Thursday, October 9, 2008

Font We Can Believe In

As inane as a discussion on the issue of election typography may be, it's an essential part of the visual identity the campaigns have labored over to present their candidate to the public. It's everywhere, and it's going to shape people's perceptions over the next 26 days.

The centerpiece of Obama's typographical presentation is his campaign's consistent use of Gotham, a font characterized by it's use of unembellished geometric forms. Notice how the "C" is carved out of a perfect circle, and all the letters are seemingly constructed in the simplest way possible with fat straight lines.

The Gotham typeface was designed by Tobias Frere-Jones in 2000-- yes, this very decade. It's simple, elegant, makes good sense, yet only emerged eight years ago. It's new, fresh, masculine, and not at all pretentious. The fat strokes and round curves are friendly while still having a strong sense of credibility.

Obama's campaign uses this font for big bold messages like this one, and they can easily modify the message to adapt to the day's headlines. It's probably most recognized as "Change you can believe in", but the next day it could be "Judgment to lead" or "Stand for change" or whatever. Notably, whenever Obama speaks at a campaign stop the campaign puts it in front of the podium where the candidate's name would be in a typical campaign. This gives the campaign theme more emphasis than the candidate's funny name.

This is the logo that Obama was using early in the campaign, and he has had the advantage of having a great logo right out of the gate. Rather than splashing the typical tired elements of the American flag together, he has this great emblem, simple and instantly recognizable, that alludes to the sunrise emerging over a manicured cornfield. It's consistent with Obama's message of hope and sensible optimism.

The logo uses two typefaces designed by Eric Gill in the 1920s-- Perpetua for the main body, and Gill Sans for the web address. Perpetua is an elegant serif typeface that suggests formality and sophistication that's also plainspoken and down to earth, fitting for the candidate.

What's striking about the logo is that it doesn't scream vote for me, doesn't really project strength, doesn't threaten other candidates. Along with Obama's sunrise emblem, what it does say is plainly "I'm Barack Obama and I'm running for president in 2008. Think about it". As the first African American with a real shot at winning this thing, he can't afford to be viewed as an angry black man.

Sometime during the primaries earlier this year the Obama campaign shifted to Requiem, a font by the same type foundry as Gotham. It's described on the designer's website as being inspired by a sixteenth century writing manual, saying it "celebrates the fertile world of Renaissance humanism". Hmm.

The shift in font was not dramatic and casual observers may not have noticed it, but it certainly indicates a deliberate shift in the campaign's intended message.

For one, the thicker strokes and use of small caps instead of lower case lettering gives the Obama brand a more masculine appearance. Maybe a deliberate move to avoid the wimpy Kerry-Edwards logo of 2004 (and remember who won that election!). The new appearance is bolder, and with Obama thoroughly introduced to the public there is less of a risk of being seen as the threatening black man.

John McCain's campaign font of choice is Optima, a stately font that tries to establish itself as a middle ground between serif and sans-serif. Though technically classified as sans-serif, there are subtle "flares" at the ends of strokes, giving it the slightest hint of serifs.

As dignified as the Optima font normally is, McCain's brand uses a bold variant that gives off a different impression. The distinctive curves become less subtle and once I noticed the "flares" I couldn't unsee them. Notice the 'A', for instance, that curves inward at the top and bottoms. And the 'I', that has a noticable squeeze at the middle. The end effect is less classy-- and, dare I say it, less presidential-- than it should be.

The signature star emphasizes McCain's strongest selling point, his military background. Also, Optima is the font used for the names engraved into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Coincidence?

Another thing to note is that McCain has been using pretty much the same logo ever since he started his campaign-- and he's been using it through the dark ages of his campaign in mid-2007 when it was reduced to a barebones operation and seen as little more than a joke. Perhaps not as many people were paying attention to the race back then, but with his dramatic rise from the ashes early this year it was an opportunity he could have taken to overhaul his entire brand. But he didn't, and the same logo pushes forward, emotional baggage and all.

Of course, in the end all this talk and analysis of typefaces as a reflection of the candidate isn't really fair. For one, it assumes that they actually participate actively in the decision-making process that forms their campaign brand, which is almost certainly not true. But it is an element, and individual elements add up to a larger message, so it can's be discounted completely.

Would you vote for a guy that set his name in Comic Sans?

Think about it.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Biden-Palin debate: These guys are good

Just finished watching the 90 minute debate betwen Joe Biden and Sarah Palin and I've got to give them a lot of credit: These guys are really good at talking the talk.

I certainly would have tuned in to the debate, popcorn at the ready, for the entertainment value of it all, hoping (and expecting!) to experience the sheer joy of a total train wreck-- especially with Biden's tendency for manic-obsessive running of the mouth and Palin's newfound reputation as an airheaded cliché dispenser. But after 1.5 hours of constant talk from these guys, I can't recall a single full-blown gaffe. Come to think of it the whole thing was kind of boring. They've been trained to utter perfection on getting their campaign's standard lines through.

I've given some job interviews myself in the past weeks and seen lesser people crash into a brick wall at even the gentlest of questions, but these two are bulldozers, smashing their way right through the questions and going on and on and on like they've been doing it their whole lives.

Another thing they're good at, I must say, is maneuvering their way around the questions they're actually asked. They can quickly dispose of the moderator's attempts to steer the direction of the debate, then go on reciting the lines they've rehearsed. Here's an example, where moderator Gwen Ifill asks them to elaborate on their weaknesses:
IFILL: The conventional wisdom, Gov. Palin with you, is that your Achilles heel is that you lack experience. Your conventional wisdom against you is that your Achilles heel is that you lack discipline, Sen. Biden. What is it really for you?

PALIN: My experience as an executive will be put to good use as a mayor and business owner and oil and gas regulator and then as governor of a huge state, a huge energy producing state that is accounting for much progress towards getting our nation energy independence and that's extremely important. But it wasn't just that experience tapped into, it was my connection to the heartland of America. Being a mom... [blah blah blah]

BIDEN: You're very kind suggesting my only Achilles Heel is my lack of discipline. Others talk about my excessive passion. I'm not going to change. I have 35 years in public office. People can judge who I am. I haven't changed in that time. And, by the way, a record of change... [blah blah blah]
Basically Gwen Ifill gave a dressed up version of the old job interview question, What's your greatest weakness? It's a question I've asked applicants before, partly to get an idea of how a person thinks of themselves, and partly because I've exhausted my creative questions and fallen back to the standards (Anyone who's serious about the interview should have an answer at the ready).

Biden gave a quick line sidestepping the moderator's question, then gets back on the issue of change and talks about the bills he wrote and the stuff that John McCain has voted against. Palin didn't give even one sentence addressing the issue of her weakness, but instead went on talking about experience as a positive. Maybe she wasn't listening, or didn't understand, or simply decided not to respond directly?

In any case, in practice these answers sounded totally natural and a casual watcher wouldn't give a second thought to them. So it caught me off guard when, after a lenghtly rhetorical spew from the candidates, Ifill said "Governor, Senator, neither of you really answered that last question about what you would do as vice president". Aside from calling them out on it that one time, she mostly let it pass.

Oh, as for who won the debate? Joe Biden had the better answers and clearly had a better grasp on the stuff they were talking about, Sarah Palin held her ground with her folksy charm offensive (2 darn rights, 2 doggone its, and 1 hockey mom), and both candidates scored points simply by not being an embarrassment.