Political Campaign Logos & the Designers Who Hate Them
Wired recently ran a piece entitled Typography is Why Jeb’s Logo is Worse Than a Piece of Crap. I say this in a non-partisan way, but it’s one of those headlines that kind of says it all.
Even though Bush has been using a variation on this logo since 1993, the recently unveiled 2015 version unleashed a new barrage of snark from the design community, with pundits criticizing everything from the typeface (Baskerville) to the exclamation point (“I don’t want to be told to get excited”) to the baseline of the exclamation point. AdWeek fed the flames of the controversy by reposting a bunch of mostly negatively “humorous” takes from the twittersphere.
This satirical exchange between Jeb the client and his designer before landing on the current logo speaks volumes as to why it’s so bad, but it doesn’t definitively answer the big question on my mind: Did they want it to be this bad in an attempt to look “populist?” or do Jeb’s designers just have bad taste? Both? It should be noted that I ask these questions in a completely non-partisan way (more on this later.)
Do good intentions translate to good design?
According to Bush’s senior adviser Mike Murphy, the cheerful logo shows that Bush is “upbeat,” “consistent,” and easily recognizable.1 You know who else is upbeat, consistent, and easily recognizable? Clowns.
I jest. In all seriousness, and in the spirit of non-partisan objectivity, let’s break it down with a few readily verified observations as being intentional from a design standpoint:
- The absence of Jeb’s last name helps establish him as his own man
- The ! suggests friendliness, openness, and accessibility of logos like Yahoo!, Zappos! and Chips Ahoy!2
- The whole package conveys the folksy, relatable familiarity of a Midwestern burger franchise
But it’s ugly! screamed the design community. Fair enough, I’d say. In all honestly, that was certainly my first reaction.
But just in case you think this sort of heated reaction is limited to Bush, you’d be wrong: Ted Cruz’s logo has been negatively compared to everything from a burning American flag to the logos of Al Jazeera and the Onion.3 Marc Rubio’s logo has been roundly criticized for dotting the ‘I’ in Rubio with a tiny silhouette of the United States that’s missing Hawaii and Alaska. Pundits have even gone so far as to fret over the kerning.4
My point being: politics are a highly charged subject to begin with. And good taste aside, design itself is already a highly subjective field. People are bound to be vocal about and polarized by the appearance of any new logos. Remember all the hate the Gap got when they unveiled their new logo? And they weren’t even running for office.
On the topic of subjectivity, here’s a Fast Company article citing three designers who actually like the Jeb! logo for reasons I don’t find especially qualitative or compelling, save citing recent research that suggests that there are certain fonts that make us believe what we are reading.
But hey, that’s just my opinion.
Why no candidate is safe from the highly charged politics of political branding
Lest you think this online vitriol is just so much design snobbery from a liberally-inclined media, Hillary Clinton’s new “arrow” logo fared no better in the forum of design community opinion.5
The logo was so maligned that designer Rick Wolff created a typeface he named “Hillary Bold” or “Hillvetica,” along with an app so anyone could create their own logo in the fake font.6
Despite all the criticism, the same logo was also lauded by a minority for its simplicity and easy application across various channels, most notably social media. As a design element, the arrow can easily be used in other contexts, as it is on Clinton’s online fundraising page. It’s also a timeless, universal directional symbol that, when used in a political context, suggests forward progress while meeting the more traditional, All-American red, white and blue color scheme.
So is the Hillary logo good? Bad? It depends on who you ask. And as it turns out, everyone these days has an opinion.
As reported on Politico.com:
Michael Bierut, the New York-based designer at Pentagram who created the new Clinton logo as a volunteer contribution to the campaign… responded to the controversy by noting the newfound interest in a 2013 article he wrote about graphic design in which he described the knee-jerk public criticism over new logos and branding as a “spectator sport, and anyone can play.7
As Liz Stinson astutely points out in a Wired piece on the reaction to Hillary’s new campaign logo:
The rise of social media has given people a platform to broadcast [their] opinions to the world. And broadcast we do. Remember the brouhaha that greeted the Tropicana and Gap redesigns? Bierut himself wrote an essay on the phenomenon of the casual critic in 2013: “New logo? Game on! Graphic design criticism is now a spectator sport, and anyone can play… “Crowdsmashing,” as writer Paul Ford once dubbed the communal dumping-on of something new, is a pastime at this point.”8
Meredith Post, Senior Designer at global brand design agency LPK, shares compelling examples of how political branding began a long time ago in U.S. elections.9 It’s good context to take into account before asking ourselves whether or not the contemporary Jeb and Hillary logos are crap or brilliant, along with one particular campaign that—whether you voted for the candidate or not—was a true game-changer.
How the Obama ’08 campaign brought Change to candidate branding
As Stephen Heller tells it in The Atlantic10:
The 2008 Obama campaign… received high marks from the design community for its typographic ingenuity and pleasing consistency.
An observation validated by Post…
Political artifacts and memorabilia were forever changed when Barack Obama launched his presidential campaign in 2007. Working with designers and strategists from his home base in Chicago, Obama created a fresh, holistic communication system for his White House bid.
Regardless of personal politics, the beauty and effectiveness of Obama’s brand is evident. Americans wanted hope and they got it; from the Palatino/Gotham typeface combinations, to the bright, optimistic photography—everything laddered back to the fresh, “new day in America” messaging.
Al Reis gushed along similar lines in a 2008 piece for AdAge11, citing the Obama campaign’s simplicity, consistency, and relevance as hallmarks of its resonance and success.
Whether his readers believed the hype or not, Obama was selected as Advertising Age’s Marketer of the Year by the executives attending the Association of National Advertisers’ annual conference.12 Obama ’08 campaign design director Scott Thomas and his team’s branding was so effective that their typographic language was adopted for the president’s communications once the campaign was over.13 Logo designer Sol Sender even put out a self-published book about the experience called Designing Obama.14
Despite the apparently, overwhelmingly warm reception of the Obama ’08 campaign’s branding efforts, the punchline here is that Sender himself is no stranger to a good political branding pile-on: the Atlantic article cited above is essentially his critique of 2012 campaign logos.
Jeb!, Hillary, and Obama campaign brand elements: Hot or Not?
So there you have it—a roundup of some of our most notable #candidatelogofails, and one notable success that, at the time at least, seemed to garner almost unanimous praise from the design community (One might argue that 2008 came just before the current Golden Age of Design Community Snark, but I’d argue probably not.)
What are your thoughts about the Jeb!, Hillary, and Obama campaign elements?
Either way, we’d love to hear your opinions in the comments below.
After all, as designers, it’s not even worth pretending we don’t have one.