Of Fonts and Presidents

by Benjamin Domenech on 8:41 pm May 29, 2008

lolcats for mccain

This little icanhas-friendly banner was inspired by the announcement yesterday by the McCain campaign that you can create, for a mere $250, a banner expressing your unique satisfaction with John McCain. I’m not sure what to say to this idea, but it reminded me about how aesthetically unappealing presidential campaigns tend to become – their logos the product of hours of debate and committees populated by people who’ve never designed anything worth emailing.

If you want a sign of how conventional politics is, and how the innovation of the Obama campaign really is finally catching up a national campaign with the design trends of the ’90s, check out this collection of presidential bumper stickers, 1960-2008. I particularly love how Fred Thompson’s sticker is crowded, illegible, and the color of prune juice, as if designed for the Law & Order-watching retirement communities of Florida in which he put so much hope.

The best part of any designed branding, though, has to do with the font choice of a campaign. Ah, these are some doozies. And 2008 is no exception – as one of my favorite typography blogs Ask H&FJ recently pointed out. The originators of the Gotham font so famously used by The New Adonis, they even mocked up graphics with the Hillary and McCain fonts in their proper place:

Hillary! and McCain

Nor were these designers alone in their fascination with these choices. The New York Times hosted a roundtable on McCain’s font, the overused 90s relic Optima (which nonetheless still has some gravitas, since it’s the font displaying the names of so many heroes on the Vietnam Memorial). The descriptions can get a little silly, but there’s truth in this ridiculousness:

While it is not the most robust sans serif ever designed, it is not entirely neutral either. It embodies and signifies a certain spirit and attitude. And if a typeface is not just an empty vessel for meaning, but a signifier that underscores personality, then it is useful in understanding what the candidates’ respective typefaces are saying about them and their campaigns.

The designers questioned have some interesting thoughts – some like the selection, most hate it, but many concede that it’s a choice that has a good deal in common with McCain’s personality. The newest entry in the presidential stakes, Libertarian Bob Barr, has a font that seems like a solid midwestern pro-American creation, suitable for a beer can or a local sports bar – neither of which, I think, would meet the approval of the Prohibitionist candidate for President (yes, there still are those). Chuck Baldwin, the televangelist Constitution Party candidate, has a logo that looks as if it should grace a can of Play Doh or silly putty. Over at the Green Party, the colorful logo of Cynthia McKinney pits an offkilter insurgency against a staid old Nader logo that looks not unlike his original presentation more than a decade ago. It’s honest, at least – even his logo looks like dried-up ’80s-era socialism.

Asking whether this odd grabbag of out-of-touch designs are any more a sign of what lies within each candidate than Obama’s famous O logo illustrates how foolhardy this talk is: football players don’t pick their NFL team based on the logos on the helmet, or pick a sport based on whether they want to wear Nike, Reebok or adidas. All that Obama’s campaign has done is recognize that they should start abiding by the rules of a different game – not the tired old design choices of prior candidates, with the same color arcs and blocky typefaces, but with the attitude of tried and true corporate ad agencies. Sell a candidate like you’d sell a good pair of shoes, and the same people tend to listen and react.

Of course, if you want to see real font-leveraging in action, you have to go back to the good old days, when things were cool and slick. Yes, the glory days, before everything had to be grungy and worn-in: the 1980s. Watch this first. Read this second.

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