Constitution Daily

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All the President's Serifs: Typography on the Campaign Trail

January 26, 2012 by Holly Munson


Image via rmastalerz/Design for Obama

By now, you’ve probably already grown weary of the campaign ads proliferating on TV and online. I know I have. But the other day, as yet another “Obama 2012” ad popped up alongside an article I was reading, I paused—something was amiss.


After a few moments of squinting at the screen, I discovered the aberration: Obama had added serifs to his campaign logo.


Throughout the 2008 presidential race, Barack Obama was effusively praised for the consistent, compelling visual identity of his campaign. The keystone of this visual identity was a typeface called Gotham, a fresh, clean-lined sans-serif designed by Hoefler + Frere-Jones and inspired by an old Port Authority sign in New York City. Gotham was originally commissioned by GQ magazine, which requested a design “that would look very fresh, yet very established, to have a credible voice to it.” Hmm, sound anything like the Obama campaign?


It’s worth noting that Obama’s 2008 campaign was successful not just because Gotham itself was a nice font, but because it was used with such discipline; branding expert Brian Collins commented, “I’ve worked with giant, global corporations who don’t do it this well.”


The fact is, Gotham worked out well for Obama. And interestingly, Obama worked out well for Gotham—designers were soon hailing the font as the hottest font of 2008, and even non-designers began to recognize it as “the Obama font.” Since then, Gotham has been used, with varying skill and success, for the branding of consumer products, movies, and even Republican candidates.


It’s been said that good typography is invisible and bad typography is everywhere. Indeed, for the most part, we don’t consciously think about the type, good or bad, that permeates our modern environment—the slogan on our box of breakfast cereal, the ad on the side of a bus, the menu of the café across from the office, the words of a text message. Often the most potent designs are those that are more subliminal than overt. But occasionally a particularly inspiring—or egregious—use of type catches our attention.


These days, people are increasingly attentive to, and opinionated about, typography. The 2007 film Helvetica, a documentary about the pervasive sans-serif, shined a spotlight on the way type affects our lives. The expanding reach of social networks also seems to have nurtured public awareness. Case in point: Gap’s attempt to introduce a new logo. In October 2010, the retailer swapped its longtime logo for a bold, black Gap set in Helvetica with a tiny blue box nudged behind the corner of the p. The public’s reaction was fast and furious: consumers and designers alike tore the design apart on Facebook and Twitter. Within a week, Gap apologized and rescinded its new logo.


For better or for worse, the way a campaign uses typography can both affect and reflect public opinion. And Obama’s logo isn’t the only one that has prompted typographical chatter. Back in 2004, a number of people commented on the contrast between the Bush-Cheney logo and the Kerry-Edwards logo. One designer, Scott Dadich, penned an op-ed in the New York Times lamenting and analyzing Kerry’s lackluster design:


“A typical Kerry logo displays the same inconsistency that his opponents accuse him of…In contrast to Mr. Bush’s aggressive sans-serif font, Senator John Kerry’s multitudinous font choices center on the use of thin, delicate-looking, ‘girlie-man’ type. No wonder some voters think he’s a vacillating wimp.”


Several readers who responded to the article, however, had different interpretations. One viewed the heavy, tightly spaced capitals of the Bush logo as connoting “lethargy, rigidity and intolerance”; another defended the Kerry logo as communicating “a measured branding that isn’t cold and disconnected.”


When you’re running for office, there’s no doubt that appearance matters. Campaign strategists painstakingly analyze focus groups to pinpoint the perfect haircut, the perfect style of shoe, the perfect hue for the candidate’s tie—and perhaps even the perfect typographical treatment. But how much weight should we give to what a campaign typeface “says” about a candidate? Where does the medium end and the message begin?


The answer is a bit different for campaign managers and for voters.


For campaign managers:


As shown in the Bush/Kerry design debate, people are going to interpret type differently. It’s likely that there’s some confirmation bias at play; whether we mean to or not, we tend to project our own perception of the candidate onto the design. Still, well-executed typography on the campaign trail can affect public opinion. After all, would companies spend millions of dollars each year on slick marketing campaigns if they didn’t somehow help them meet their goals of solidifying consumer loyalty and motivating prospective consumers (read: playing to your base and appealing to swing voters)? Plus, isn’t one of the loftiest aims of art to challenge assumptions? Brian Collins, commenting on Obama’s 2008 campaign, explained it well: “I don’t think that Gotham adds any personality to Senator Obama’s brand. I think it just amplifies the personality that’s already there.”


For voters:


If you’re pondering who to vote for, the design of a candidates’ logo may give useful visual cues about what the candidate represents. But the president-elect swears to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution, not excellent typography.


Ultimately, issues should come before image. Check out the candidates’ public statements, their platforms, their voting records (a great start is ElectNext, which bills itself as “eHarmony for voters”). And, well, if you need a break from that, feel free to indulge in picking apart the best and worst of campaign typography (see below).

TYPE IN 2012

In this year’s presidential race, Obama’s typographic reboot has plenty of contenders. Here’s my amateur-typophile analysis:


Mitt Romney’s logo is a pleasant but not revolutionary design. (See what I said about projecting our own ideas onto type?) The font, Trajan, evokes tradition, while the bright blue background with a subtle glow infuses just enough freshness without being too edgy (heaven forbid!). Speaking of freshness, as another type analyst pointed out, the R looks like a dollop of toothpaste.

Newt Gingrich’s logo is, let’s face it, unappealing. Times New Roman: really? Plus, the swoosh with the star seems like a halfhearted attempt to say, “Hey, I may have gone with the most detestable of all default fonts, but I added a star! Am I great or what?”

Ron Paul’s logo is intriguing. It is a marked improvement from Paul’s 2008 campaign—it looks much more polished and professional; it even looks presidential, thanks to the faded eagle in the background.


As for Obama, I think the new look was a good choice. The campaign hasn’t completely scrapped the sans-serif version of Gotham, and it seems fitting to have remnants of the old mixed in with the new. Perhaps Obama hopes the more-stately serifs will convince voters that he is now more serious and experienced, both compared to the other candidates and compared to his 2008 self.


Of course, he may have made the change simply because “Yes, he can.” The designers of Gotham tweeted this in April 2011: “Gotham with serifs? OK, but only because you asked, & you’re the President of The United States.”


Holly Munson is Assistant Editor of Constitution Daily, the blog of the National Constitution Center.


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