Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Typography in Politics

“Good typography is invisible and bad typography is everywhere.” This phrase resonates with many people and not just designers, because these days, a lot of people are attentive to and critical about typography. A prime example would be the public reactions to both the new Google and Verizon logos. The typography used in a logo or for advertising makes a big impression on the viewer, so what does that mean in the political realm? Do certain typefaces reach specific groups of people? For voters, the typography used for a candidate’s campaign might give subtle cues about what they represent.

President Obama was praised in 2008 for his consistent visual identity of his “Change” campaign, setting the bar higher for the campaigns of future elections. His use of the Gotham typeface has been said to have evoked a feeling of “contemporary sophistication, with a nostalgia for Americas past and sense of duty.” In his 2012 campaign, he asked the Hoefler & Frere-Jones (the foundry that created Gotham) to create a custom slab serif version of the typeface. It conveys a sense of stability and solidity. You can actually see the influence of this campaign identity in a lot of the 2016 campaigns.

In contrast to this, the McCain campaign in 08’ used Optima as the primary typeface. This same typeface is used on several war memorials, including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, reflecting the military record of McCain. Optima is classified as sans-serif, but has a subtly heavier stroke at the terminals, creating an optical serif of sorts that references Roman stonecarving. The humanist characteristics are much more refined and soft compared to the loud, aggressive typeface in the Bush-Cheney 04’ campaign. Using this typeface could be an attempt at appealing to voters with more traditional beliefs and ideas. To quote Seymour Chwast, “It was created to satisfy everybody’s needs…little character can be found in it.”

Traditional typefaces, in fact, seemed to be overwhelmingly favored by conservative candidates in the 2012 presidential race.  Mitt Romney used Trajan, Newt Gingrich used Times New Roman, and Ron Paul used Minion Pro – all serif typefaces that look similar, with Romney’s having the most character out of all of them probably due to the stylized “R” in his name.

Designer Jordi Embodas, a Typographer based in Barcelona, was thinking about political undertones of typefaces and decided to create a project. He took two typefaces, Bulo and Trola which were developed as a single core font and split into a serif version and a san-serif version, and hired design firm Mucho to turn each typeface into a newspaper. Embodas imagined Trola as being conservative and Bulo, liberal. The final versions of the papers were as he thought they would be. Trola looked like an old school conservative paper with centered headlines and a predictable layout. Bulo, on the other hand, screamed liberalism with its right justified headlines and a bold layout that pushed the boundaries.

Its an interesting exercise that seems to make sense when looking at political campaigns, however the 2016 election is going a little differently, and not just because most of the logos are bad in general. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is using Unity, a sans-serif typeface, while Bernie Sanders is using Jubilat, a slab serif typeface that appears clean and modern. That’s expected, but it appears that this year, a lot of conservative candidates seem are moving toward a fresh look with their campaign identities.  Rand Paul and Marco Rubio are both using sans-serif typefaces, with Rubio going as far as making his name all lowercase. Even older candidates like Mike Huckabee and Carly Fiorina have ditched the serifs and gone instead with clean, simple type.

Maybe the shift in identity is due to the success and praise of the Obama campaign. Maybe its conservatives trying to appeal to a younger, fresh crowd by using a more "liberal" typeface. Or maybe its just trendy. Whatever the reason, type is influential there is a shift in political typography. We should pay attention to it.

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