What does the design of a political logo say about the candidate?

Hosted by

Logos of American political candidates. Photo credit: politicsanddesign.com

The Democratic field of presidential contenders is filling up. You can tell a lot about their messages from their political campaign logos -- color, font, punctuation. That’s the view of Susan Merriam, founder of the New York-based Center for American Politics and Design.

The nonpartisan group’s website started off creating an archive of all the logos for the congressional races in 2018. They’ve been expanding since then. They hope to be a resource for those working in politics -- to understand how design communicates with the American public.

“We don't personally, at Center for American Politics and Design, believe that a logo wins someone a campaign or loses someone a campaign… But I think in terms of branding a candidate…  it can both be a potential help or a hindrance if you don't do a decent job, or do something that's distracting to your campaign,” Merriam tells DnA.

DnA also talks to Tony Casas, designer of the logo for Beto O’Rourke’s Senate and presidential campaigns. Turns out O’Rourke has a keen interest in graphics. Casas’ design company Stanton Street, in El Paso, was founded by O’Rourke and later run by his wife Amy.

O’Rourke was deeply engaged with the black/white design, recalls Casas.

“He wanted something different, something that nobody had ever seen before. He said, ‘I don't want any flames, no eagles, no American flags. I want something clean, something simple, minimalistic that says my name's Beto and I'm running for Senate.’ And that's where we kind of jumped off from.”

The logo, Casas says, was inspired by Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign graphics, and from the punk iconography of the Ramones.

Let’s look at some specific campaign logos:

2018_HOUSE_NY-19_R_FASO.jpg
John Faso (R). New York-19th district, House (2018)

Merriam sees Faso’s logo as an example of the bland and nondescript style.

“Using red, white, and blue is a typical color scheme, obviously. There's a little bit of a shape, but not really something in particular. They use a very nondescript font as well. It doesn’t hurt his campaign necessarily, but doesn’t also enhance it,” says Merriam.

2018_HOUSE_IL-09_D_SCHAKOWSKY.jpg
Jan Schakowsky (D). Illinois-9th district, House (2018)

Schakowsky’s logo is an example of smart decisions, according to Merriam.

“The word Jan is much larger in comparison to Schakowsky. That's where I thought particularly it was a very smart design decision, purely because when someone goes to the election to vote, you’ll be much more likely to remember the name Jan than you would Schakowsky.

...The serifs are much smaller, and are tiny little points that add to the character of the type and the fort itself to describe her. I also think the color is nice because it's both blue and green, and it's still symbolizing the Democratic party. But also doesn't look so typical that seems like every other candidate out there.”

2018_HOUSE_CA-06_D_MATSUI.jpg
Doris Matsui (D). California-6th district, House (2018)

“It's probably using her actual signature, as opposed to someone who worked on a really beautiful script to match it. I think the touch of a script is a nice idea… If I were the designer having worked on this project, I probably would have made sure that her letters were individually much clearer because O-R-I relationship tends to blend together. It could say Don’s or Dom’s, which I don't think is what Doris was intending.”

Merriam says some of the strongest logos tend to accentuate a candidate’s individuality, while not being too distracting, and not taking away from their personality either.

Presidential primary races:

2020_PRES_DPRIMARY_D_WARREN.jpg
2020_PRES_DPRIMARY_D_GILLIBRAND.jpg 2016_PRES_RPRIMARY_R_FIORINA.jpg
Elizabeth Warren (D), Kamala Harris (D), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D) in 2020, and Carly Fiorina (R) in 2016

All these women have a condensed font -- all the letters are tall and close together. Is that trying to suggest something masculine, like height, or something women find themselves at a disadvantage for?

Merriam cited a designer from Chermayeff & Geismar (the New York-based graphic design and branding firm) who guessed that Carly Fiorina tried going for a more feminine look by using a thin san serif typeface.

“Maybe that's what a lot of women candidates that make these choices are trying to do as well. So maybe a condensed font by the Warren/Gillibrand/Harris campaigns are getting a little bit of that.”

Merriam suggests the colors are noteworthy too.

Gillibrand, with her hot pink, seems to present herself as the women’s candidate, evoking pussyhats from the women’s marches. “Gillibrand has consistent messaging since she launched, talking about being for women's issues. She's previously spoken about being in the Senate for fighting for women's rights in the military. She talks about being a mom of young sons, and being a supporter of women and women's rights in the sexual harassment fighting in the Senate,” says Merriam.  

Harris uses mustard yellow, which represents openness and cross-party affiliation. She seems to present herself as a unifier while playing to her African-American heritage and presumed constituency.

Merriam says the Kamala Harris campaign was referencing the 1972 campaign by Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman to run for president. Harris also announced her candidacy on Martin Luther King Day.

Warren uses “liberty green,” and focuses on just her last name. “A lot of our research shows that women are more likely to focus on their first name in a logo than a man would. So Warren goes in the opposite of that. That being said, I think it's possible that she was trying to also get away [from] maybe things related to Hillary Clinton in 2016… I think people have a tendency to compare them. And so it might help her,” says Merriam.

2020_PRES_DPRIMARY_D_SANDERS.jpg
Bernie Sanders (D). Presidential primary race (2020)

Sanders is using the same logo for his 2020 run as he did for 2016.

“His campaign was pretty successful in 2016, even though he didn't win. I think people gave a lot of positive response to this logo. I think he still was doing fundraising on his online presence with this logo since 2016 as well. And he just ran with it for the Senate in 2018 as well,” says Merriam.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D). New York-14th district, House

“I went to a talk actually by the designers who did it… and they were talking about how they were sort of struggling to deal with her long name… They had to figure out a way that they could take the whole name together in a cohesive way. It's stacked. It's italicized, which is nice in terms of insinuating moving forward or on-the-go,” says Merriam.

She also points out that her coloring is different from the red and blue you often see for campaigns. Instead, she uses yellow and purple across different posters.

The logo also has exclamation points around her last name -- with one of them turned upside down, Spanish style. “Her district is extremely diverse, has a lot of Spanish speakers. She represented maybe more of those qualities than the incumbent did at the time,” says Merriam.

2016_PRES_PRIMARY_R_RUBIO.jpg
Marco Rubio (R). Presidential primary race (2016)

“Putting the entirety of the United States on the tip of an ‘i’ doesn't make a lot of sense, purely because of things like scales. So when you make it really small, the U.S. is extremely tiny, which it is in most cases. Which is sort of a funny message to send,” says Merriam.

She thinks using all lower case letters for Rubio’s name was an interesting choice -- not necessarily a bad one -- because he was trying to be a young, fresh face of the Republican party.

Merriam suggests Rubio should have gotten multiple people’s opinions on his logo before making it public.

“I think someone probably would have pointed out -- to the people that worked on that logo -- ‘that looks a little strange, that looks a little funny, why did you make that choice?’ ”

2016_PRES_GENERAL_R_TRUMP_V1.jpg
Donald Trump/Mike Pence (R). Presidential primary race (2016)

Merriam says some people considered the T and P being interconnected was inappropriate.

“If someone had maybe had a focus group, or even just tested it on their friends and family to get 20 responses back, I'm sure someone would have said, ‘might not want to go with this, might get sort of harangued on Twitter,’” she says.

“I think some people also were able to manipulate it in a way where the ‘T’ was penetrating the ‘P.’ It’s a lot. That was probably not great.”

2016_PRES_PRIMARY_R_BUSH.jpg
Jeb Bush (R). Presidential primary race 2016

“The problem here was that it just reinforced the stereotypes that you would have about Jeb Bush as a candidate trying to avoid using his family's last name of Bush. That didn't help that then candidate Donald Trump referred to him as low energy -- required an exclamation point to have energy. So then the logo didn’t help in that regard.”

--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Avishay Artsy

Credits

Guests:
Susan Merriam - Co-Founder of The Center for American Politics; and Design Brand Strategist + Designer at Graj + Gustavsen, Tony Casas - Stanton Street

Host:
Frances Anderton

Producers:
Frances Anderton, Avishay Artsy