What is it about a political candidate’s logo that makes people want to get out and vote? Did Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s dynamic branding — incorporating speech bubbles and stars, her name pitched at an angle — particularly speak to voters in Queens and the Bronx last November? Was it President Donald Trump’s heavy sans serif logo, rendered in navy and red, that Americans found so compelling in 2016?
Voters might not necessarily realize it, but graphic design plays an important role in political campaigns, alerting us to how a candidate wishes to be perceived by the public. The growing field of entrants to the 2020 presidential race has already introduced a wide array of visual styles, from Kamala Harris’s striking purple, yellow, and red color scheme and Elizabeth Warren’s upbeat but simple sans serifs to Jay Inslee’s environmentalist iconography. New entrants include Pete Buttigieg’s blocky bridge logo and Joe Biden’s bold use of “President” in his imagery.
“The importance of visual language has never been stronger,” Lukas Bentel, co-founder of the creative studio Hello Velocity, says. “Despite this fact, political coverage and analysis often overlooks the more subtle nuances of imagery that can silently but strongly influence the way we perceive candidates.”
Bentel is a member of the Center for American Politics and Design, a five-person collective that decided to create a digital archive of each candidate’s logo from the 2018 congressional election. It’s such a simple concept — round up every single design and allow visitors to filter by attributes like political party, color palette, typography, gender, and state — but it highlights how a candidate’s branding shapes our impressions of them, in ways alternately subtle and obvious. As obvious as a red “Make America Great Again” hat, for example.
“As far as we are aware there is no existing comprehensive archive like this one, and it has the potential to be both a valuable resource for designers, as well as a historical snapshot,” notes Kevin Wiesner, Bentel’s business partner at Hello Velocity and another member of the CAPD. “As the archive continues over time, we hope to be able to identify trends and evolutions in campaign branding.”
Over the course of the project, members of the CAPD picked up on a number of “micro-narratives,” as Wiesner puts it. While Democrats and Republicans tend to use more blue and red in their logos, respectively, a Democrat running in a Republican-leaning district might opt for a red color scheme, and vice versa. Minnesotan candidates like to use the state’s silhouette in their logos, and Arizonans prefer horizons and landscapes; Wyoming candidates often go with animals.
“Women and people of color tend to be more adventurous when it comes to color usage and font choice, moving past the red and blue and Gotham bold,” says Susan Merriam, a member of the CAPD and a brand strategist and designer at the corporate branding agency Graj and Gustavsen. “Women are much more likely to use a thin font weight, the color purple, or emphasize their first name than men.”
Bentel was shocked by how unpolished many of the candidates’ logos felt, though he says he believes that in some cases that may have been a calculated decision to project a sense of frugality and a focus on the issues. Unsurprisingly, this is less true of 2020’s high-profile candidates, many of whom have come out with slick, professional-grade branding suited to a national audience.
To better understand the 2020 landscape, I asked Wiesner, Bentel, and Merriam what they make of the candidates’ logos thus far, as well as what trends they see emerging in political design more broadly. If you’re wondering whether we can figure out who will win the presidency based on logos alone, the answer is no — not if the 2018 congressional election is any indication.
“There are successful candidates whose logos have been designed by top graphic designers who lose, and candidates whose logo were designed using website templates that win, and vice versa; some are big and bold, some are more minimal,” Merriam explains. “Some of the worst logos I’ve seen have come from incumbents who haven’t refreshed their logo in a decade.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Presidential hopefuls have started announcing their 2020 runs, and with that, we’re getting to know their branding. Give me your analysis of a few of their logos.
Wiesner on Jay Inslee: Oh my god. This company makes … enterprise software? Maybe related to cybersecurity? And their flagship product runs on my TI-83 calculator. Honestly, love it.
Wiesner on Tulsi Gabbard: Okay, look, I’m a big fan of gradients but the problem here is that this logo is distinctly a sunset, not a sunrise. Sunsets go red-orange to deep blue/purple, sunrises go yellow-orange to blue. This skews the symbolism soporific instead of energetic.
Wiesner on Amy Klobuchar: The ‘Amy’ font is nice. Both Gabbard and Klobuchar continue our observed trend of women candidates heavily, or even exclusively, focusing on their first names.
Wiesner on Cory Booker: Booker’s logo goes for something different, which I’ve got to respect. I think it’s pretty compelling when stacked, in an almost brutalist way, and pretty awful when formatted on a single line. I’d love to see his campaign retire the latter formatting.
Merriam on Kirsten Gillibrand: What’s striking here are the color choices, the dark navy and hot pink accents. In my professional life, I’ve worked primarily with and for men in corporate branding, so the role of the color pink has always been contentious to me. So many times I’ve heard while working on a womenswear brand that “the color should be pink or something — it needs to be more feminine,” but as a woman I’ve always felt that assuming that a women’s brand or in this case a candidate should be branded as girly or feminine seems forced and seemingly unaware of the audience.
On the other hand, women have co-opted this color for means of empowerment as well; progressive and women-driven, the Women’s March pussy hats and Planned Parenthood come to mind. This I believe is what Gillibrand is trying to play into — branding herself as the candidate that will stand for women, be the first person to call out a senator for sexual harassment, benefit women in the military, and share her personal narrative of being a mom with two teenage sons.
Merriam on Kamala Harris: Part of contemporary design is recontextualizing design aesthetics of the past for today. This unorthodox political logo inspires deeper conversation among voters through the references to Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 campaign. Some of us were not alive in 1972 nor did our US history books cover Chisholm’s campaign; a new generation of Democratic voters are now being introduced to the narrative of a powerful black woman in politics and connecting that story to Kamala Harris as a candidate continuing that tradition.
Merriam on Pete Buttigieg: First of all, the logo is a drastic improvement from his initial exploratory logo. A polished, contemporary design with roots in visuals of South Bend, the logo matches the narrative the candidate is telling as a young candidate and his experience as mayor in Indiana. The typography and lockup arrangement of his first name “Pete” and “2020” emanates sports and industrial lettering along with the colors reminiscent of the Indiana state flag and University of Notre Dame. The bridge iconography as a literal reference to the Jefferson Boulevard Bridge of South Bend and a symbolic reference to bridging “the divides tearing this country apart” is a smart and subtle choice.
With so many references to South Bend, he runs the risk that the branding seems more like a state campaign than a national campaign or a hip baseball league from Brooklyn. However, unlike presidential candidate John Hickenlooper, no iconography is explicit to a particular part of the country — bridges are everywhere and sports in the US are beloved.
Merriam on Joe Biden: Former Vice President Joe Biden’s logo is fairly straightforward and not particularly inventive; using traditional red and blue colors with a bold sans serif all caps typeface is by far the most common choice in recent political elections on the national level.
In the rectangular lockup used on his website, his campaign boldly uses the word “President” to pair with his last name as opposed to “2020” or “For America.” As a previous vice president with huge name recognition, he possibly has more license than most in the field to include this in his formal logo. This choice by a lesser-known candidate might come across as cocky and send the wrong message. This logo is simple and clear enough, with the stripes being used on the “E” to bring in some patriotic elements.
This version is more successful than the logo being used on Biden’s Twitter or Instagram which uses his first name rather than last name. In this case, the “E” without being encapsulated by the “N” in “BIDEN” feels like Joe Biden has become “Jo Biden” as the “E” visually falls away. For a candidate with a national presence and larger fundraising capabilities, it’s surprising to not see a more thoughtful approach to the campaign’s branding and design system, as it’s the first thing many voters will see across the country.
Wiesner on Bernie Sanders: This logo has such immediate recognition at this point — though I imagine that’s regionally dependent. It’s a strong logo, and I’ve seen it enough that it feels classic.
Bentel on Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Harris, Gillibrand, and Klobuchar: All these logos are bold but minimal. Everyone, except for Harris, uses a single first or last name as the main part of the logo. The colors, except for Booker, are all not the traditional USA red, white, and blue. They are all very bright, poppy colors that stand out. This helps these logos stray from any apparent party affiliation. The fonts, except for Klobuchar, are all sans serif.
I think the simplicity and boldness of these logos point to candidates looking to push a “fresh start” and a “cut the crap” mentality that is pervading the Democratic field. They all feel current, which makes me forget any baggage that I may have associated with them in the past. For me, they are on the border of corporate and friendly and sort of slot in with a number of direct-to-consumer products, which is where I see them pulling a lot of their graphic trends.
Wiesner on Donald Trump: Who cares what his logo is — the fucking hats are the strongest brand play out of any of these candidates by far. Alas.
In the 2018 congressional election, how clearly did candidates’ logos break down along party lines? Is there a difference in the visual design of Democrat and Republican candidates?
Wiesner: Some things you’d expect: Republicans use more red, Democrats use more blue (and have more varied color overall). Font is not a great predictor, somewhat surprisingly.
Merriam: Republicans, and in particular Republican men, are more likely to emphasize their last name than Democrat candidates.
Bentel: It wasn’t so extreme a split as you may have imagined. Interestingly, Democrats and Republicans in districts that leaned toward the opposite party would often use more of the color associated with the opposite party.
What are the emerging trends in political campaign design, or styles that are going out of vogue?
Wiesner: We’re definitely due for a burst of diagonal text, due to AOC’s influence — at least in the North East. I’m hoping that color variety continues to increase, because it’s well past time.
Bentel: I believe that there is a general trend away from distinct graphics that could tie candidates toward either a party or specific point of view. Many of the logos I would consider most successful are focused on building a brand that promotes that candidate’s individuality. Take for example the logos of AOC and Beto O’Rourke — both are distinct in terms of color and tone. They don’t in any way hint at party affiliation with either the color blue or other symbology.
Merriam: Obama’s 2008 campaign and branding left a significant mark, and it’s clear in congressional races that we are still feeling the aftermath of Gotham and the Obama “O.” The branding conversation around the success of candidates Beto O’Rourke and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is changing that; particularly Democratic candidates post-2016 are seeing advantages in differentiating themselves from the pack, whether it’s through color, typeface, slogan, or symbol.
This isn’t so dissimilar from the past 10 years in corporate design, which went through many famous corporate identities dropping their serifs to be cleaner and simpler — more Brandless and Everlane. Now we are starting to see the reverse. Consumers and voters have seen a lot of the same and want something different. If the Democratic 2020 presidential primary is any example, the more competition there is, the more likely candidates will try and differentiate themselves through design and stand out from one another. We’ve seen logos across serif, sans-serif, slab, condensed with red, white, blue, yellow, orange, liberty green, purple, pink, and two gradients.
A decade from now, it might be that a majority of logos look nothing like one another, but political design is slow to change, so we’ll have to see.
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