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.