Anton Aguila / Gavel Media

Designing a Candidacy

Although the 2020 Democratic Convention is still over a year away, campaign season is already in full swing as presidential contenders barnstorm early primary states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

Besides the countless announcement videos, late-night talk show appearances, and eventual photo ops at county fairs, anyone with a TV or an Internet connection can expect to be flooded by colors, fonts, and typefaces in a growing collage of logos and campaign marketing materials.

Knowing that, it seemed appropriate to examine the ways in which typography, and graphic design as a whole, interacts with politics.

Pleasing digital and visual communication has become strangely essential in running for public office. Studies show that campaigns are turning to graphic design elements, particularly typography, as way to create and grow a candidate’s brand. A campaign’s aesthetic is increasingly seen as an extension of the candidate’s own personality, with choices of fonts and color palettes shaping their voice as much as the words they use.

Most reporters and observers credit this shift to then-Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-IL) historic 2008 campaign for the presidency. Throughout his run, the Obama campaign relied almost exclusively on a single font, creating a cohesive visual identity that drew praise from journalists and commentators alike.

Originally designed for GQ, the font Gotham went on to embody exactly what the Obama camp was trying to emphasize. Ignoring the traditional, measured appearance of print-ready serif fonts designed to evoke an image of the past, the campaign instead chose a bold, modern, sans serif with a perfectly round “O.” Designer Sol Sender would later use that iconic letter to craft a logo that became synonymous with Obama’s candidacy.

(Left) The 2008 Obama campaign logo designed by Sol Sender would go on to be used for Obama's 2012 reelection campaign as well as the Obama Foundation. (Right) Textual example of the Gotham font.

More recently, the typographical decisions campaigns make carry far more intentionality than they had before 2008, now making deliberate references and triggering desired connotations.

For example, Sen. Kamala Harris’ (D-CA) logo, typeface, and color scheme are intended to create an association with Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, who later became the country’s first Black candidate to seek a major party’s nomination for president in 1972.

When Harris launched her campaign in late January 2019, political historians immediately drew comparisons to Chisholm’s design theme. Her homage to Chisolm’s 1972 campaign reflects the potential groundbreaking nature of her own candidacy.

(Left) A button from Chisholm's 1972 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. (Right) The logo for Harris' 2019 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

In a similar way, Pete Buttigieg’s color palette is clearly meant to recall his roots in South Bend, IN. By embracing the iconic navy and gold of the University of Notre Dame, the campaign is highlighting his history in the town, the state, and the Midwest as a whole, a history that has become a central aspect of Mayor Pete’s political strategy.

(Left) The logo for Buttigieg's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. (Right) The monogram logo for the University of Notre Dame.

The most interesting, and perhaps the most tactical, graphic design choices arguably came from the Democratic primary’s newest contender, former Vice President Joe Biden. While his logo’s color scheme sticks to the political staples of red, white, and blue, the most deliberate part of the design rests in the logo’s typeface and emphasis.

Remember the GQ font with the perfectly round “O’s,” the one that came to symbolize the campaign of the 44th president of the United States? The same president that tapped Biden to be his running mate? Well, the design department of Biden’s campaign team certainly does, and they chose a font that looked almost exactly like it.

In choosing Brother 1816 (Bold) for his logo, a font that closely resembles Obama’s Gotham, Biden’s campaign is very calculatingly drawing on his connection to the still (at least among Democrats) extremely popular former president.

(Left) The names Obama and Biden written in Gotham (Bold) size 60 font. (Right) The names Obama and Biden written in Brother 1816 (Bold) size 60 font.

Like Gotham, Brother 1816 has a perfectly round “O,” heavily emphasized by the “O” in “Joe” being placed near the center of the logo. The campaign takes every opportunity to focus on this similarity, employing the Brother 1816 “O” in “2020” in place of zeroes.

Judging solely by its design choices, Biden’s campaign seems to believe that his best chance to win the Democratic nomination, and eventually the White House, is through invoking the memory of his former boss.

(Left) The logo on Biden's campaign website. (Right) The logo used for the Biden campaign's social media platforms.

While most of these decisions concerning font, typography, or color palette will probably go unnoticed by the majority of the general population, they remain an integral part of the painstaking work campaigns perform to curate a candidate’s public image. The design of campaign materials can, not only display what candidates believe will resonate with potential voters, but also reveal how candidates view themselves and their own path to the finish line.