Typography 2020:
A special listicle for America

“You can­not bore peo­ple into buy­ing your prod­uct”, ac­cord­ing to David Ogilvy. So true. Nev­er­the­less, elec­tion sea­son ar­rives, and rad­i­cal bore­dom in­evitably be­comes the pre­ferred strat­egy for most can­di­dates. Let’s have a look at the ty­pog­ra­phy anyhow.

Pres­i­den­tial-cam­paign ty­pog­ra­phy took a big step up in 2008, when Barack Obama adopted the then-new Gotham font for his cam­paign. (Though for his re-elec­tion cam­paign, he had ser­ifs added.) This led to the rise of Gotham through­out the United States. But es­pe­cially in po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns, where the geo­met­ric sans has be­come ty­po­graphic short­hand for #win­ning.

In­ter­est­ingly, one of Obama’s few bi­par­ti­san suc­cesses was in­duc­ing Re­pub­li­cans to use Gotham too: in 2016, it was cho­sen by Ted Cruz and Don­ald Trump (well, the no-cost Gotham knock­off Montser­rat).

Along those lines, should a Joe Biden cam­paign ma­te­ri­al­ize, the pres­ence of Gotham will be an in­di­ca­tor of how much he plans to run on Obama nos­tal­gia. Any­thing but Gotham would be a more en­cour­ag­ing sign—some­one who’s been around for­ever should find a way to sur­prise. Still, I’ll be sur­prised if I turn out to be sur­prised. [Up­date: Joe Biden has en­tered the race. With­out Gotham!]

I wasn’t im­pressed by any of the web­sites, none of which ex­ceeded the high end of mediocre—what you might find in an $18/month Square­space plan.

For those who think it triv­i­al­izes our po­lit­i­cal process to judge can­di­dates by their ty­pog­ra­phy—what would you pre­fer we scru­ti­nize? Qual­i­fi­ca­tions? Ground into dust dur­ing the last elec­tion. Is­sues? Be my guest. Whether a can­di­date will ever ful­fill a cer­tain cam­paign promise about a cer­tain is­sue is conjectural.

But ty­pog­ra­phy—that’s a real de­ci­sion can­di­dates have to make to­day, with real money and real con­se­quences. And if I can’t trust you to pick some rea­son­able fonts and col­ors, then why should I trust you with the nu­clear codes?

Book pub­lish­ers spend a lot on cover de­sign. Can­di­dates like­wise spend a lot on their pub­lic pre­sen­ta­tion. Why? For the same rea­sons: vot­ers (or read­ers) are go­ing to make judg­ments based on de­sign fac­tors (whether con­sciously or not). So just as we should feel jus­ti­fied judg­ing a book by its cover—be­cause that’s what it’s for—we should like­wise feel jus­ti­fied con­sid­er­ing how ty­pog­ra­phy re­flects on each candidate.

Along those lines, my pet po­lit­i­cal the­ory is that even as they la­bor to re­veal their char­ac­ter­is­tic strengths through ty­pog­ra­phy, can­di­dates tend to be more suc­cess­ful re­veal­ing their char­ac­ter­is­tic lim­i­ta­tions. The ev­i­dence is left as a thought ex­per­i­ment for suf­fi­ciently mo­ti­vated readers.

Now that Mighty Joe Biden has en­tered the race, sub­se­quent can­di­dates are go­ing to have to pad­dle harder to an­swer two crit­i­cal ques­tions: Who are you? and Why are you here? Ben­net’s an­swer seems to be that he has the pol­i­tics of fel­low Col­oradan John Hick­en­looper, the web de­sign of Eric Swal­well, and in a weirdly fla­grant pinch, the arched logo of Pete Buttigieg (com­bined with some Gotham “for Amer­ica”). Text is Source Serif; dis­play is Source Sans. Among free fonts, I’ve rec­om­mended these, but here, they con­tribute to an over­all vibe of Ben­net as the knock­off-brand candidate.

Argh, it would be more fun to hate this. Dar­ing, it’s not. But to give Joe his due—it’s sim­ple, di­rect, and well done. The de­sign is meant to look re­laxed and ef­fort­less, but ac­com­plishes that only by be­ing ex­ceed­ingly spe­cific in its de­tails. For in­stance, here on the home page, Joe’s tie is co­or­di­nated to match the color of the ty­pog­ra­phy. The gen­er­ous use of white space on every page is both punchy and el­e­gant. Like all the can­di­dates, the font is Gotham-like (in this case, Brother 1816). The red-white-and-blue color scheme is also no sur­prise, though the use of red is re­stricted to the word­mark, the do­nate but­tons, and a few other small UI el­e­ments. (Tulsi Gab­bard over­does it.) The word­mark tries a lit­tle too hard for cor­po­rate-logo clev­er­ness, but I like the boss move of putting “Pres­i­dent” right un­der “Biden”.

If you thought that Michael Bloomberg has been se­cretly plot­ting to jump into this race for years—nah. The proof: every­thing about his cam­paign web­site is slap­dash and de­riv­a­tive, like a stu­dent who saun­ters into the fi­nal exam 10 min­utes be­fore the end and hur­riedly cribs what he can from nearby stu­dents. The “two blues, one red” color scheme has al­ready been done to death this year (see Steve Bul­lock for the list). The head­lines are Avenir Next; the body text is good old Geor­gia. The top-heavy logo looks like it came from Fiverr. Also, wasn’t this guy a Re­pub­li­can five min­utes ago?

Pete has wisely avoided cam­paign­ing on his last name (though as a fel­low Butt-pre­fixed Amer­i­can, I’m a lit­tle dis­ap­pointed). The arched word­mark is a cute idea, though it ap­pears stolen from Net­flix. Pete & chill? It could also have been ren­dered bet­ter—the cap­i­tal Es are stretched awk­wardly to fit the space. The split­ting of 2020 around the mark is the kind of thing that makes peo­ple hate de­sign­ers. Com­bined with the navy and gold col­ors, it’s rem­i­nis­cent of a sports team, which is a body of ty­pog­ra­phy I’m sur­prised can­di­dates haven’t re­lied on more. Dis­play font is Ak­tiv Grotesk; text is Do­maine.

Dis­clo­sure: I do­nated to Pete based on his an­swer to a ques­tion about Ulysses and Finnegans Wake in a re­cent in­ter­view. #win­ning #revengeofthenerds

I like the sim­plic­ity of the con­cept. The flat color field is ar­rest­ing, even if it makes the can­di­date look like a flight at­ten­dant on Tulsi Air­lines. I don’t like the take-per­fectly-nice-font-and-chop-off-the-cor­ners word­mark, a trend that has been done to death (and if you’re go­ing to bother, why not chop off the L so it can sit closer to the S?) Text is Neue Swift; dis­play is Har­mo­nia Sans.

Amy—why are we on a first-name ba­sis with our pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates?—is the only can­di­date us­ing tra­di­tional ser­ifed let­ter­ing. Whoa! (I didn’t rec­og­nize the font, but in­ter­net sleuths tell me it’s Mackay, which I now see is rather in­ter­est­ing, ex­cept for the three let­ters in “Amy”.) Like Jay In­slee, Amy’s mood ring is mostly blue and green. The lay­outs show a poor use of space, with ar­eas that are largely empty al­ter­nat­ing with ar­eas tightly em­broi­dered with text (Julián Cas­tro strikes a bet­ter bal­ance). Text is the Gotham-like Avenir Next. Avenir is French for fu­ture—that al­most qual­i­fies as an LTypI.

As be­fits some­one who an­nounced his can­di­dacy three sec­onds ago and hence has no donors, Patrick uses free fonts: the logo and head­lines are Bar­low, and body text is Rale­way. Though watch your back, Amy Klobuchar—Patrick is ap­par­ently steer­ing into the blue/green lane you’ve had to your­self thus far. The use of di­ag­o­nal el­e­ments as a mo­tif is plainly the de­ci­sion of po­lit­i­cal neo­phytes who’ve not con­sid­ered how many rec­tan­gu­lar ob­jects a cam­paign needs to produce.

I liked Bernie’s ty­pog­ra­phy in 2016—his use of Ju­bi­lat was un­ex­pected but not dis­com­fit­ing. Sort of like Bernie’s can­di­dacy it­self. He seems to be stick­ing with it for 2020, at the risk of cre­at­ing a sense of “let’s do the same thing and ex­pect dif­fer­ent re­sults!” (Even Obama, as an in­cum­bent, didn’t do that.) Text is Gib­son. The back­ground is not solid blue—there’s an au­to­play video, but like many Amer­i­cans, I block such things.

Dis­clo­sure: I do­nated to Bernie in 2016.

That’s Steyer, spelled with a why. De­spite his late en­try to the race, Steyer didn’t even have time for an irony re­view: ap­par­ently he wants to get “cor­po­rate money out of pol­i­tics” by first putting many of his own hedge-fund mil­lions into pol­i­tics. At least he bought a de­cent if samey font, which is Cen­tra No. 2. The best fea­ture of Steyer’s cam­paign is his pet pug, who is def­i­nitely a good boy, and prob­a­bly a mul­ti­mil­lion­aire in his own right.

Some good ideas here—a few pay off, most don’t. I like the idea of a can­di­date’s web­site as be­ing like an is­sue of the New York Times mag­a­zine—even the “War­ren” word­mark makes it look like a new Condé Nast monthly. The fonts are smart (Ring­side) and the col­ors re­strained (for a change). But as you click around it starts to look more sim­i­lar to other can­di­dates, es­pe­cially Ka­mala Harris.

Dis­clo­sure: I do­nated to WAR­REN.

Free ad­vice for those with zero name recog­ni­tion: don’t de­sign a word­mark (in Hal­yard, FWIW) that makes it hard to read your name. The Y in Yang looks like—what, a slice of ba­con us­ing a play­ground slide in an un­safe way? Every­thing about this web­site con­fuses me. I can’t tell if An­drew Yang thinks that’s a fea­ture or a bug. Like Amy Klobuchar, Yang also dis­cov­ered the oh-so-ap­pro­pri­ately-named Avenir for text.

I com­pli­ment the word­mark de­signer for not fum­bling the dif­fi­cult spac­ing around the two Ws (which would be an on­go­ing chal­lenge of a Swal­well pres­i­dency). Dis­play is In­dus­try Inc, text is the Gothamesque Ef­fra. Col­ors are red, white, and ... you know. But Swall­well’s web­site shouts plat­i­tudes like “go big” and “be bold” even though he’s do­ing nei­ther with his ty­pog­ra­phy. Maybe check out Kirsten Gilli­brand, who, on this is­sue, walks the walk.

(Dropped out in July 2019.)

It could be worse. But it still looks more like he’s start­ing an out­door-cloth­ing la­bel, not run­ning for pres­i­dent. Like other can­di­dates, Hick­en­looper evokes Obama’s use of Gotham (with the sim­i­lar Prox­ima Nova, though Prox­ima pre­dates Gotham). The deep pur­ple is un­ex­pected—Col­orado is po­lit­i­cally “pur­ple”, is that the idea?—though pair­ing two in­tense col­ors doesn’t pro­vide much ver­sa­til­ity (Mar­i­anne Williamson did bet­ter). Hick­en­looper would’ve done bet­ter to em­u­late the clever econ­omy of the Col­orado li­cense plate, where one color serves as both fore­ground and background.

(Dropped out in Au­gust 2019.)

The ty­pog­ra­phy makes it look like a phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal ad—Ask your doc­tor if In­slee™ is right for you. Jay In­slee wants to give you lots of col­ors: Amer­i­can red, white, and blue, and a lighter blue, and then a cou­ple shades of green, I sup­pose to con­note that he cares about the en­vi­ron­ment. An­other can­di­date evok­ing Obama’s Gotham ty­pog­ra­phy (this time with Montser­rat).

(Dropped out in Au­gust 2019.)

As with fel­low late en­trant Michael Ben­net, Seth Moul­ton seems like déjà vu all over again. Two shades of blue and one shade of red? Check. Free fonts? Check—League Gothic for dis­play and Me­trop­o­lis for text. Wait, does one of them look like Gotham? Check. Is he “for Amer­ica”? Check. Moul­ton is likely to spend most of his short cam­paign ex­plain­ing that no, he’s not Pete Buttigieg. As for that logo: did no one con­sider the awk­ward sym­bol­ism of the right-point­ing red arrow?

(Dropped out in Au­gust 2019.)

I mostly like this—sim­ple and punchy—with the caveat that the hot-pink color scheme re­minded me of a can­cer-aware­ness non­profit. But Gilli­brand’s slo­gan is “brave wins”. The de­sign choices are like­wise brave (well, for a politi­cian—it’s a low bar). Dis­play fonts are Nav­igo and Al­ter­nate Gothic; text is Li­bre Franklin (though did she hear about Pub­lic Sans?)

(Dropped out in Au­gust 2019.)

The good news: a gen­uinely novel dis­play face (the two-tone Acier) and a solid sans for text (Gib­son, also used by Bernie Sanders). The bad news: every­thing else. The hor­rific col­ors make “de Bla­sio” look like a floor-clean­ing brand. The logo comes from the Wayne Mes­sam school of ty­po­graphic mis­pro­por­tion. The whole thing is crude, am­a­teur­ish, and in­ex­plic­a­ble. The only thing that pre­vents it from dis­plac­ing Cory Booker in last place is that there isn’t much of it.

(Dropped out in Sep­tem­ber 2019.)

Tim Ryan seems to have got­ten his logo and web­site from the same fac­tory-out­let store as Cory Booker. Ryan has slightly bet­ter pro­duc­tion val­ues, but seems to con­sist mostly of pho­tos and videos taken on smart­phones. Fonts are noth­ing spe­cial: the freely avail­able Open Sans and Pop­pins.

(Dropped out in Oc­to­ber 2019.)

Af­ter the Playskool color schemes of the other can­di­dates, Beto O’Rourke’s mono­chro­matic word­mark and web­site are a good start. Things go down­hill from there, how­ever. The web­site seems like it could’ve been made 15 years ago, with its menus of tiny type link­ing to pages filled with more tiny type. Dis­play is Pro­hi­bi­tion and URW DIN; text is Tisa.

(Dropped out in No­vem­ber 2019.)

Like Jay In­slee, Mes­sam’s web­site also uses a red–green–blue color scheme with a geo­met­ric Gotham-style sans (Montser­rat, also fa­vored by the cur­rent com­man­der-in-chief). The word­mark is wildly mis­pro­por­tioned, with “Wayne” in dan­ger of crush­ing “Amer­ica”. If the WA is go­ing to be kerned so tightly, it calls out for a lig­a­ture—maybe speak to who­ever did the word­mark for Eric Swal­well, who clearly has a spe­cialty in the cap­i­tal W. Un­clear why Mes­sam thinks it’s wise to fea­ture a photo of him­self run­ning away from the voter.

(Dropped out in No­vem­ber 2019.)

When I first pub­lished this piece, I said I was sur­prised that no can­di­date had ever used In­ter­state, which is mod­eled on the U.S. high­way font. In an amaz­ing co­in­ci­dence, very late en­trant Joe Ses­tak has launched his cam­paign us­ing Over­pass, an open-source fam­ily based on the same model. Am I the only one who thinks Ses­tak looks like he could be Pete Buttigieg’s dad? Other than that, the only place where Ses­tak is com­pet­i­tive is the race for most pe­cu­liar logo, where he might edge out An­drew Yang and Seth Moul­ton. Ses­tak’s eye­ball-shaped logo looks like it was made with Corel Draw in 1997. Ap­par­ently no one no­ticed that his slo­gan “Ac­count­abil­ity to Amer­ica” is ac­com­pa­nied by a draw­ing of North Amer­ica, Cen­tral Amer­ica, and South Amer­ica. Is he run­ning for Pres­i­dent of the Hemisphere?

(Dropped out in De­cem­ber 2019.)

Late en­trant Bul­lock brings some­thing truly new to the cam­paign sea­son: slab ser­ifs in his logo and head­lines (FF Kievit Slab) and a wide sans (Ring­side, a font fam­ily also used by Eliz­a­beth War­ren). Both nice fonts. Text is the un­re­mark­able Open Sans. Oth­er­wise not a lot to dis­tin­guish Bul­lock’s pres­ence—pretty much the same “two blues, one red” color scheme of Michael Ben­net, Joe Biden, Seth Moul­ton, Eric Swall­well, and An­drew Yang, and a sim­i­lar lay­out too. I ap­pre­ci­ate, how­ever, that one of the head­lines on the home page is “Who the heck is Steve Bullock?”

(Dropped out in De­cem­ber 2019.)

I like the dis­play type a lot (Bu­reau Grotesque). But lordy, the col­ors are nau­se­at­ing. Ap­par­ently Ka­mala in­tended to pay trib­ute to the red and yel­low col­ors of 1972 can­di­date Shirley Chisholm. Fair enough, but some­thing got lost in trans­la­tion: the red be­came red­dish or­ange, the in­tense yel­low be­came gold­en­rod, and then she threw in bluish pur­ple too. Here in Cal­i­for­nia, the knock on Ka­mala is that she’s al­ways been ea­ger to be seen as all things to all peo­ple. “What color do you want in a can­di­date’s logo? Well I’ve got that color!”

(Dropped out in De­cem­ber 2019.)

As a lay­out, not in­ven­tive—looks like a mid­dling Word­Press theme. But clever in places: for in­stance, the col­orized ac­cent over Á in the word­mark. Also the font choice, which al­ludes to Gotham by us­ing Mal­lory, an­other geo­met­ric sans by the same de­signer, To­bias Frere-Jones. Cas­tro finds a nice bal­ance of head­lines that aren’t too big and body text that isn’t too small, with am­ple white space too. In con­trast to his com­peti­tors, most of whom fa­vor acres of tiny type, like they were de­sign­ing for the web of 1996. Text is Fe­dra.

(Dropped out in Jan­u­ary 2020.)

I like Williamson’s pale pink & in­digo color scheme. The arty il­lus­tra­tion is dis­tinc­tive, if odd. The fonts are not ter­ri­ble (Cor­morant Gara­mond and Pop­pins) but the ac­tual lay­outs are sloppy and in­dif­fer­ent. Still, more than I was ex­pect­ing from a looooong-shot campaign.

(Dropped out in Jan­u­ary 2020.)

The weird lay­out in the screen­shot is ex­actly as I found it, and the pop­ups re­fused to be dis­missed. The dis­play font Con­duc­tor has po­ten­tial. But there’s no de­sign con­cept to speak of (no, “red, white, and blue” doesn’t cut it). The ex­e­cu­tion is to­tally in­ept. Cory, it was nice of you to hire your sec­ond cousin. But seek pro­fes­sional help. You’re trail­ing the pack.

(Dropped out in Jan­u­ary 2020.)

Looks like an early draft of the Julián Cas­tro web­site. An­other geo­met­ric sans serif for dis­play (Avant Garde) though the siz­ing, spac­ing, and align­ment is wrong at every turn. For some­one with a rel­a­tively low pro­file, De­laney is miss­ing an op­por­tu­nity to dis­tin­guish him­self with ty­pog­ra­phy. Con­fi­den­tial to mus­cu­lar bald dudes: pos­ing with crossed arms may re­mind some of Mr. Clean.

(Dropped out in Jan­u­ary 2020.)

—Matthew But­t­er­ick
18 April 2019
(last up­dated 31 Jan­u­ary 2020)

by the way
  • One font I’m very sur­prised has never shown up in a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign: In­ter­state, which is mod­eled on the U.S. high­way font, the one type­face that every Amer­i­can voter is al­ready fa­mil­iar with. (Up­date: Joe Ses­tak took my hint.)

  • The big prob­lem with red & blue as col­ors is that they look great with white, but ter­ri­ble with each other, be­cause they have weak con­trast, cre­at­ing a vi­brat­ing op-art ef­fect. The photo at left shows how the red tends to dis­ap­pear into the blue, mak­ing the logo look like BID N. The de­sign­ers of the flags for Amer­ica, Great Britain, France, Nor­way, Costa Rica, Do­mini­can Re­pub­lic, and North Ko­rea fig­ured this out a long time ago.

  • Af­ter I pub­lished this piece, I learned about An­drew Pa­pen­heim’s even deeper dive into cam­paign de­sign from Feb­ru­ary 2019. If this piece wasn’t nerdy and de­tailed enough for you, enjoy.

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