Power[word]play in the design of Brexit

We recently had a visit from Rob Coke, Strategy Director at Output Group, who treated us to his views on how design impacted the result of the EU referendum. In spite of resurfacing anger and tears, this was actually a fresh viewpoint on how the Vote Leave and Vote Remain brand campaigns were fought, won and lost. Let this be an oh so costly reminder to us all of the impact of the design decisions we make.

Don’t be thinking, “I’m not a designer, this isn’t relevant to me” because it absolutely is. Everyone who writes words should understand the power[word]play at the heart of the Brexit campaigns.

The design of Brexit – not just for designers

The first thing Rob pointed out was the difference in impact between the two slogans. ‘Vote Leave’ contains a direct action that’s simple and easy to remember. You’re doing something. You’re making a difference with your decision.


‘Vote Remain’ by comparison has a distinct lack of force. It doesn’t stand for action but rather a lack of it. Not to mention that by extension it communicates that the whole political situation will not change if you vote this way – making it seemingly justifiable to go the opposite way as a ‘protest vote’. The phrase itself communicates a staleness. ‘Remain’ isn’t even the antonym of ‘leave’. ‘Stay’ would hold far more emotive resonance, implying you want to stand for something, to stick together.


It’s likely these ‘brand’ names stemmed from the copy used on the voting slip on referendum day, without much thought for the consequences. Whoever wrote those words could have contributed significantly to the decision without even realising it.

We can’t talk about the words in the run up to the referendum itself without talking about the actual phrase ‘Brexit’. In the months leading up to voting day, you heard it everywhere – in the media and in conversation. By giving the debate this umbrella name that already contained the notion of Britain exiting the EU, were we already on a path to leaving? Now I’m not saying this is definitely a self-fulfilling prophecy (and Bremain comes nowhere close in the pun stakes) but there’s no doubt this phrase played its part.

Rob also made us think about the difference in the colours used by each camp and the emotional connotations of these… The angry, passionate, red of the Leave camp against the institutional blue. Colour choice can seem like such a basic element of design and yet it can seriously effect the dynamics of communication.

Another weakness for the Remain camp came in the delivery itself. The inconsistencies of the logo and message that was intended to make it more flexible simply diluted it. Whilst ‘Vote Leave’ was used rigorously by the opposition, Remainers had a plethora of different logos and slogans that were used interchangeably and even used alongside each other, confusing the message. We regularly saw ‘Vote Remain’, ‘A brighter future in’ and ‘Britain stronger in Europe’ alongside each other during the campaign.

So what does this mean for PR, marketing and comms people?

This design led thinking is something we should keep front of mind whenever we’re crafting headlines and campaign calls-to-action. If we want to be the catalyst for people to take action or a shift in behaviour, we must carefully scrutinise every element of the message we’re putting out. To help us get some closure (there’s got to be something positive we can get from this… right?) we’ve made a checklist that ensures we constantly question our own campaign executions to deliver the most impactful messages possible.

  1. Is the call-to-action strong and impassioned?
  2. What are the connotations of the colours used and are they consistent with our campaign messaging?
  3. Is the message consistent across all channels and delivery?
  4. Are you ready to act, not react? Foresee and prepare for media eventualities so you aren’t on the back foot with your messaging.

That’s all from us. If you’d like to read more of Rob’s wisdom around how the design of Brexit contributed to the outcome, head on over to Creative Review.