By Charles Nix, Creative Type Director at Monotype. Nix has designed a number of popular typefaces in the Monotype Library, including Walbaum and Hope Sans, which received a Certificate of Typographic Excellence in the 22nd Annual Type Directors Club Typeface Design Competition. He’s also designed custom typefaces for Google Noto, Progressive Insurance and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
With less than one hundred days until U.S. elections, local and national candidates across the country are vying for votes with bold ideas and eye-catching designs. In an election year where a pandemic has curtailed photo ops and cancelled meet-and-greets and rallies, a campaign’s digital presence is the only way to safely connect with voters. As more Americans engage with candidates online, political hopefuls are realizing what design enthusiasts have long understood: a cohesive and impactful visual identity is critical to a successful campaign.
In recent weeks, presumptive Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden made headlines by choosing two new campaign typefaces, Decimal and Mercury, from Hoefler & Co. Intended to reinforce his 2020 campaign’s mantra of “the battle for the soul of the nation,” the faces are conservative and well-groomed — a shrewd choice and a stark contrast to his opponent’s dissonant type and design choices. Mercury is bookish, smart and historically inflected. Decimal is fresh and unique, but familiar. Perhaps most importantly, Decimal is new to the political landscape; Biden’s campaign is the first to use it for political messaging.
Biden, of course, isn’t alone in using design to amplify his message and convey ethos in the process. Politicians are realizing there’s a powerful connection between typographic voice and one’s actual voice. Through typography and other elements of visual identity, candidates are branding themselves in novel ways. By setting aside old-fashioned design tropes, these campaigns are separating themselves from the past and creating authentic connections to 2020 voters. Political design is evolving to better represent diverse voices of candidates and communicate with citizens seeking change.
The New John Hancock
In recent years, candidates like Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bill Lee of Tennessee have opted to include stylized signatures in their branding to convey friendliness and humanness. In her 2012 senate campaign, Warren used her first-name signature to supplement a sturdy gothic caps font, acting as a sort of drizzle of icing on a DIN-layer-cake (DIN, of course, is an austere sans-serif font, favored by designers for its no-nonsense, industrial look. The Warren signature gives lends warmth). By comparison, Lee’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign opted for a sort of heaping-pile-of-roast-beef signature on a very thin slice of Sackers Gothic (Sackers Gothic is a wide sans-serif font, beloved for its lighter weights and caps-and-small-caps style).
Candidates use script typefaces and stylized signatures to communicate honesty, trust and approachability. We all have our own signature and we all have our handwriting. By using this relatable form of letters, candidates hope to create a sympathetic connection to their constituents. However, scripts are still a sideshow to sans serifs—for candidates of all political stripes. Big, bold, all-caps sans is the loudest voice in the room. And, sans serifs as support type provide a clean and easy to read counterpoint—the calm reassurance of a plain-spoken leader.
The Color and Photos of Change
After decades of red versus blue, visual identity in politics is beginning to embrace the rest of the color spectrum. Thinking outside of the red-blue box signifies a new way of thinking. Unique color combinations can communicate a desire to unite and can broadcast a progressive agenda. From a cynical perspective, color can also hide party affiliation in a geography dominated by the opposing coalition.
Photography, an under-appreciated, underutilized art in politics, is also changing. Like color and typography, when used with skill and consistency, it can powerfully shape public perception. There’s a world of expression to be explored beyond the “smile and stare straight into the camera” school of political photography. Today, candidates are learning to be more comfortable and natural in front of a camera. Casual photography and social media feeds are coming together to further convey a candidate’s accessibility.
Original Design for Original Candidates
Good design for politicians is the same as good design generally: it connects the dots between the message, the medium, and the audience. While campaign design has historically been abysmal or abysmally non-committal, recent elections have shown that design can have a powerful impact in bringing forward new voices.
An iconic identity like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 NY Congressional campaign, by design group Tandem, starts with an original candidate looking to create substantive change. From the color palette to her photograph to her name set in a narrow, slanted, all-caps, square sans-serif, the design of AOC’s identity reflects her vision for her district and the country. Perhaps most importantly, it’s tailored to her constituents. It was the right message from the right candidate in the right voice for the right audience.
This kind of alignment of candidate, communication and constituents is striking when the candidate is remarkable, but we can see it at work in more conservative races too. Mike Cooney (D) and Greg Gianforte (R) are both vying for the Montana governor’s office. Both have campaign graphics that speak clearly and conventionally, and both are, as a result, well-crafted and well-suited to their audience. The end results aren’t groundbreaking, but they are good designs.
There are so many great graphic designers out there and so many great typefaces ready to give just the right inflection to the voices of politicians, their messages, and their genuine impulses to serve for the public good. Hope dictates that the trend is towards better candidates and more original design. Hope also dictates that more of us will participate in this year’s political process. Don’t forget to register! And please, please, don’t forget to vote!
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