Do you judge a candidate by their choice of typeface?

After reading an article last night on www.entrepreneur.com about the impact of typography on conversions, it reminded me of a piece I wrote a couple of years ago - with the title:

"Everything can be judged by it's typeface, even a candidate" (Ellen Lupton). Considering Lupton's quote and the 2008 American Presidential campaigning of John McCain and Barack Obama, was there a link between the typographical and election strategies of each candidate?

So for those of you that are 'font' (!) of typography/design/politics/just fancy a typographical read, here is an overview of my discussion...

The American Election of 2008 captivated the world because of the prospect of the first African-American president. Words such as "Hope" and "Change" plastered the streets of America and did so with a certain style. The typeface used throughout the campaign was Gotham and this raises an important question: what role, if any, do typefaces play in the world of campaigning and politics? The Oxford Dictionary definition of typography is, "the art or procedure of arranging type or processing data and printing from it", and a typeface is a "particular design of type". Art, procedure and design of type figured strongly in the orchestration of both McCain and Obama's public campaigns. Obama's Republican opponent, John McCain, had an overarching campaign word of "Maverick", (Montopoli, 2008), which was illustrated by the typeface Optima.

The impact of typefaces on election campaigns is controversial. J.L. Frazier considered typefaces to be "full of identity". However Rudy VanderLans, founder of Emigre Type, is of the opinion that "Who, except designers, would judge a candidate by the typeface?" (2008). Steven Heller of the New York Times says "If a typeface is not just a vessel for meaning, but a signifier that underscores personality, then it is useful in understanding what the candidates' respective typefaces are saying about them and their campaigns." (2008) The effect of typography, on the presidential campaign, is ambiguous, however typefaces are chosen for a reason.

Obama's challenger John McCain was a "war hero" in Vietnam which according to Ellen Lupton was a central focus in his campaign and "Optima helps" to show this. (2008) The typeface was used to carve the Veterans names on the Vietnam War Memorial. Michael Bierut says that even if it is a "coincidence...it's certainly very apropos." The typeface being inscribed in stone is echoed within the Trajen Column in Rome. "(Optima) says I'm also a hero, I'm made all of one piece, strong, straight, reliable, solid ground under your feet, a soldier." (Bierut, 2008) In terms of Optima's visual appearance, Jerry Kelly, a type historian, describes it to usually be of a "normal" weight, which reflects "elegance, refinement, modernity". However in this campaign Optima is used in "bold" which Kelly feels "is very different; a bold speaks of strength" (2008).

As I mentioned previously "Hope" and "Change" were two iconic taglines used in a lot of Obama's visual campaign material and these words were shown in Gotham. Michael Bierut,a designer of the cornerstone, describes Gotham to not "show individual authorship... but it shows a character you wouldn't find anywhere else." (2004) A candidate needs to have something to make them stand out. "Change" was a fundamental concept of Obama's Presidential campaign, so the choice of typeface was crucial to replicate this. In fact, it became fairly common knowledge that in choosing Gotham it was the "most adventurous font decision ever made by a political campaign and further proof that Obama deserved to win" (Shaw, 2010). Being a reasonably new font and supposedly breaking the normal campaign fonts traditions portrayed Obama as a unique candidate-one that was prepared to take risks and think out of the box.

These factors and interpretations are all very well, but if we reconsider Lupton's opinion, that a candidate "can be judged by" its typeface (2008), it is without a doubt a very extreme statement to make. This may be the case from a design perspective, however the general public considers many factors when electing a president. Perhaps Lupton is too intrinsically linked with design and over expresses the typography's importance in the campaign outcome?

An objective approach is important and a designer can also express this. Michael Bieret, a partner of a successful design consultancy, said "judging a candidate by his or her choice of typeface isn't much more than a parlor game". Therefore, perhaps the quote by designer Debbie Millman, who spoke specifically of the 2008 battle between Barack Obama and John McCain, would have been better suited to introduce this discussion: "Consider typography to be the window into the soul of the candidate's campaign. The depth, the breadth, the good, the bad and the ugly is all there for us to witness and assess in one clear and telegraphic manner". (2008)

What do you think? Do you think a candidate can be judged by its typeface? Would you judge a candidate by their choice of typeface? Discuss!

Over and Out

Steph-The Marketing Assistant