Within the age of authenticity, what position does design play in branding presidential campaigns?
Can great creative and professional branding and design win an election? In 2008, many designers said yes – but in 2016, Donald Trump proved that less elaborate design can have the power of its own to unite voters behind a cause when combined with reflexive messaging.
These two campaigns – Barack Obamas in 2008 and Trumps in 2016 – represented large but contradicting shifts in the use and priorities for branding and design of presidential campaigns. Both were defined in many ways by their messages and visuals they were communicated with, and although the priorities and approaches to these visual elements varied widely, they were both recognized for what was perceived by voters as "authenticity".
At a time when branding strategy is about conveying "authenticity," Adweek spoke to design experts about the role that deliberate and professional design (or the lack of it) plays in the success of a candidate's presidential campaign, like this since 2008 and 2008 has changed what that could mean for Trump Pence and Biden Harris tickets in the upcoming election.
When branding changes the world
In the 2008 election, Obama's campaign introduced one of the most powerful and memorable logos in President history. The logo and other campaign elements revolving around the "Hope" and "Yes, We Can" slogans took the country – and the world – by storm and are credited with cementing the campaign's successful messaging.
The primary font Gotham was used in Obama's campaign, which in part increased the visibility of the campaign and its messaging. Design professionals, including the icon of the design world, educator and author Debbie Millman, praised the “outstanding design aesthetics” and the determined focus on change. "He is the only candidate in history who has turned a campaign logo into a nearly universally recognized cult object," Millman told Adweek. "It fundamentally changed the way design was used in political campaigns."
And it wasn't just Obama's official campaigning fortune that gained widespread visibility, recognition and perseverance: Shepard Fairey's iconic poster design with Obama's resemblance and the word "hope" is still an inspiration for political posters today. (Most recently a portrayal of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was published on social media.) "In the context of the first black candidate, these images signaled a radical change and the energy associated with this narrative," said Adam Weiss, founder and creative director at Landscape.
Donald Trump's 2016 campaign gained a loyal following with exactly the opposite of Obama's carefully crafted campaign assets. In the book Trump University Branding 101, Trump writes, "You don't need a graphic design house to develop your logo." Indeed, no design studios claim to have been involved in the most popular Trump-pence graphics featured in Akzidenz Grotesk Bold Extended . Akzidenz Grotesk has been named "Standard" and "Basic Commercial" because of its useful and universal aesthetic. Historically, Trump has ascribed “making the logo bigger” design philosophy, notably by doubling the size of his name (in a lettering designed by architect Der Scutt) on Trump Tower in New York. The designer behind the red Make America Great Again hat also remains a mystery, although they are made by the Californian company Cali-Fame.
These symbols became powerful and unifying symbols for Trump's voter base. Trump's loyal voters are still campaigning for the largely unchanged brand of his campaign.