Election Typography

Election Typography

On this monumental and completely nerve-wracking day in American history, I’m sure everyone’s screens are flooded with election coverage. But, while I white-knuckle through the workday at my desk, I thought I’d take my last opportunity to weigh in on the campaigns from my point of a view as a designer at a branding agency.

Vice Media’s sub brand, Broadly, recently published a very interesting article titled, What Clinton and Trump’s Font Choices Say About Them and it inspired me to take a deeper look at each candidate’s campaign choices relating to typography. Now that the 2016 campaign season has officially run its course, generating a sea of campaign collateral along the way, we can examine each campaign’s use of type from a holistic point of view, beyond just their initial logos.

Clinton’s campaign very smartly opted to create a custom typeface named Unity, by making some of their own adjustments (by way of the designers at Pentagram) to Sharp Sans, a typeface designed by New York studio Sharp Type Co. Sharp Sans itself began as a riff on the famous 1970′s geometric typeface Avant Garde, a modern classic with perfect geometry that is both striking and eye-pleasing. By adding some curve and wobble to humanize Avant Garde’s perfect letterforms, Sharp Type Co. created a delightfully fun, energetic and modern sans. The Clinton campaign then took Sharp Sans and tweaked it even further by making subtle adjustments to letterforms (for example, replacing the blocks on lowercase i’s and j’s with perfect circles) resulting in a universally friendly and welcoming typeface known as Unity.

Contrasting these typographical choices in her 2016 campaign with those she made in 2008, where she used the stuffy old-fashioned serif New Baskerville, it seems that Hillary has learned a lot about typography over the past 8 years.

More important than all the thought that went into the face itself, is the incredibly consistent approach the Clinton campaign took when setting type all throughout all collateral. Unity was used almost exclusively in all campaign messaging, creating a distinctive branded experience. Every Hillary ad / sign / tweet / Instagram post et cetera all appear unified (hehe) and instantly recognizable. Even when the campaign did choose to deviate typographically, they didn’t stray far at all, instead using a custom slab serif version of their propriety typeface, called (you guessed it) Sharp Unity Slab. This particular face is very reminiscent of Obama’s slab version of Gotham that he used effectively in 2012. See the “Stronger Together” messaging for an example of Sharp Unity Slab.

Furthermore, Unity was also used exclusively in sentence case, which reads naturally and avoids the caps lock shouting effect. The campaign color palette manages to be simultaneously soothing and energetic, by using vibrant shades of cool colors like light blues in full floods punctuated with infrequent accents of red and knocked out white text. All of which combined to create a very intentionally pleasant, likable and fun campaign.

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On the other side of the ballot, the Trump campaign based their logotype off of a classic utilitarian sans serif typeface dating back to the 1800′s called Akzidenz-Grotesk, a face known for its plain, unadorned style (or lack there of). For perspective, the Akzidenz face has also been rebranded under the names “Standard” and “Basic Commercial”. This simple no-frills typeface was a major inspiration behind the Swiss design style of the mid 20th century, also known as the International style, which produced more recognizable humanist faces such as Helvetica. The appeal of Akzidenz and the Swiss typefaces that it inspired is neutrality; letterforms that impart no intrinsic meaning or emotion just by the way they look. So where the Clinton campaign went to great length to perfect the subtle nuances of their typeface thus taking control of the emotional implications of their typography, the Trump campaign purposefully selected one lacking any.

Given that Trump and Pence are both five-letter names, using the extended (wider than normal) style of their chosen typeface for their logotype makes perfect sense, since there’s more space for the name to fill. And a name that ends in a “p” lends itself to all caps as well to avoid an awkward single descender hanging down (Clinton & Kaine have no descenders). However, the continued application of bold, extended, all-caps typography definitely begins to feel like someone is shouting at you. Pair that effect, whether intentional or not, with a mostly dark palette of blacks and reds, and the result has an oppressive and intense emotional effect. This approach certainly adds a heightened sense of urgency to the dark message his campaign has been preaching about the current state of the country.

Beyond the Trump logotype, his campaign at large has had little to no typographical consistency, alternating between different sans serifs like Monserrat and Meta, serif typefaces in both sentence case and all-caps, scripts, and everything in between. There may some clever psychology behind the campaign’s choices to use unsophisticated and commonplace typefaces such as Times New Roman (and yes, even Comic Sans) as a sort of tie in to the populist, everyman message, however, this could also just be shoddy design at work or a lack of overall strategy. Either way, any sense of the Trump brand has been fuzzy and vague at best when it comes specifically to typography.

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While I’m on a roll here, I’d like to give a quick shoutout to Jill Stein and Bernie Sanders for having some really cool typography in their campaigns. Stein used a sharp angled geometric logotype paired with a fun chunky slab, a la Hillary and Obama 2012, while Bernie went with the round and bubbly Jubilat, a favorite typeface here at Block Club. And thumbs down to Gary Johnson for probably the most boring political campaign design in recent memory.

Whatever happens at the end of the day, and whatever side of the ballot you found yourself on, I think we can all agree that it’s been an interesting eighteen months or so… for… typography. Right? Ok, back to nervously refreshing the page.