Eight years ago, the flag for presidential campaign identity systems was raised full mast. Part of this was, of course, due to the simultaneous rise of social media and both the digitization and democratization of design tools. But it’s a logo for a then-junior senator from Illinois that’s the true pivoting moment for American political design, when the Windy City’s very own Sender LLC created the now iconic Barack Obama “O,” a multi-layered and flexible capital letter/cresting sun/American flag pasture mark. The logo, versatile and extrapolated into an unimpeachable visual identity, was paired later in the presidential campaign with the Gotham typeface, originally commissioned by GQ magazine in 2000 and created by the Hoefler & Frere-Jones foundry (since 2014 just Hoefler & Co. — a moment of silence, please). And the rest is, quite literally, history.
And only eight years prior to that, today’s inseparable blue-as-Democrat and red-as-Republican party associations were solidified, the transgression of a Today show airing that used the colors to separate general election state results on a nation-wide map. While this chromatic separation only makes sense in winner-take-all scenarios — and while there are blue-red gradients that involve purple hues in other instances — it’s nonetheless here to stay.
Comparing against a successful design example and an accepted color scheme, we can analyze how 2016’s presidential hopefuls execute their identity systems. We’ll be looking at the two Democratic candidates, Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the two leading Republican candidates, Senator Ted Cruz and businessman Donald Trump. So let’s dig in.
Elements of Graphic Identity
Typefaces have roughly three general categories: serif, meaning the letterforms have feet or additional extensions of some sort; sans-serif, letterforms without ornamentation; and everything else that no serious designers actually care about. Typefaces carry historical significance and cultural meaning through the comissions or goals of the designs and the ways they’re consistently used.
Almost all presidential campaign designs use stars and stripes in some capacity, or they use stars and stripes to form or allude to other very, very American iconography: torches, amber waves of freedom grain, flags blowing valiantly in the wind — these are all on the table. Often times these inclusions appear as tittles or letterform modifiers within the candidates’ logotypes. Yes, tittle is an actual design term.
Color schemes are of course important and meaningful on their own, but without much wiggle room in American politics we only tend to see versions of blue and red in the mainstream. Other campaigns, like the Green Party, will use green for its symbolic purposes. More recently, though, as we’ll discuss, contemporary color schemes use varying hues in (futile) efforts to stand out just a little bit more.
The flux capacitor, Marty!
It’s been said that the Bernie aesthetic is an attempt to channel Obama’s design and candidacy enthusiasm. The closest anchor points for this comparison would be the red and blue waves and the fact that in 2012, Obama ran with a slab-serif version of Gotham (designed specifically for his re-election campaign). The identity works just fine, but it’s overall certainly lacking any visual excitement or revolution, and the attempt to just stylize “Bernie” feels unpresidential.
Jubilat. Literally “pensioner” in Catalan.
For Sanders, the only candidate running with a slab-serif typeface — Jubilat, commissioned for First, a women’s weekly publication from the United Kingdom — a heavy weight of the typeface by Darden Studio strives to emulate Sanders’ qualities of relatability and straight-forwardness. And yes, “jubilat” literally translates from Catalan as “retired” or “pensioner.” Jubilat’s careful curves and blocked serifs are reminiscent of American 1950s and 1960s typefaces like Volta (a then-modernized version of Clarendon), which is likely a nod to Bernie’s political career. The overall glyph stylization is a mostly unadorned approach; the tittle above the lowercase “i” is swapped for a star in a historically stale modification, and the kerning in the logotype is generally good (although that near collision between the “n” and “i” gives me night terrors). The lowercase “r” and “n” have been modified to get along with each other, a subtle yet totally profound and relevant nuance. Paired with Freight Sans Pro in other materials, the final identity is consistent.
Toothpaste tube, is that you?
Seriously, if you have one of those red-blue toothpastes, go squirt some out and tell me that it isn’t the Bernie Sanders design. Otherwise, it’s your expected combination: blue and red together in wavy style (but blue superseding red) with a star to double-down. But the wavy lines are ambiguous. The logotype rests on them, but are they a landscape? The Great Lakes? Another one of the Zodiac Killer’s cryptic clues? And that star over the “i” feels oddly small; it’s an uninspiring and safe choice and feels like an after-thought — which brings me to what the Sanders identity is really missing: risk. As an independent seeking the Democratic nomination, it’s strange his visual system makes no attempt to either break traditional design molds or subvert them in some way. There’s nothing inherently bad about the design, but applied to the candidate’s brand, well, it doesn’t seem like Sanders is even feeling the Bern.
Soft on color, hard on Wall Street.
Sanders’ colors are lightened, and it’s only in comparison that we see how calm they actually are. The soft light blue and soft paprika alone make his campaign the most welcoming; in a field of intensified and darker colors, it definitely stands out — in a good way.
Full transparency: probably the best system. But still not as good as Obama’s. The logo is highly flexible: It’s patterned and mixed-and-matched in online iterations for different demographics and executions, and its hard geometric construction means it’s easy to appropriate — a must-have quality for the social media age. The above mark, which appears rarely in combined form, was originally debuted during Clinton’s announcement.
Unity. See: plagiarism, n.
In unabashedly propagandistic fashion, the Clinton campaign Unity typeface is based almost entirely on the 2012 Sharp Sans, the wildly versatile creation of designer Lucas Sharp. Sharp Sans is a homage to 1970s geometric aesthetics: bowled curves and sheared terminals turned contemporary. But for Unity, Clinton’s designers modified the tittles and periods to be circles instead of squares and adjusted angles on glyphs like “Q,” “t,” and “r.” The results are heavy, friendly letterforms — bold in presence, yet kind in message. In web and print, Unity is sometimes emphasized even further with color or boxed frames, and it’s always kerned more air-tight than Ted Cruz’s alibi between December 1968 and October 1969. Sometimes, Unity is used as body copy (a good example is Clinton’s biography on her website), which is where you can see the typeface’s weaknesses. It’s in these large blocks of text the super-stylized letterforms strain the eye, and it’s hard for me to read past a couple of sentences. Otherwise, it’s an effective and fresh choice.
The first FedEx delivery drone.
Michael Bierut, graphic designer and partner at renowned design firm Pentagram, is the creator of the controversial Hillary Clinton “H” logo. While his former boss, the great modernist Massimo Vignelli, might shudder at the idea of this monogram collapsing entirely in black-and-white, Bierut’s emphasis is system. And that’s where this logo succeeds: It’s an impeccable system. But as a static symbol, it’s been criticized as implying Hillary’s moving to the right — that the red arrow passing over blue aisles paints the candidate as an unappealing centrist. But even with a plethora of these comparisons, it’s hard to argue against the mark’s construction: the “H” is comprised entirely of forty-five- and ninety-degree angles, and each component falls cleanly on a grid, occupying geometrically consistent squares and triangles. It also omits any stock American symbolism, suggesting the candidate’s brand is something more.
More royal than a flush.
These colors are the closest to true blue and red. The blue is most certainly a royal hue, while the red is more scarlet than anything. Clinton’s scheme is pure and bold. It reinforces the qualities of Unity and renders her rigid monogram stalwart and proud.
The Zodiac Killer?
Whether or not Ted Cruz is actually the long-sought Zodiac Killer (Ted’s not even your real name, Rafael), his visual identity is really just incongruous. The web and print material don’t get along, and some of the main design choices look like the work of an amateur designer still obsessed with puzzling material rather than actually designing. It’s a generic creation… which is exactly what you’d want if you’re trying to avoid attracting attention. Hmmm.
Electra. (No, not the complex, unless…!)
Ted Cruz’s campaign uses, with slight glyph modifications, Linotype’s 1994 digital adaptation of designer W.A. Dwiggins’ classic 1935 typeface Electra. Dwiggins once wrote that Electra was designed to emanate warmth and evenness, and the Cruz campaign’s changes (balancing the crossbar serifs on the “T,” for example) push the typeface’s balance even further. It’s the only logotype making use of both the candidate’s first and last names, and the lined-figure 2016 that rests haphazardly between the x- and cap-heights is always tacked onto the full mark. There’s some awkward kerning — i.e. there’s barely any attention to the spaces between the individual glyphs — primarily if you stare long enough at the “T” and “e” in comparison to the “C” and “r.” The presumed flame logo is itself, in addition to breaking the lines of the logotype, uncentered: The apex extends more distance from the cap-height than the bottom of the flame from the baseline. The whispy quality of the logo isn’t well reflected in Electra, although Dwiggins’ own classification of warmth does thread through the final system.
Oh, look, another one of these things.
From left to right: Georgia State University, People’s Gas, Al Jazeera, The Onion, and the Ted Cruz presidential campaign flame/flag thing. Trust me, I could list more. And apart from being painfully unoriginal, it’s going the wrong way. Shouldn’t the blue and star at least be on the left? And, uh, doesn’t this also mean his campaign is burning the American flag? The seemingly hand-drawn — the curve weights don’t correlate — flame logo is a reference to a similar Christian symbol, and in fact Cruz’s father is the director of Purifying Fire Ministries, a religious organization in the U.S., Mexico, and Central America. As a gestalt approach, where the flame (or tear drop, if you’re as sad as I am about this) is implied by the lines of the flag, the details distort entirely in smaller settings. Although, yes, it works in black-and-white iterations, it doesn’t have much else going for it. Add me to his list of victims.
My eyes! The goggles do nothing!
In my opinion, Cruz’s blue-and-red scheme doesn’t really make much sense. The densities are off. The red — unless of course this is the point — is too dominating as a typical bright red paired with a blue that is more of a dulled azure. Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer.
Donald J. Trump
Business mogul Donald Trump’s identity is comprised of loud text paired with either a five- or three-star lockup and guiding lines/stripes. Because of the candidate’s name recognition, the logotype only uses his last name. And other than that stupid red hat, there’s not much variation in the campaign’s visual system. It avoids overt American tones, and the full logotype isolated has no allusions to the United States or to its typical iconography.
Akzidenz-Grotesk BQ / FF Meta. Wait, what?
The all-around all-capital Trump setting makes use of the newer Akzidenz-Grotesk BQ Bold Extended font generously tracked out; the slogan — the only logotype this election to contain a slogan — is famous German typographer Erik Spiekermann’s FF Meta in a slightly bold weight. This is an unusual pairing for a number of historical reasons: The original 1896 Akzidenz-Grotesk (sold in the United States as Standard or Basic Commercial) served as fertile source material for the now ubiquitous Helvetica by Max Miedinger in 1957; Spiekermann, a vocal opponent of the corporate, bland Helvetica (your tax forms are in Helvetica), invented Meta for the Deutsche Bundespost during the 1980s and throughout the 1990s to be the sans-serif anti-Helvetica. So, either the Trump design team slyly appropriates both the establishment and the anti-establishment in one masterfully combined mark (which would make a lot of sense), or it’s a fucking trainwreck of thoughtless design (which would also make a lot of sense). Please don’t get me started on the exclamation point. Bye, Jeb!
As aggregated by Yelp.
While Trump’s five stars and accompanying line(s) can’t really be called a logo, and the campaign hasn’t attempted to use them in that capacity, it’s the only other symbolism accompanying the candidate’s identity. And it always appears on whichever podium Trump’s behind. There are two implications going on with this, though. The first is that he’s been more wildly and highly rated than a new American fusion restaurant, although the second and more likely is more telling: that Trump likens himself to some sort of five-star general. While John McCain ran in 2008 with similar militaristic appropriation, using a star and aviator wings (given he was a pilot in Vietnam), Trump has of course no military background. The design system is an overt attempt to bestow authority on a candidate who’s never held public office. And in conjunction with his darker color scheme, the visual message is austere.
Technically not really blue. Or red.
I’ve seen Trump’s blue labeled “King Blue” and “Purple Heart” — it’s an off-shade of purple-blue that invokes both hues. The red is more brick-red or burgundy, which I’ve seen referred to as “Carmine,” “Devil’s Red,” “Barn Red,” and “She had blood coming out of her wherever.”