Political campaign typography: When it works, it’s iconic (and sometimes it’s so not working that it’s equally iconic). All the other times, it pretty much just seems uniformly meh.
In the words of Matthew Butterick–typographer, programmer, lawyer, and delightfully dry-witted design educator–type design is where “candidates tend to be more successful revealing their characteristic limitations.” And this, Butterick argues only half-jokingly, means that evaluating them on their type choices is actually a clear-eyed way of judging their overall competence. “Typography—that’s a real decision candidates have to make today, with real money and real consequences,” he writes. “And if I can’t trust you to pick some reasonable fonts and colors, then why should I trust you with the nuclear codes?”
Butterick puts each of the 23 Democratic candidates under the microscope, and, to nobody’s shock, finds them all wanting. (Remember: He’s a typographer, programmer, and a lawyer—a triple threat when it comes to details.) But thanks to a sense of humor that’s somehow both withering and warm, his critiques never feel mean-spirited. The whole thing is worth a long read over your lunch break, but here are some highlights.
We dunked on Joe Biden for his logo, but Butterick deems his typography the best of the bunch—which is, admittedly, a low bar given that Butterick describes the entire field’s design strategy as one of “radical boredom.” Biden gets points for not reusing Gotham, the typeface that made Obama famous. But Butterick grudgingly admits that Biden’s typography does what type design does best, while also visualizing what Biden’s campaign is really all about: “look[ing] relaxed and effortless.” The trick to pulling this off, he says, comes “only by being exceedingly specific in its details.” That’s successful type design—and politics—in a nutshell. Biden’s typography isn’t blowing anyone’s minds, but man does it look like he’s got people handling it who know what they’re actually doing. And after Trump, it’s easy to see why that feels like exactly what so many voters actually want.The opposite of that? Cory Booker, according to Butterick. Booker picked a non-obvious display font in Conductor—which should have earned him points, given that almost everyone else is still imitating Obama’s “geometric sans serifs”—but everything else Butterick deems “totally inept.” He’s right: There’s type design that looks “bad” on purpose, which is its own kind of genius (as anyone who followed Tracy Ma‘s 2011-2016 run at Bloomberg Businessweek will attest). This . . . isn’t that:
As a typeface designer himself, Butterick may be biased when he criticizes candidates for using using free fonts. But it’s hard to disagree with him when he sniffs that Michael Bennet’s uninspired use of Source Sans and Source Serif “contribute to an overall vibe of Bennet as the knockoff-brand candidate.” You’re running for leader of the free world, man. Drop some coin and differentiate yourself, typographically speaking.That said, Butterick also isn’t impressed with holding on too tight to a successful brand. Bernie Sanders’s choice of Jubilat in 2016 as a flagship font was nearly as iconic as Obama’s Gotham. But for 2020, Butterick thinks it risks “creating a sense of ‘let’s do the same thing and expect different results!’” (He rightly points out that even Obama significantly modified Gotham for his 2012 run.)
What Butterick seems to respect most is less a facility with flashy fonts or wordmarks than an ability to organize type in sensical but unexpected ways. Kirsten Gillibrand isn’t afraid to let letterforms overlap; Elizabeth Warren’s layout feels more “like an issue of the New York Times magazine” than a campaign shingle. Biden’s typography may telegraph confidence and competence, but these designs subtly inform us that their candidates have vision.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an internet typography essay without some snicker-out-loud jabs. Butterick deftly needles Pete Buttigieg, Jay Inslee, and Amy Klobuchar without coming off as entirely mean-spirited. After all, Democrats will have to vote for one of these people eventually. You still have time to turn things around, Senator Booker!