You won’t see it at first. From the road, the 48-footlong rectangles look like brightly colored smudges against the sky. They roll by one after the other, monotonous in their clamor for attention: “WIN CASH!” screams one in canary yellow; “WALK FOR AUTISM,” implores another in blue. By this point, your mind — barely 15 minutes from Yale’s campus — might have already numbed to the deluge of clashing neon and exclamation-marked billboards on I-95.
But one is different. It looms, the last in a row of three boards, along the left side of the highway as you drive north, just past exit 42. It’s quiet in contrast with the loudness of the other boards, almost stark. On the day I first saw it in person, its black background looked like a faded blot against the overcast sky. Its message, printed in narrow white and yellow block letters, was hard to make out from a distance. But as we approached, the words crystallized just long enough for us to read before we sped past.
“HATE DOES NOT MAKE GREAT.”
BEHIND THE SCENES
On a crisp Saturday afternoon in January, I found myself waiting in room 209 of the Yale School of Art. The room, a computer lab, was empty save for one person typing at a screen lining the space’s perimeter. A huge, scratched wooden table filled the middle of the lab, surrounded by mismatched stools and scattered with scraps of paper and green X-Acto cutting boards. On one wall hung a huge map of the U.S., covered in blotchy red patches representing some aspect of the presidential election; Hillary posters were pasted haphazardly in a corner.
It was January 22, two days after President Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th U.S. president. I was waiting to meet Ana Barros ’18, Will Kortum ’19 and Devon Merlette ’19, three undergraduate members of the team designing a billboard responding to the election. The three had taken professor Pamela Hovland’s intermediate design class at the Yale School of Art in the fall. It was through this class that the project had been set in motion: Hovland, a senior critic in graphic design at the School of Art, had reached out to a local billboard company, Barrett Outdoor Communication, then presented the idea of creating a billboard to her students in November, just before Thanksgiving break.
“I made it clear that this project was outside the requirements of the course and that it would be a completely optional effort and that a collaboration would likely be time-consuming and messy,” Hovland said.
Still, of the 15 students in her class, about half were interested. Seven people — a mixture of undergraduate and graduate students from both the School of Art and the School of Architecture — banded together to form a collective they called Class Action Again. The name had been inspired by Class Action, an activist design collective that Hovland had founded as a graduate student. Over winter break, they’d brainstormed potential messages and divided into three subgroups to work on separate designs upon returning. Barros, Kortum, Merlette and Stathis Zlatis ’17 (who wasn’t present at the design session I observed) formed one of those subgroups.
They were working with the message “TRUST BUT VERIFY,” a Russian proverb as well as a Ronald Reagan quotation. And they had already found the right typeface — Trade Gothic. Now, they were just trying to make it pop. I watched as they cracked jokes and worked on Adobe Illustrator for an hour, experimenting with different elements. A repeated motif of Trump’s face behind the text. Then a red border with stars around black text, similar to the actual Trump campaign logo. Then just black text, stark and easily legible against a white background. Every decision, from color scheme to font size to even punctuation, required extensive deliberation. The original quote, Kortum explained, was “Trust, but verify,” but the group decided to remove the comma and include a period at the end to weight the quotation more heavily towards verification. They also played around with including attribution — but whether to include both “Russian proverb” and “Ronald Reagan,” or only one, was another point of debate.
The goal of the message — which wasn’t overtly partisan or even necessarily political — was to “provide people with an actionable step,” Barros said that afternoon.
“We don’t necessarily want to pick an issue,” she explained. “There’s so, so, so much on the line, and what we really need to be worrying about is how to hold the government accountable for all of those issues.”
But by the time the group reconvened to vote on a message, the situation had changed. Trump had released his Jan. 27 executive order limiting Muslim immigration and changing American refugee policy. Suddenly, the “TRUST BUT VERIFY” quotation no longer seemed appropriate. Instead, Class Action Again decided to go with “HATE DOES NOT MAKE GREAT,” the message another subgroup had been working with. They married the new line with one of the “TRUST BUT VERIFY” designs: white text in Trade Gothic on a black background, the word “NOT” in yellow.
A BRIEF HISTORY
The idea to make a billboard bearing a political message is not a new one within the School of Art. The first billboard went up more than twenty years ago in 1992. Popping from a background the color of a yield sign, blocky black letters proclaimed, “73% OF AMERICA IS PRO-CHOICE. (Why doesn’t it seem that way?).”
The board sprang from a course titled “Community Action.” Organized by Professor Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, the graduate director of the design program at the Yale School of Art since 1990, the course was taught by Marlene McCarty and Donald Moffett, two visual artists from New York who had both been involved in Gran Fury (Moffett was a founder). Gran Fury was the art branch of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), an activist organization founded in 1987 that focused on educating the public about AIDS. ACT UP became known for its provocative graphics: One poster displayed an upright pink triangle centered over the organization’s motto, “SILENCE=DEATH”; another featured a streaky red handprint beneath the words, “THE GOVERNMENT HAS BLOOD ON ITS HANDS.” Often pasted illegally onto streetlamps and the sides of buildings because no advertising company would distribute them, the designs used marketing techniques to bring viewers’ attention to the crisis.
As part of the course, de Bretteville explained, McCarty and Moffett had the students look through a newspaper to pick out issues that were of interest to them. One of those issues was women’s reproductive rights. Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which dealt with anti-abortion laws in Pennsylvania, was due to come before the Supreme Court that year, and the possibility that Roe v. Wade would be overturned loomed.
The idea of putting up a billboard sprang to mind. The class contacted Barrett Outdoor Communications, which donated a blank billboard that a group of students then painted by hand. The sign, titled “The Ruling Body,” was erected in West Haven on I-95 in March, one month before abortion rights activists marched on Washington and three months before Planned Parenthood v. Casey was decided (and Roe v. Wade was upheld).
That billboard was only the beginning. Inspired by Gran Fury, Hovland and four classmates formed an activist design collective they named Class Action. Shortly after O.J. Simpson was declared not guilty in 1995, Class Action produced a billboard about domestic violence with a hotline number for women in abusive situations. After the U.S. entered the Iraq War in March 2003, Hovland advised a group of students who felt compelled to speak publicly on the subject. Again, with donated space from Barrett Communications, they produced a billboard with a message that questioned the Bush administration’s motivations.
“The goal in all of the projects has been to surprise the viewer with a message they don’t expect to read as they drive 60 miles per hour down the road,” Hovland said. “The intention is to either educate the viewer or call him or her to action, even if that simply means asking them to pause for a moment to ponder their own position on the issue being presented.”
NOT SO SIMPLE
The process of making a billboard is a lot less complicated now than it was 30 years ago. Until computer printing, invented at MIT in 1984 and funded by a grant from the Outdoor Advertising Association, became common practice, the boards had to be created by hand. (Even in 1992, when the pro-choice billboard went up, it was less expensive to paint the boards than to print them.) At first, this was done outdoors. Artists worked from patterns made by projecting the design onto sheets of paper, sometimes leaving minuscule messages in the paint that were invisible to drivers passing by far below on the highway. Later, painting moved inside: The design was projected directly onto wooden panels, which were lifted and positioned after they were dry. Vinyl was next. It was easier to place than the panels, which blew around in the wind as they were winched into position, and it could be reused—a sheet that started off at 75 pounds might weigh twice that by the time it was retired.
Now, most billboards are computer-printed onto polyethylene (the same sort of material that garbage bags are made of). Polyethylene is biodegradable, and in 2007 the industry began phasing out vinyl in favor of it and other eco-friendly plastics.
“Originally, [Hovland] had said, ‘Can we hand-paint it again?’” John Barrett told me over the phone, laughing. “But you know, we don’t even have scaffolding inside the building anymore.”
Barrett is a partner of Barrett Outdoor Communications. The company is part of his family history: His father, Jack, founded it in 1962. In the 1990s, when it donated billboard space for “The Ruling Body,” it was the only local billboard company around; throughout the years, it has been consistently involved in similar projects from the School of Art.
“My father always felt that the best use of the medium often was basically as an editorial,” Barrett said. “The message is not there to enrage people or call them bad names. It’s there to hopefully cause discussion.”
But good copy, Barrett notes, is just as important as a good concept. Effective design makes use of tension and flow, graphic concepts that are meant to grab hold of the viewer’s attention and lead their eye through an image. Tension can be produced by asymmetry.
“If everything’s nice right down the middle, you’re more likely to ignore it because it’s not creating any kind of waiting conflict,” Barrett explained.
Using a combination of upper and lowercase letters, or placing a photograph on one side and text on the other, creates an imbalance that draws attention. Flow, on the other hand, smooths the eye’s journey as it travels across a design. Block letters across the top might lead to smaller letters underneath or to a photograph related to the message.
The importance of these concepts is augmented on the highway. The typical billboard has a viewing window of just seven seconds, during which a driver might look at it in a series of half-second glances before driving past. It’s even more crucial, then, for designers to make their message as easy to read as possible.
For Class Action Again, “the main motivation behind our aesthetic decisions was legibility,” Kortum said.
Yellow and black is the most legible color combination to the human eye, followed by white and black: hence the highlighting of the word “not” in yellow.
Other considerations came into play as well. The group deliberated including red, white and blue, or stars and stripes, or elements of the Trump brand, but ultimately decided that their message didn’t need contemporary political overtones. (Incidentally, red and blue do not work from a distance, Barrett said.) Instead, Class Action Again wanted their design to harken back to signs from the Civil Rights era, which typically used fonts similar to Trade Gothic. And Trade Gothic itself has a pertinent history: Not only is it easy to read, but it’s also thoroughly American, designed by Jackson Burke in 1948 during the United States’ postwar boom.
The diverse backgrounds of each of the group’s members allowed them to consider design from nongraphic perspectives, too. Among the undergraduates, one is majoring in political science, another in economics and another in computing and the arts. The graduate students are drawn from both the School of Art and the School of Architecture; one is obtaining a dual-degree with the School of Forestry.
Margaret Marsh, one of the graduate students from the School of Architecture, pointed out the spatial nuances her training as an architect had taught her to notice: “There is a speed at which you experience graphics on the highway,” she said. “You have to take into account that many of these cars are commuters, so it may just be the driver who reads the sign very briefly.”
From a content perspective, the group wanted to pick a message that was neutral enough to appeal to both Trump supporters and detractors, while still providing an actionable step for viewers to take. Although they avoided making an explicit reference to politics in the billboard’s design, the inclusion of the words “make” and “great” — echoed from the Trump campaign slogan — was meant to allude subtly to the new administration.
“We think it’s a universal message, especially for a time when so much Trump administration rhetoric centers around fear and reaction and enclosure and isolation,” Barros said. “The message we wanted to put up there was one [that reminded viewers that] hate is not the answer.”
A POLITICAL ART
The history of graphic design is linked inextricably to the history of print. Starting from the 1400s, the use of visual cues — italics, underline, color, typeface — began to change how we process the written word. Artists’ manipulation of those cues to bring a concept to life can be powerful, especially considering how heavily the modern world relies on images. Graphic design, unlike other forms of art, doesn’t usually reach its audience through a gallery, as de Bretteville explained. Instead, it comes to us through the mail, on computer screens, along the sides of buses, in shopping malls, on food and drink labels — the list goes on.
“It’s a rewarding kind of work, especially when it’s in tune with the diversity of a neighborhood,” she said.
So what does design mean in the age of Donald Trump? When I posed this question to Barros and Kortum, they flooded me with examples of times when design has made a broad societal difference. In 1972, Otl Aicher helped rebrand the Munich Olympics, the first to be held in Germany since World War II, after the Nazi regime. In 2000, the confusing design of the ballot in Palm Beach, Florida, may have caused voters to inadvertently vote for Patrick Buchanan rather than Al Gore, giving George W. Bush ’68 a lead in winning the state’s electoral votes. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was, according to Barros, the first presidential campaign to hire a graphic designer — and the first in which the candidate had an actual logo (the now timeless blue O bisected by a red and white-striped field) and a uniform font (Gotham).
Hillary’s 2016 campaign, on the other hand, used graphics that may have sent conflicting signals, which Barros believes contributed to her loss in November.
“What message was the Clinton campaign trying to spread with these big, round, sans serif block letters? She’s very soft, she’s fun,” Barros said. “But there was a clear divide between what the public received of her person and what the public received of her brand.”
But even outside of the world of campaign politics, graphic design carries political value. The point of design, after all, is to convey information, not just to make something look appealing. And how something looks affects a viewer’s interpretation of its message.
Still, the intersection of art and political engagement can be divisive. De Bretteville cites the original pro-choice billboard as an example — one student in the class was a devout Catholic and did not agree with the message the sign presented.
“That’s why I stopped the class,” de Bretteville recalled. “I thought anything that’s happening in the school should happen bottom-up. The group of artists who are socially engaged — it’s a smaller group, it’s only some of us who work this way.”
Billboards are considered a form of out-of-home media — advertising that reaches consumers when they are in public.
“In the strictest term, I consider billboards or out-of-home advertising to be the last true broadcast medium,” Barrett said. “You’re able to cover a huge demographic in numbers and in scope, while everything else now has gotten so targeted.”
Reach (the number of people who see the message) and frequency (how often they see it) are the biggest concerns in the medium. On a road like I-95 — the main interstate highway on the East Coast — billboards get significant exposure, particularly from commuters who may live far from the boards’ locations. Unlike advertisements on the Internet or on television or even in a newspaper, there’s no way to avoid a billboard with an ad blocker or quick flipping. If you drive by it, you’ll see it. According to Barrett’s website, 431,673 people 18 or older view the “No Hate” billboard each week.
The sheer volume of people who read the board’s message raises the stakes even higher. The seven people I interviewed emphasized the importance of neutrality — if not necessarily the nonpartisan kind (the message is clearly not pro-Trump), then at least a tonal one. Cary Potter, the graduate student who was a teaching fellow for Hovland’s class and is now one of the members of Class Action Again, pointed out that the billboard’s audience includes people of all political alignments and backgrounds. Still, its message isn’t just meant as an understated indictment of Trump’s supporters.
“With this project, it was most important to me to speak to viewers who have been negatively affected by this administration’s rhetoric and policies,” Potter said. “I hope that this billboard can function as a sign of solidarity with them.”
Ideally, Class Action Again would like to expand their audience beyond drivers passing by exit 42. They’re hoping that “HATE DOES NOT MAKE GREAT” will catch the eye of other billboard companies around the country and that they might be invited to put up their message elsewhere. The goal isn’t as farfetched as it might seem. The School of Art’s billboards have a history of being highly effective: The pro-choice billboard and the domestic violence billboard from the 1990s received national attention from both the media and the design community, which published images of the signs in books (including one released by the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) and i-D. Magazine, among other places. Class Action even proposed a stamp to the postmaster general based on the domestic violence board’s design. As a result of the proposal, USPS produced 40 million stamp booklets announcing a newly funded national hotline.
Though it’s only been up for a month, the “No Hate” billboard, too, has begun to elicit remarks.
“I’ve had a lot of people mention, ‘What’s that about?’ or, ‘Who paid for that?’” Barrett recalled. “So they’re thinking about it, and that’s a good thing.”
On Thursday, April 13, Hovland even received a letter from Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., congratulating Class Action Again for their hard work erecting the board.
Ultimately, however, the care invested in the stark simplicity of “HATE DOES NOT MAKE GREAT” was not meant to turn heads simply for its aesthetics. Rather, it was to begin — however subtly — to shift the opinion of its hundreds of thousands of viewers away from hatred and fear to something kinder, something more inclusive.
“Art and design can be used to promote a new message about a place and change things subconsciously,” Kortum said. “Great design is transparent — you don’t notice it.”