Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
Design experts sound off about New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s unusual, cephalopod-filled graphic design sensibility.
From the depths of a roiling Sea of Division rises the purple octopus of Intolerance and the sea-dragon of Bigotry, swimming headlong into a sailing ship of Accomplishment, which is also being engulfed by crashing Squalls of Hate, upon which a squid of Government Incompetence surfs. Looking down upon this chaotic parable, just above a rainbow—sorry, above The Arc of the Moral Universe—is Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York State. He is smiling as if to say, “I feverishly drew this at my dining room table at 1 a.m.”
This is not an acid-fueled Albany-set remake of the Phantom Tollbooth. It’s a visual representation of the boat-loving governor’s 10th annual State of the State goals. As New York heads into what Cuomo has described as a particularly turbulent year, the governor’s office handed the poster out to lawmakers and others last week as a way of explaining that “New York is sailing through choppy waters of racism and uncertainty, but what matters are the accomplishments,” the New York State of Politics reported.
A flabbergasted internet quickly took note of the poster’s distinctive look. Many wondered: What, exactly, is this guy on?
The explanation is, like the poster itself, complicated. Designed by Brooklyn-based artist Rusty Zimmerman, Cuomo’s illustration was inspired by early 20th century political imagery. Specifically, the octopus motif, font, and patriotic symbols all emulate the posters of William Jennings Bryan, who ran an unsuccessful Democratic presidential challenge to William McKinley in 1900. To convey forward-thinking, progressive policies in 2020, Cuomo looked back to the visual language of a previous Gilded Age. “I like history, and that school of art was interesting to me,” Cuomo told the New York Times in 2012.
This is the third time Cuomo has asked Zimmerman to help him translate his vision into old-timey art. His 2010 campaign for governor employed posters to convey campaign promises, and in 2012, Cuomo turned to Zimmerman again to design a Bryan-flavored holiday poster. That one featured a three-headed sea monster of Corruption, Bureaucracy, and Apathy menacing a brace of Cooperating sailboats, a bridge bolstered by Community and Justice, and also a yogurt truck (according to the New York Times, Cuomo was an advocate for the state’s burgeoning Greek yogurt industry at the time).
Cuomo senior adviser Richard Azzopardi acknowledges that the governor’s graphic design M.O. involves “trying to pack as much stuff in as possible,” he says. “It’s meant to evoke an earlier era, one where you had to say what the challenges are, where you stood, who you were, and what you planned to do, all within an image.”
Cuomo is an active collaborator in the design process, each time sketching out a rough design and suggesting themes and images to highlight. (It’s thanks to this Gothamist interview with Zimmerman that we know the seeds of their first political-octopus painting came from a 1 a.m. drawing sesh.) For Cuomo, the persistent intent seems to be making his hopes and dreams legible to the broader public through graphic design. “So much of what I do is trying to communicate with people,” he told the Times in 2012, “and you’re wondering: Are you connecting? Are they understanding what you’re saying?”
To better evaluate what, exactly, Cuomo’s poster is communicating effectively, I talked with two designers: Anjelica Triola is the director of marketing at Wethos, a marketing strategy group; Cassandra Marketos is the former deputy director for White House Digital Outbound, which does online engagement and branding for the executive branch.
As far as displaying a coherent vision through design, Triola says Cuomo should have gone a lot simpler. Think of the iconic political posters of the past, she says: Shepard Fairey’s Obama “Hope” poster; Howard Miller’s Rosie the Riveter poster, professing that “We Can Do It.” They’re bold, and simple, and on-message. It doesn’t take 15 minutes to figure out what they’re about. “Unintentionally, because there’s so much there, it feels anxiety-inducing,” Triola said of Cuomo’s poster. “It feels like there is no plan—it feels like chaos in a way that would not quickly communicate clarity and confidence.”
Part of the problem: too many words. The craggy, sloping Palisades mountain range doesn’t just signify forward momentum; it’s labeled “The Steps To Progress,” and each step has its own label—marriage equality, gun safety, etc—that you have to squint to read. That approach might be in keeping with circa-1900 political poster-making practice, but it’s hard on a 2020 viewer. “Basic utility in design is a means of respecting the reader (in this case, the citizen),” said Marketos in an email. “The fact that he has not bothered to make this image legible in any sense whatsoever speaks volumes.”
There’s also not much left up to interpretation, says Triola. “When it’s not a metaphor—when it’s spelled out for you with all the words—that’s where it feels like the designer was micromanaged,” she said. In Gothamist, Zimmerman says Cuomo was “open to feedback” and deferred to him on final design decisions. But he also says it took more than a month of back-and-forth to come to a final copy, and that Cuomo was very specific about some features, like including a Leonard Cohen quote and depicting the tiny figures of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton mid-duel.
Triola says Cuomo’s assumption that being a good verbal communicator as a politician can translate into being a good visual communicator is “overzealous.” That in itself could be a metaphor, she said: If you don’t trust experts like artists, how can you “empower other people to build a movement or do work towards progress with you?”
The poster and the speech were developed in tandem, Azzopardi says, and Triola says it shows. She thinks that Bryan’s 1900 posters actually do a better job communicating key takeaways than Cuomo’s modern variations. It’s all right there: “Liberty,” “Justice,” “Humanity,” “Equal Rights To All.” There is no Leonard Cohen quote to parse. “This to me seems like it should’ve been a Medium post,” she said. “This is like the ‘OK, Boomer’ of posters.”
There’s also some political gamesmanship in the way the poster positions Cuomo as the lone architect of a uniquely progressive agenda—perhaps obscuring the work of other Democratic legislators newly elected in Albany. “The government incompetence squid might disagree,” she said.
Azzopardi takes issue with that interpretation. ”The State of the State is where the governor presents his priorities and his agenda for the year—the whole speech is about his vision, and that’s what we did,” he said. “[But] if you take a look at the ship of state, the two flags are the assembly and the senate. This is a legislature, it’s a partnership: we’re all literally in the ship of state together.” Next year, Cuomo has more progressive plans: laws aimed at stopping domestic terrorism, legalizing cannabis, and giving all New Yorkers paid sick leave.
The message, therefore, is one of hope, Azzopardi says. “The arc tends towards justice; the oceans are roiled but they’re not always,” he said. “They can get calm again.”