Graphic Design on the Campaign Trail: Decoding Clinton and Trump’s Visual Language
As designers, we’re naturally of the mind that design is more than just visuals—it’s actually a visual language. Design conveys messages on conscious and subconscious levels, can (and often does) evoke strong feelings, communicates well beyond the static confines of the imagery depicted, and ultimately holds power to influence how we feel about the product or service associated, be it a museum, an app, even a human being seeking the presidency.
In a summer utterly preoccupied with the state of the Union and the politics of the presidency, we thought we’d explore the branding of the presidency some more. After all, what example of branding sits in a more public arena with more power to potentially wield?
A brief history of campaign branding
Throughout the 1700s and 1800s, various materials were disseminated to Americans during election cycles. Earlier on, because the average American was illiterate, cartoons and graphic posters were the means by which candidates got the word out. Rising literacy and a growing number of newspapers brought about a shift—by the mid-1850s, the printed word became king with pins, patches, and stickers gaining in popularity. As the industrial revolution swept the nation, mass-production of campaign collateral increased with widely circulated pins, bumper stickers, lawn signs and so on. According to the New Republic, in the 1950s, advances in lithographic printing facilitated the first examples of mass-produced buttons (such as the iconic “I Like Ike” buttons).
But at this point, slogans—catchy words and phrases—were still the standard of presidential branding. New Republic notes, however, that a shift to symbols and logos “began in the mid-1960s with the LBJ USA map logo and Hubert Humphrey’s HHH symbol.” These symbols began taking on the look and feel of their times: In the 70s, for example, candidate logos called to mind the decade’s disco fever (see Robert Byrd and George Wallace).
But it makes sense: As technology continues to evolve and the use of social media platforms become increasingly ubiquitous, the approach and style of campaign branding will continue to change.
Enter: Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. No presidential hopeful before him leveraged branding and social media savvy so fluently. The bucolic “O” logo, designed by Sol Sender of Chicago-based Sender LLC, was modern, memorable, iconic, and hopeful all at once. It encapsulated Barack Obama’s entire platform in one simple icon. The Hope poster created by street artist Shepard Fairey, meanwhile, navigated campaign branding into completely uncharted territory, tapping into art history and pop culture, youth culture, and a cross-generational thirst for something new with remarkable deftness and acuity.
Speaking about the Obama ‘08 logo, Sender explained, "The design expression was so constrained and so bland for so many years in politics… I think we had a fresh approach because we’d never worked on a campaign before.” The result was, indeed, inspired. It marked a new frontier in the interplay between presidential politics and branding.
Which brings us to…2016!
In order to further explore the world of presidential branding, we’re taking a closer look into some of the dialogue surrounding the visual language of the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, and the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton.
It’s rather fascinating to look at Trump’s branding as a presidential candidate because more than any candidate before him, Trump is already a brand. The branding of his real estate properties under Trump International Realty is tall and Serif-y, rendered in black or often given a gilded or platinum treatment. It reads as a bit crude and dated, but still has undeniable impact. Then there’s the origin story regarding the logo emblazoned on the first Trump Towers erected in 1983: building architect Der Schutt designed the lettering over the building’s main entrance to be 17 inches tall. At such a size, the bronze letters would be in line with Tiffany & Co. and other classic, elegant places of business of the time. Trump, however, had a different idea. He went behind Schutt’s back and doubled the size of the letters. This is a man with massive ambitions, who likes his power and control to be known above all.
Overall, Trump’s presidential branding has been a bit rocky. We don’t know who actually designed the logos, but they have more or less aimed to fall in line with what is expected of campaign iconography--relying most heavily on his “Make America Great Again” manifesto.
The T entering the P was an attempt to create a monogram and also take the place of the stars of the American flag. Not particularly successful in its execution; Apparently, the logo felt a bit, erm, suggestive to many.
Some also felt that the logo was occupying the same space as the Aryan nation logo.
Under scrutiny for the “suggestive” nature of its logo, the Trump/Pence campaign switched gears and released a memo featuring a brand new design stripped of the monogram entirely. A sudden redirection of branding often feels like a sign of instability and lack of vision (see: Gap’s terribly fraught rebranding circa 2010). A confident, cohesive, and clear visual language is crucial in the development of a confident, cohesive, and clear brand—especially if the brand is a presidential candidate we are being asked to believe has a clear vision.
Monograms—often stylized such that two or more letters overlap or interlace together—convey tradition and convention. This is, of course, a huge part of Trump’s platform.
Less than 24 hours after its release, and amidst plenty of social media ridicule, the Trump campaign rebranded away from the monogram and flag logo with a new, very simple, very straightforward design.
The use of the “Make America Great Again” motto continues to drive home Trump’s biggest draw--that America has somehow fallen from grace, and that he is the man to lift the country back up again.
Reportedly created by Michael Beirut at famed design studio Pentagram, the Hillary Clinton logo has been host to waves of criticism followed by praise. Clearly designed with the same intentions as Obama’s iconic “O” logo, the Clinton “H” is strikingly minimalist and pared-down, using only one letter to anchor the brand. It has inspired strong feelings of praise and distaste alike from progressives and middle-of-the-road Democrats. It also flagged certain questions for the modern presidential logo such as the need for patriotic symbols likesuch as stars and stripes, torches, rising suns, etc. in order for it to be a “campaign worthy” logo. Clinton broke from the mold, using only a forward-pointing arrow.
Speaking of the arrow…
Okay, where exactly is this “forward-pointing” arrow pointing to? And why is it red? Many critics felt that the red arrow pointing to the right was a slap in the face to progressives, a sly nod to Clinton’s more conservative-leaning platforms and policies. Not the best idea—why not make the arrow blue? We can only wonder...
Many people in the Twitter sphere have remarked that the logo feels boring, rudimentary, overly simplistic, and clunky. Some felt that it evokes the image of the Twin Towers with a plane flying through them, even a hospital sign or the Fedex logo. Oof.
Hillary’s mark avoids the typical presidential logo references, perhaps because many of them have become associated with the right or old views.
Looking at color, type, and imagery only, the logo conveys confidence, determination, and forward motion. Despite criticism, the Clinton campaign stuck to their logo.
The logo feels inspired by the iconic period of minimalist graphic design in midcentury America. It could easily have lived during the era when Braun, CBS, American Airlines, and other American giants of business were in their infancy.
Though the arrow became a real talking point of the logo’s failure, it actually has proven to be a classically powerful icon with great potential. The arrow is a great modular element of the logo, perfect for use all by its lonesome on other campaign collateral. In this way, the forward-pointing arrow serves as a secondary logo for the Clinton campaign.
Sol Sender, who designed Obama’s logo, told the Huffington Post that a good candidate logo must address a candidate’s weaknesses. For Clinton, the major criticism that she represents the past is acknowledged (and disproven).
Clinton’s logo uses an entirely new font for the logo called “Unity.” Call us geeks, but the fact that she commissioned a type designer to customize her very own font for the logo and campaign just feels modern. How many presidential candidates can you say have done this? The font, based on “Sharp Sans” with a few characters tweaked to look friendlier, works well.
The logo’s biggest strength by far is that it’s proven to be highly flexible and adaptable. The “H” has been treated as a dynamic element, with its overlay changing to reflect the landscapes of specific states, or to support certain issues, such as same-sex marriage. The graphic itself maintains its crisp edges and legibility when reduced in size, thus lending itself naturally to other platforms (Twitter icons, Facebook, etc.). What’s more, Clinton’s “H” remains entirely recognizable despite these changes, proving the logo’s real power as an iconic, memorable, lasting design.
So, here’s the big ticket question: Can—does—the design associated with a particular candidate really hold weight? In other words, can graphic design impact who becomes the next president? Perhaps not strictly—a campaign’s graphic design alone may not technically sway the electorate one way or the other. Nevertheless, the symbols, logos, typography, and messaging of presidential candidates are certainly extensions of that candidate’s vision of the future and ethos. Visual language reveals not only the personalities of candidates and their campaigns, but their tactics, goals, and the movements they hope to tap into, too. A candidate’s brand and the visual language they employ are fascinating pathways into understanding the candidates before us.