The State of the Modern Political Logo
When Hillary Clinton unveiled her campaign logo—a blocky blue “H” with a bold, red, arrow-shaped crossbar—this past April, the internet erupted with criticism. A lot of people seemed to take issue with the arrow. WikiLeaks accused Clinton of stealing the motif from its Twitter logo. Another faction claimed she had cribbed it from FedEx. There were even serious accusations—reminiscent of old Iron Curtain ideological doubletalk—that the red, right-facing arrow was a subliminal nod to Clinton’s clandestine conservative leanings.
Clinton’s arrowed-H wasn’t the only political brand to come under attack this year. Democrats and Republicans alike lambasted John Ellis Bush (aka JEB) for his logo. The presumptive Republican nominee had used the simple red “Jeb!” motif before, during his 1994 gubernatorial campaign in Florida; but he was accused this year of resorting to mononymy to distance himself from his brother, W. The typography purists piled on, too, arguing that Jeb(!)’s media experts had selected the wrong mix of fonts. “The [typeface for] 2016 just has no visual relationship to the Jeb!-serif,” said Howard Belk, co-CEO and Chief Creative Officer of Siegel+Gale. Type designer Chester Jenkins observed that the line-up between the “J” and the “!” was not quite right, and “[confused] the eye.”
And, of course, there was the embarrassing revelation about Scott Walker’s logo, which saw the “E” in his name replaced by a stylized American flag: The flag icon was identical to the logo for a business called America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses. The gaffe didn’t end his campaign (not directly, at least)—but designers everywhere were reminded to verify their creations with the trademark registry.
But much of the criticism that roiled up when these logos first came on the scene has petered out. In fact, over time, a lot of what seemed inadmissible has become acceptable. Likable, even. Bush’s “Jeb!” is still used along with more traditional flag-waving logos, and has neither helped nor hindered his candidacy so far; and Clinton’s “H” has proven to be not only resilient but versatile, having been iterated into a variety of clever thematic variations.
That being said, campaign logos—even the clever ones—have yet to play a major role in this presidential race. “People seem galvanized, but not by the logos,” says Sol Sender, who designed the paradigm-shifting Obama “O” in 2008. With the right candidate, “a logo can become the foundation of a design system that powerfully activates a diverse constituency,” Sender says. But building that foundation takes time.
We witnessed that power with Obama’s logo says Michael Bierut, who designed the Hillary “H” on a volunteer basis—though he notes that a logo should never stand on its own. A logo, he says, is just one component in a multipartite graphic system, “particularly the emphasis on a single typeface, used in a relentlessly consistent way.” With the Obama “O,” Sender raised the bar of campaign branding to new heights. “Few design-driven corporations have done it better,” says Bierut. Two election cycles later, he “most of the candidates have gotten the message about the logo—but not many seem to have conceived of the mark as belonging to a larger, consistent system.”
He’s right. Today’s campaign designers and identity consultants have access to more stylish fonts and graphic devices than ever before—and yet, the visual identities for many 2016 candidates are bland and formulaic. The tiny, emblematic silhouette of the United States that dots the “i” in Marco Rubio’s surname is awkward and uninspired. Carly Fiorina’s CARLY, which has a tiny star incorporated into the A, tries hard to be modern, but the star is an overused trope regardless of who uses it, whether it’s Fiorina, Bernie Sanders, or former candidate Jim Webb (the last two both dot their “i”s with stars). Ben Carson’s logo, CARSON AMERICA, with the capital A shown as though wrapped in an American flag, is a mishmash of color, word, and symbol. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul’s logos, which both feature stars and stripes in the shape of liberty torch flames, are just generic. And John Kasich’s K-merican flag icon feels a tad authoritarian. Martin O’Malley is one of the only candidates with a fresh logo. The “O’M” in the middle of a boxy speech balloon is more memorable than the other candidates’ logos; and, like Clinton’s, it eschews patriotic iconography in favor of simple, blue-red color scheme.
But the most surprising logo of all belongs to Donald Trump. At first glance, the simple TRUMP trademark looks almost modest, at least in the shadow of Trump’s egotism. On the other hand, the jingoistic phrase “Make America Great Again!” manages to pack more mnemonic wallop than any of the logos with U.S. flags or stars. George Lois—who created ads for Robert Kennedy and Bill Bradley, among others—says a politician’s brand should “deliver… a penetrating promise of power that immediately sears his or her virtues into a voter’s brain. That can only be attained with a logo that interacts with a strong slogan.”
In this regard, Trump’s logo seems to trump his opponents’. For its visual power alone, Sender believes “Hillary’s H is at the top”—but when it comes to rhetoric, strength of positioning, and activation among supporters? “The edge goes to Donald Trump,” he says. “[Trump’s] personal brand strength is something that predates his entry into politics and now he has taken it to new, disturbing heights, which seems to have given him more momentum than any other candidates—for now.” The race, after all, is long.
What’s more, the criteria for a successful logo has changed, thanks to the growing impact of social media. “There is still the official logo and brand,” says Aaron Perry-Zucker, editor of the 2009 book Design For Obama, “but it exists alongside this whole world of social media and grassroots campaigning, where your message and logo are remixed ad nauseam by your supporters (and opponents).” A candidates logo, Perry-Zucker says, remains the visual symbol that ties everything together, “but almost more important is how that symbol—and the ideas it represents—are embraced and interpreted by your community.”
Of course, a mnemonic visual brand alone cannot win a candidate his or her party’s nomination. A logo is important to help unify a broader communications strategy on old and new platforms “[b]ut it’s only one tool, and it’s no more than a means to an end,” says Beirut. “People don’t vote for logos,” he adds. “They vote for candidates.”