HALLOWELL — Ken Garant’s one-man print shop a mile south of the State House is naturally a destination for perhaps the most recognizable political campaign symbol — the sign.

It’s not hard to tell he’s in the business — every election cycle he covers a side of his North Street building with his season’s work. The wall is dominated by municipal and state candidates from Freeport to Franklin County.

“It’s a lot of fun every couple years having the politicians come by, because nobody will just stay and pick up their signs. They’ll always end up talking about something,” Garant said. “It’s a part of the business I really enjoy.”

The idea is ancient, but the sign isn’t going out of style. If done right, signs can not only show a measure of support and make candidates’ names known, but they can personify the politician’s outlook or sense of humor.

All about name

Cindy Kam, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, said signs work to reinforce the names of candidates in low-level races, when there’s scarce information on candidates’ positions.

“There’s not a lot of information on actually what the issues are,” she said. “Even names can be affiliated with ideology. Symbols can do that as well. Images can do that as well.”

That means with names like Berry and Knight, you have plenty of possibilities.

State Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, has three blueberries and two green leaves on his campaign signs. The legislator, running for his fourth term in the House, said he’s used the design since his first campaign.

He attributes the design to boosting name recognition in his first race and says they remain popular with constituents because of the design.

“For me, blueberries were a natural association between my name and what’s best about Maine,” he said. “It was a no-brainer.”

And state Rep. Gary Knight, R-Livermore Falls, has used a blue-and-white sign adorned in two corners with yellow, twinkling stars and a waxing crescent moon in the last three of his four campaigns.

“My slogan is, ‘A difference of Knight and day’ — whoever my opposition is,” Knight said. “The motif, if you will, carries through to all of my campaign communications, whether it’s my ads in the paper, my handouts at the doorway or my mailers.”

Though, he concedes, the play on words isn’t grammatically correct. “Maybe the British Knights of the Round Table would have been a little more appropriate,” he said.

“I get a lot of favorable compliments on it because it’s punny,” Knight said of the design. “Some might think it’s a little hokey, but why not have some fun while you’re doing it?”

And while Knight is a good name, Angus is too. Independent U.S. Senate candidate Angus King uses a mostly green sign with his first name and leaves off his last.

Garant thought that choice was bold.

“It’s pretty good,” Garant said, mentioning he wanted to do King’s signs for this cycle, but was never asked to put in a bid.

“I’d say it was great if I’d done it,” the printer quipped.

‘Keep it simple’

When it comes to signs, Garant doesn’t have flashy taste. As he stood in front of his outside wall, sign designs that stuck out to him had colored backgrounds and white print with large names in sans serif font.

In his favorites, names are paired with the office the candidate’s running for — nothing else.

“Everything I’ve heard, and it hasn’t been disproved since, is ‘Keep it simple and straightforward,’ ” Garant said. “You have to have something easily recognizable.”

He’s no fan of mottos and encourages perfect conciseness. For example, he suggests shortening representative to rep. If you’re running for an at-large seat on your city council, just say “for city council” on your sign, he said.

Dale Rand, the owner of Dale Rand Printing, a seven-person union print shop in Portland, agrees. Signs, he said, are for “just getting your name out there.” Candidates shouldn’t bog a sign down with too many extraneous words, he said — white letters on a colored background work fine.

David Bustin, a Hallowell Democrat running for state senate, chose to try to make his signs stand out with a school bus-like motif — black lettering on a yellow backdrop saying “David Bustin” and “State Senate.” He said he designed the scheme for one of Hallowell Mayor Charlotte Warren’s campaigns and adopted it for his own.

“For me, it was that it stands out much more than the others,” he said. “And that’s what you want.”

Garant criticized Protect Marriage Maine, the group urging a no vote on same-sex marriage, for having too many words on its signs, neglecting what he calls the ideal bumper sticker mentality.

The signs, which are blue, white and yellow, say “Don’t redefine marriage,” “Vote NO on Question One,” “Marriage = One Man + One Woman” and give the group’s website.

“I don’t think it helps at all to get wordy on political signs,” Garant said. “You do that in your printed literature.”

But according to the campaign, the signs are popular and unpopular at the same time.

“We initially received 15,000 signs but quickly realized from the amount of requests and the overwhelming amount of thefts that would not be a sufficient amount,” Matt Hutson, campaign director for Protect Marriage Maine, wrote in an email. “In total, we have now purchased 37,500 in order to fulfill requests and replace signs that go missing.”

Like other practitioners of print media, Garant said Internet businesses took a bite out of the local sign shop toward the end of the last decade. In 2006, Garant said he had his best political sign year ever, serving 35 candidate clients. In 2010, that dipped down to 14.

This year, he has 22 clients, a pretty manageable number to serve with his regular clients, like real estate companies.

Garant said getting their sign from an on-line business works for some candidates. Those businesses are able to do the work cheaper because of higher volume. But they don’t win over everyone, he said.

“What I’ve found the last six to eight years, as folks have really started to shift to that, the newbies go with the Internet company and they next time around, they’ll say, ‘Oh, we want to go with someone local,'” he said. “They can sit down here and see it on the screen and they can see the color of ink I have. They can have a lot more control.”

‘Visual clutter’

But all those names can create quite a mess.

Rand, the Portland printer, said clusters of political signs don’t do candidates much good. He said signs’ real impact are on private property.

“It means a lot because your neighbor will say, ‘Oh, Joe’s supporting this person so maybe they’re good,'” he said. “But when they’re plastered all over it’s kind of tough to see them all.”

Maine law is particular about how and where signs are plastered, according the Office of the Secretary of State’s candidate’s guide. They can go on private property on public roads apart from the interstate system. They can’t go on traffic signs traffic control signs or devices, or on utility poles.

If signs are misplaced or linger after elections, maintenance crews from the Maine Department of Transportation have instructions remove them. But according to Norman Haggan, the department’s Western Maine region manager, it’s not a big problem.

“We have very few complaints on them,” he said. “Occasionally you’ll have one in front of a businesses and the business will call and (campaigns) will remove them on their own for good relations.”

Most locales have their high-sign areas. And while you might think sign guys like this, Garant called the clusters visual clutter, while saying compared to decades past, candidates are now more subtle with their use of signage.

“If you go up to the Civic Center or high-traffic points like that, you’ll see lots of signs congregated,” he said. “But you don’t see them everywhere like you used to.”

That’s fine by Garant, even though the work means higher profit margins in election years.

“I’d rather feel good about the product I’m making,” he said.

Michael Shepherd — 621-5632
[email protected]