huge for drive-by reading.
“STOP THE BAN”
If the poster for “Value Them Both” is able to use positive language, this poster slides into the dreaded land of the double-negative. Readers might need a moment to connect the slogan with the perspective it advocates. That rhetorical stance hampers persuasion.
Reading the final line of the sign — “on the constitutional amendment” — seems next to impossible from the seat of a passing car. The sentiment — that a constitutional right is at risk — has resonance. But can a sign carry that message?
The colors are interesting as a Kansas allusion, specifically the colors of KU without the crimson. Of course, the campaign sign for a liberal cause might smartly omit red.
The centerpiece of the design is a sharply angled sans serif font that strikes a decisive tone. With its precisely circular O’s and pointed edges to the V’s and N’s, the font mixes contemporary curves that speak to femininity while also displaying definitive angles.
“VALUE HER CHOICE”
This poster is the most formidable rival to the purple “VOTE YES!” yard sign. The gradient illustration — shifting from blue to pink to red hues — shows a woman’s profile heading right. That specific direction speaks to the value of moving forward (left to right) and political consensus (from the left side of the aisle to the right).
The billowing hair also references a woman in motion. Of course, this reference to an active woman speaks to American values of liberty and progress.
“Value her choice” is more hopeful and energizing than “Stop the ban.” Of course, politicians have forever successfully cultivated fear (such as worry about a ban) as a motivating force. However, pro-choice as a political perspective could use the positivity of this poster after years of being labeled as “baby killers” and “murderers.”
As for a concise message, this poster is brief. Its bold-faced font is instantly legible, while emphasizing the voter education of voting “NO.”
My apologies to the designers tasked with these signs, but it’s difficult to imagine any of the micro-decisions that I applauded or criticized here making the difference in the vote tally that will define reproductive rights in Kansas.
Nevertheless, the way that we voice our political messages — whether visually or verbally — matters. Signs like these help to define our political arguments and reflect our political values.
Sans serif vs. serif choices won’t determine our fate as a state. But seeing how differing sides use those tools reveals how creative and disciplined they were during this vital campaign.
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