For better or for worse, here in America the political season is upon usâ€“and that means all sorts of visual assaults on the populace, including that one American constant, the bumper sticker.
Political bumper stickers and similar collateral have a life and panache all their own, even for the ultimate loser: Barry Goldwater’s Sixties-era campaign famously promoted “The Goldwater Formula”, a sticker reducing the Senator’s name to the Periodic Table symbol for gold and the chemical formula for water; they read simply “Au+H20″. The tough cleanness of the white typography on blue of the “Nixon Now” buttons evidenced an optimism in the 1972 campaign that had yet to be overshadowed by that defining event in modern American political life, the Watergate scandal.
But, returning to the greater view, the choice of image and type that makes up the modern political campaign logo can be seen in terms of branding. The candidate’s name becomes a coathook upon which the organizations hope to hang pointers to the positive qualities of the political hopeful. And, since the logo (and the bumper sticker) are usually largely a typographic solution, the object is to use the type’s emotional and subjective punch to carry that water.
How well do they do it?
Up-close and Real Personal-like
Recently, in a piece done for Newsweek’s Periscope feature at MSNBC.com, Pentagram’s Michael Bierut rendered his thoughts on the more notable bumper stickers. His comments make for meaty food for thought, since even though it may seem like scrying via tea leaves to some, the choice of image and logo for any organization is, as much as anything else, a mirror on how that organization sees itself, and a testament to the ability of type to carry a message.
Following is a notable Bierut comment for each sticker, and our reaction to the comment (and, of course, the sticker itself).
The deliberate branding decision here is to go by first name only, to make her approachable and friendly, and to disassociate herself from the Clinton dynasty
As much as any modern name in American politics, the Clinton name engenders strong feelings regardless of whether you view the name with good or ill will; it seems that people either love it or hate it; there is little middle ground.
Of all the stickers we’ve seen, Hillary’s contains the most unmistakable flag reference: a streamer serving as an underline for the name. The words “for President” are made quite smaller than the name, letting the name take center stage, but they are in italic face and framed very effectively by the shape of the name; it lifts the eyes up and to the right, which is a motion with a positive connotation.
The choice of fontâ€“a serif face, which looks very much like Century Old Style Bookâ€“is formal without being stuffy, and complex without being too busyâ€“smart but approachable. It suits the candidate.
Barack Obama has perhaps the most instantly-recognizable name in American politics today after Hillary Clinton. Bierut opines:
Obama is blessed with a name that looks good in type. Obama’s font is quite elegant and almost literary.
Both are apt observations. What struck us about it was the clever adaptation of the O into the signature graphic element of the display. The letterform is round, a circle. There is a great strength to the circle form in that it is a strong, commanding element. The drawback is almost the flip side of this; it is so strong it stands on its own and resists almost any attempt to align or base other elements off it unless one treats it as the center of attention that it is.
The logo, Bierut observed, is an abstraction of the flag into a landscape scene; that of the rising sun, though limited to the patriotic palette. He also observes that the rising sun and the setting sun (the negative to the rising sun’s positive) look the same. We are prone to disagree here, at least on subjective grounds, having seen a great deal of rising and setting suns ourselves. The choice of unadorned blue as the sky color suggest newnessâ€“if the sky had been made red, that would be very much a sunset theme.
The typography, since it’s not boldfaced, has to be amped up to stand aside this powerful graphic elementâ€“and it is, it’s quite large. Bierut’s point about the sophistcation of the font is apt and well-taken; yet another example of how type can carry a message.
Rudolph Giuliani/John Edwards
Political watchers would think that Giuliani and Edwards are about as different as can be; one a former prosecutor and mayor of New York, the other an advocate for the poor who was a Senator. But their designs have one interesting commonality; they both use Ventura, a very strong, blocky sans-serif face. The difference is in the execution.
On Edwards, Bierut says:
Edwards uses Ventura like Giuliani, but does it the Democrat wayâ€”with airiness and asymmetry
And as regards Giuliani, he says:
Rudy’s logo is like a brick wall
In addition to observing that the design speaks of tightness and solidity.
To us they do indeed seem to evoke different moods. The most notable thing to us, is that the Edwards design has a green swoosh stripe leading up to the starâ€“the only design out of the range to use any other color than the red/white/blue palette. Bierut feels it’s a “ham-handed” symbolic environmental gesture. We disagree hereâ€“we actually feel it’s a bit of flair that the other candidates are too afraid to use. Green is something of a fashionable attitude to have, so we feel it’s a canny move.
The message weight the type carries here, regardless of the overall message one perceives about the candidates based on their design, is that they are both very serious about what they believe and how they see themselves. Ventura is a font that takes few prisoners. Mistake its force at your peril.
Mr Bierut’s opinion here is rather complex here, but as regards the font he has this to say:
He’s using an Optima font that many designers dislike because it’s a hybrid for people who can’t decide between a serif or sans serif
This is a sentiment with which we agree (we’d guess we’re one of those many designers). More to the point we’d say that there are appropriate uses for any font, even in such “nailing jelly to the ceiling” applications as this, and this isn’t one of them. Even Edwards’ and Giuliani’s use of Ventura seems sophisticated compared to this.
Of all the treatments, McCain’s is the most drab and grim. By limiting the very restricted palette even further, the design comes off as cold and uninsprring, to say the least.
And, saving the least for the last (in terms of design savvy, anyway), we come to the symbol for the Massachusetts ex-Governor and Republican contender, Mitt Romney. Mr. Bierut has this to say about that:
Mitt is not a first name that you want to stand aloneâ€”it’s an object. The framing boxes are careless and half-baked.
We think that Mr. Romney’s attempt to trade on his first name’s recognition is a bitt odd, to be sure, and perhaps your average American might not be too keen on deciding to elect a bit of children’s clothing to the chief executive’s office.
But that’s a minor sin in comparison with the absolute lack of design the Romney sticker exhibits. If there was one word to describe the feeling one might get from it, we’d say “afterthought”…let’s put two boxes, three colors, and whatever italic we feel looks good, and call it done.
Even those to which keep design to the simplest element at least respect the form that something referencing the flagâ€“if only a single starâ€“gets included. All else being equal, there’s no sure way of telling at this date if the Romney campaign has any gasâ€“but his sticker is certainly out of it.
In the end it may seem like we’re trying to predict the outcome of the election based on a candidate’s identity. If so, it’s actually kind of a fun mental game.
But the thoughts we’ve borrowed from Michael Bierut, and the one’s we’ve had in response and in our own analysis, we think communicate a certain truth: identity and logo might not be all, but they matter, and one must be mindful of the image they project.
Choose well and with sincerity, else The Great American Candidate just might pass into history, leaving everyone scratching their heads wondering just what it was they were trying to say.
(In case you missed the link to the Bierut interview, which has images of each of the stickers, you can find it here)