On Tuesday, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made history by unseating 10-term Congressman Joe Crowley in New York's 14th Congressional District. Despite the polls leading up to the primary showing a near-certain victory for Crowley, the 28-year-old Ocasio-Cortez defeated him by a shocking 15 percent of the vote. Overnight, she became a media sensation, with profiles in The New York Times, appearances on CNN and MSNBC, and even a guest spot on Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Less than a year before all that, she was tending bar at the Mexican restaurant Flats Fix in Union Square, which is where she met Scott Starrett and Shaun Gillen, who run the creative design agency Tandem NYC. "We met, talking politics over the bar," Starrett told Gothamist. "Now we’re really friends." When she went to Standing Rock to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016, she borrowed their GoPro. And when she began looking into the branding for her campaign, she turned to them.
"We were friends with Sandy so we really gave our attention to her campaign, and really devoted a lot of time and resources," said Starrett. (Sandy is Ocasio-Cortez's nickname, because there are other Alexandria's in her family, explained Starrett.)
What they created was one of the most unique campaign posters and brand identities in modern politics. People have hung these bold campaign posters in bodegas, draped them on the hoods of cars, and held them high during Bronx Pride. The campaign began to run into trouble because so many of the posters were being taken down because people were hanging them up in their homes. "They were begging people not to take their materials, saying: 'We'll try to get you one after the campaign,'" said Starrett.
Bengali Community Outreach (Corey Torpie/ Tandem NYC)
Maria Arenas, the lead designer at Tandem on the campaign materials (Starrett and Gillen provided the art direction), understood the power of these posters when she heard that people were signing up to volunteer on the campaign because the poster inspired them. These images are now on buttons, t-shirts, tote bags, and mugs, all being sold by the campaign. "Even people outside the district are buying these things, to support the campaign" said Arenas.
To find inspiration for their design, the team at Tandem turned to old WPA posters, the activists Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huertas, and Rosie the Riveter. “We wanted the whole campaign to feel inspiring," said Arenas, and the illustrations of Cesar Chavez gazing upwards inspired her to choose a similar photo of Ocasio-Cortez (taken by photographer Jessie Korman).
While they were inspired by imagery from over a half-century ago, the poster itself feels modern and perfectly in place in New York. After stepping back from the work, Starrett said that he realized it looked like a subway poster, or a movie or TV show poster. “That's a visual language people are familiar with” in New York, he noted.
The poster is also bilingual, communicating in Spanish as well as English, and Tandem made sure that Spanish was displayed prominently throughout the poster. “Spanish shouldn't be a footnote...It needed to be equal, because the demographics of this district are not the demographics of America as a whole, it is a much more diverse district, and the white population is not the majority," said Starrett. "We really wanted to elevate it... so that it spoke clearly to people, that they were being included.”