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What Clinton and Trump's Font Choices Say About Them

Nov 3 2016 3:25 PM
What Clinton and Trump's Font Choices Say About Them

Image by Gabby Bess

Do you really want a president who uses Comic Sans?

Donald Trump's typography is as unsophisticated as the rest of his campaign. Included in his wide-ranging collection of typefaces are the played-out schoolwork default Times New Roman (for his red hats and Twitter cover photo) and the universally mocked Comic Sans (for the landing page of his online shop). "While Trump tends to use 'ugly' fonts, they are also ones that feel familiar to people—because they tend to use them in their own Word documents. It's more 'of the people,'" said Ismail Jadun, who founded consulting firm 614a and wrote about election typeface strategy last year, in an email interview. But there are also drawbacks. "His entire visual strategy looks like it was developed by a freshman in college," Jesse Reed, the co-designer of Clinton's logo and an associate at Pentagram, told me. "You can pretend you're great all day long, but lack of experience is hard to hide."

By contrast, Hillary Clinton has used a distinctive typeface called Unity consistently across her platform. "[We] select typography and colors that reflect her as a person," Jennifer Kinon, the design director of the Clinton campaign, told me over the phone. "So we're looking for typefaces that are warm, engaging, and tenacious, just like she is."

Jesse Reed and Michael Bierut designed the logo, color palette, and first Unity sketches in anticipation of the campaign's official launch in June 2015. "It's like we're bakers, and they set us up with the finest organic ingredients to make the most delicious cakes," Kinon said. Unity is a modification of Lucas Sharp's Sharp Sans, which is itself a re-envisioning of the early 70s type Avant Garde. Differences between Unity and Sharp Sans include rounding of the superscript dots, punctuation marks, and counters.

Read more: Is Fear About the 2016 Election Keeping People from Eating at Wendy's?

The custom name has purpose, too. "Giving the typeface a name that's consistent with all of the messaging that the campaign has used since the beginning [is] a powerful symbol," said Geoff Yost, a partner and designer at Charleston, SC branding agency Annex Studio who wrote about Clinton's branding last year.

Clinton's campaign uses Unity for just about everything, from yard signs to merchandise to videos of Michelle Obama. "Single-mindedness sounds like a bad thing, [but] that's the glue that holds her visual identity together," says Reed. "Her campaign now has a way to clarify that SHE is speaking without having to constantly sign every piece of communication with '—Hillary Clinton.' Rarely do you have a brand that is so committed to a typeface, and nothing makes me happier than to see everything from headlines to legal copy set in the same one."

Kinon was proud of another purposeful use of type on social media. "We introduced a really beautiful serif typeface called Fournier that we use exclusively for quotes from our candidate [reflecting] a message she's delivered out on the trail so you know when to tune in to her directly—the same way we sign a tweet directly from the candidate herself with '—H.'"

"Every single thing we do with design in the campaign is to act as a surrogate for our candidate," said Kinon. "We want America to get to know her and understand who she is and her vision for America." It's not necessary to associate one font so strongly with a campaign, but there are benefits beyond simple branding. "I can imagine a designer selecting [Unity] while laying out everything from a rally placard to a banner to a policy document. It reinforces that you're living and breathing the message of the organization," said Yost.

After this endless election season, I recognize Unity easily and immediately think of Hillary. But that can be weaponized against her message, too. Last week, I was out walking my dog when Unity caught my eye:

Confused, I wondered for a second if I had missed the announcement of a new, shitty policy initiative from Clinton, but no—obstructing purposeful, legally erected safety signage is not her style. This is an attempt at trolling, likely born of a Donald Trump subreddit, which uses her careful branding against her.

Her campaign isn't offended, though. "If someone is going to sideswipe [Unity] by parodying it or taking it and turning it one degree to their own devices, I'm almost complimented by it. [That means] we've broken through and created a visual signifier with meaning," said Kinon. "Putting an original idea out there takes bravery, just like putting an original policy out there takes bravery. It might get twisted, but having the bravery to go forward with that creativity has so much more power that I'm not worried about it."

The Clinton campaign does occasionally use fonts other than Unity. "We introduced Sharp Unity Slab as our messaging came down to its finest point: our Stronger Together mantra," says Kinon of the serif-typeset logo that was introduced when Tim Kaine joined the ticket. "It gave us an opportunity for that message to sing out above all our other discussions."

Politics hadn't seen this kind of "contemporary, forward-thinking approach" towards fonts until the Obama campaign, according to Yost. Obama famously used Gotham, a typeface originally developed for GQ in 2000 and became publicly available just before his campaign launch. In 2008, it felt fresh, original, and hip—especially compared to Hillary's use of staid, bookish New Baskerville. As popular wisdom holds that Clinton is running for Obama's third term, it makes sense that Unity would have some similarities to Gotham, as both are humanist sans-serif types. "Unity is a little rougher around the edges [than Gotham]," said Yost. "It's a little less cool, and it's got a little more fight to it."

His entire visual strategy looks like it was developed by a freshman in college.

Even Trump has felt the impact of Gotham. The Trump campaign saved some money by primarily using the open-source type Montserrat, which bears a strong resemblance to Gotham, on his website. As with Clinton, Trump using a Gotham-influenced font is not a bold choice. "Trump's typography is as quiet as he is loud," wrote Steven Heller for Wired. The Trump campaign (which did not respond to my requests for comment) uses an old-fashioned wordmark (logo with names only) for its central symbol, as was quite common prior to Obama's transformative rising sun. But the typeset is surprisingly modern: it is "the Bold Extended version of Akzidenz-Grotesk, a predecessor of Helvetica," according to Jadun. "That's totally a hipster typeface."

Still, Trump uses many different typefaces, especially in the images he releases on Twitter. Unlike Clinton's Unity, there is no signature Trump font. "Donald Trump's typography is a lot like Trump himself: full of attitude yet devoid of character," Heller wrote. But there is appeal in Trump's scattershot approach to typography. "His branding is simple and says I don't really care too much about useless details," summarizes Jadun. "Trump's campaign could use a better guide, but I don't think it's hurting [him]."

My objections to Trump's use of design go beyond just questioning his taste level; the quality of his graphics are often quite poor. Many of Trump's promotional images are strikingly low resolution, with jagged edges and visible pixels. Sometimes there are typos, as at :17 in this widely shared video, in which his Montserrat captions claim Hillary "hasn't done the the job." Earlier this week, he held up a wrinkled rainbow flag on which "LBGTs for Trump" was crudely scrawled. He wouldn't be any better for the queer community if he chose to professionally print up a rainbow flag with the same image in beautiful type, but the obvious rush job, with its s scribbled like an afterthought, underscored his cynical approach towards his voters.

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That cynical approach seems to extend to his visual branding as a whole. Trump has a tendency to be rather cavalier about how well he staffs his various enterprises, especially in his campaign. Searching a list of Clinton's campaign stafffor the word "design" yielded 43 hits. The same search in Trump's staff netted zero. "I can only explain Trump's weak brand identity by the apparent lack of talented graphic designers who support Trump," said Stephen Coles, a typographer and the publisher of Fonts in Use, in an email.

In this election, there are many more important things at stake than typeface. Nevertheless, the candidates' images reflect a lot about them: their personalities, their attention to detail, and their competence. "[Trump's] approach [to typography] is reflected by his ability to be the president of the United States—completely unqualified," Reed told me of Trump's visual branding. "The best typographer in the world couldn't change the person he is and the damage he would do to our country."

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