Campaign messages marked by typography
Obama's logo conveys grassroots, populist feel; McCain's typeface echoes maverick, veteran feel
Published: Friday, November 7, 2008
Updated: Sunday, March 20, 2011 18:03
Eight months ago, I stood on the floor of the Toyota Center, less than 50 feet away from the man who in 10 short weeks will be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. The aura that then-Senator, now-President-elect Barack Obama exuded was astounding, not unlike the famed "reality distortion field" that surrounds Apple Inc.'s charismatic Steve Jobs, except instead of making you believe that the AppleTV is a worthwhile product, Obama makes you believe that he is capable of bringing about real change.The stands were filled with people from all walks of life, from all races, from all religions, and they were all chanting "Yes, We Can" and occasionally "Sí, Se Puede" and cheering at his speech. That night, I sent an e-mail to my family that said, "This man needs to be our next president. Don't you think we could use a little bit of idealism, a little bit of hope, in the White House?"
I had gotten caught up in the atmosphere, the energy, the real sense of hope that night at the Toyota Center. But there was something else amazing about that rally - every single sign was set in the same typeface, with the same color scheme, with the same logo. The Obama sunrise - a white sun rising into a blue sky over a red-and-white striped field - flashed from all corners of the stadium, above the slogan "Change we can believe in."
Obama may have won the election, but the unsung winner of this campaign is graphic design. No past presidential campaign has shown such aggressive branding as Obama's and McCain's, although President George W. Bush's use of his middle initial as an identifier four years ago was in the same vein. We're used to recognizing McDonald's by the arches and Nike by the swoosh; now we're used to recognizing Barack Obama by the rising sun. Both candidates' designers paid careful attention to how design would reflect their messages throughout the campaign, and that is especially evident in their choices of typography.
McCain's primary typeface is Optima, which, not so coincidentally, is also the typeface used on the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial. The connection may not seem obvious, but this choice of typeface serves as a subtle reminder that McCain was a POW in Vietnam. (Never mind that it is also the typeface of Estée Lauder and Nordstrom.)
Optima is also what type geeks call a "flared sans," not really a serif or a sans serif font. Serifs are those little feet on the ends of the letters you're reading right now. Serif fonts have them, sans serifs do not. Optima flares out at the end like a serif, but it has no serifs. It is middle-of-the-road, centrist, refusing to fall into defined categories. In short, it is a font a maverick would use.
Through most of the campaign, McCain used the bold weight of Optima, but after he picked Sarah Palin as his running mate, something changed. All of the McCain-Palin signs are set in Optima Extra Black, which is the boldest weight of Optima. It appears as though McCain was trying to portray himself as powerful and bold - bold enough to pick a female running mate. It also reflects his attempts to appeal to the Republican base. Republicans in the past few decades have been known to use very bold typefaces; just think of the Bush-Cheney signs from four years ago.
McCain's primary typeface throughout the campaign was Optima, which is the typeface used on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It is a "flared sans," which does not fall into a defined category of sans-serif or serif. This was meant to reinforce the idea of McCain as a "maverick."
After choosing his running mate, McCain upped his weight from Optima Bold to Optima Extra Black, making McCain appear powerful and bold - perhaps bold enough to pick a female running mate. It also represents an attempt to appeal to the Republican base, as Republicans traditionally use bold fonts in their campaigns.
Obama's typography has been a bit more subtle but reflective of his message nonetheless. When he announced his candidacy, he was trying to establish a grassroots movement of young people who would get excited about the campaign and build momentum. His typeface of choice was Perpetua, which is very clean, polished and contemporary. It was the regular (not bold) weight, and it was set in upper and lower case, rather than the more traditional bold all-caps. It was placed next to his sunrise logo, but the logo had a glossy effect added to it. The whole design was aiming towards defying convention, and it had the feeling of an up-and-coming web company.
At some point later in the campaign, Obama started using Gotham as his primary typeface. Gotham has a uniquely American quality to it - Tobias Frere-Jones, an American type designer, based it on the industrial lettering of the New York Port Authority Bus Terminal. Gotham is a typeface with universal appeal. It represents entities as varied as Coca-Cola, the Maury Show and the Tribeca Film Festival; it appeals to working-class and wealthy voters alike. If there is a such thing as a populist typeface, then Gotham is it.
Try this: type the word "CHANGE" in Times New Roman. It looks forced and self-important. Now switch the font to Comic Sans. That font makes the idea of Change (like all things set in Comic Sans) look silly and empty. In Gotham, "CHANGE" looks earnest and inspiring. Those signs flashing at me at the rally were all set in Gotham, and it only added to the air of inspiration around Barack Obama.
Obama's consistency of branding is incredible. It's really hard to go to rally after rally across the entire country without some lower-echelon campaign staffer saying, "Oh, we're out of signs. Screw it, let's just print a batch in Arial." Seeing the phrase "Change we can believe in" set in Arial instead of Gotham would have cheapened the message.