The design of politics

Presidential candidates have not always campaigned for the nation’s highest office. From the nation’s first presidential campaign until the election of 1840, presidential candidates did not actually campaign for themselves. In 1840, William Henry Harrison became the first presidential candidate to actively campaign for himself with his famous “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” slogan. In 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower became the first presidential candidate to appear on a television spot as a part of his campaign for the presidency. But for over 200 years, presidential campaigns and design have been knitted together because through design a candidate is able to communicate a message to the public and tell the voters something about themselves. Design may not make or break elections, but it’s influence can be measured. Design has influenced countless political campaigns throughout our nation’s history, but that influence has grown exponentially over the last decade with the rise of technology and social media.

The growing influence of graphic design in campaigns can be seen most notably in the last two presidential campaigns of current president, Barack Obama. His team was able to craft a message through the graphics that was fairly unique for the norm of presidential political campaign design. In many ways, the design team deviated from the norm by utilizing brighter colors combined with san serif fonts to give the campaign a more youthful and hopeful feel as opposed to the dark more traditional designs of previous campaigns.

The Obama campaign design helped the candidate to reach a wide range of voters but it especially helped to galvanize a younger set of voters. Entire works, such as Designing Obama, have been written on the new direction that the Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012 took political graphic design. They employed, the now infamous typeface, Gotham from Hoefler & Co. as well as utilizing the iconic posters with a stylized stencil portrait of Obama in solid red, blue (light and dark), and beige which came to represent his 2008 campaign.
Since this shift in political graphic design in 2008 and 2012, it is no wonder that graphic design has seen so much prominence in the 2016 presidential race. Each team has sought to capture the voice and message of their candidate, as well as design a distinct mark/logo that would stand out in a crowded campaign season where nearly 20 major candidates have run.

Let’s look at the top 5 major presidential campaigns that are still active in 2016, two from the Democratic side and three from the Republican side:

Hillary Clinton //


The Clinton 2008 and 2016 campaigns are remarkably different. This shift in design is directly related to the campaign influence of the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns of Barack Obama. The Clinton campaign sought to have a more iconic logo (the blue H with a red arrow signifying moving forward, below) and a cleaner layout than they did in 2008. This shift seems to be a move to rally younger voters, but also to show that she is the candidate of the people and can represent all Americans.

Clinton’s campaign seeks to engage voters through a host of social media outlets and also through a clean, san serif based website with bold, bright colors. This is a marked shift from her 2008 campaign, where her team employed a more traditional look with darker blues, reds, and serif fonts. They also used the traditional American flag, similar to most modern presidential campaigns. This shift from 2008 to 2016 can be seen as a deliberate effort to rebrand a candidate that failed to receive the nomination of her party in 2008 and a candidate that seeks to pick up the momentum from the Obama campaign and its focus on younger voters.

Bernie Sanders //


The Sanders campaign primarily seeks to be a grassroots campaign, which is tied to Bernie Sanders outsider mentality as he currently sits as an independent Senator from the state of Vermont. Many in the political arena did not believe that the Sander’s campaign had any chance at the Democratic nomination when the 2016 campaigns kicked off because most thought that the Clinton campaign was the inevitable shoe-in for 2016. But through the grassroots and outsider efforts of the Sander’s campaign, the Democratic nomination is highly contested and will more than likely only be decided at the Democratic National Convention since many of the early primaries have been virtual ties.

The Bernie 2016 campaign focuses primarily on the idea of a political movement, reminiscent of the 2008 Obama campaign for “Hope and Change.” The campaign utilizes a mix of serif and san serif fonts, along with the bright colors of most current presidential campaigns. This again is a marked shift from campaigns pre-2008 which utilized primarily darker more traditional colors. The campaign doesn’t seemed focused on having a icon, like Clinton or the previous Obama campaigns. This indicates to me not only a difference of substance between the campaigns but also a desire to be seen as different from the current Democratic reigning class. The current homepage banner of the campaign site is a montage of a diverse group of people, which hints at the grassroots efforts that the campaign seeks to cultivate. They desire the campaign to be of the people and for the people through which they can usher in a political revolution away from the current order.

Donald Trump //


Donald Trump’s campaign is the lone exception to the 2008 shift in political campaign design. Despite most candidates modernizing their branding with brighter colors and more hopeful, youthful messaging, Trump 2016 focuses the message solely around the Trump brand that is known internationally through the hotel chain, golf courses, and real estate. In many ways, the campaign is just an extension of the current Trump brand and uses many of the same design techniques used for the last twenty or more years of presidential campaigns. The now iconic “TRUMP” lettering in a outline box with stars is the main design fixture. A similar fixture is used throughout the Trump organization, especially in the Trump hotel chains.

It is interesting that the campaign was launched in 2015 and right before the Trump Hotel Washington, D.C., project was started. The hotel will occupy the Old Post Office in D.C. and the building has the iconic “TRUMP” lettering on a sign hung on the front facade of building that is very similar to the campaign design. It almost seems as though the D.C. hotel was planned to show that Trump was coming to D.C., not just through the hotel but possibly as the next President of the United States.

Trump 2016 seeks to rally the so-called “silent majority,” which is thought to be ultra-conservative and also an older demographic that longs for the days of the past when America was great. This nostalgic look and messaging can be seen in the website design, marketing, and even the nearly half a million dollars spent on the now iconic “Make America Great Again” trucker style hats.

The campaign design utilizes the traditional red, white, and dark navy blue which was the main stay of campaign design pre-2008. It includes a few stars, reminiscent of the American flag, and has includes the clever tag line “Make America Great Again.” The tagline itself is a throwback to the 1980 Reagan presidential campaign, a candidate that most of the Republican field seeks to embody. The Trump campaign uses a serif font and incorporates some older design elements which is tied to the nostalgic feel the campaign seeks to embody. This all seems to be in an effort to rally voters to the candidate because he believes that he is able to bring America back to it’s former greatness. Many in the media have noted that the Trump campaign has sought to also deviate from even the traditional modes of campaigning by not utilizing voter data very often and even deciding to skip a live TV debate in a rebellious effort to be tough in the voter’s eyes. Overall, Trump 2016 tends to be a more nostalgic type of campaign that seeks to rally voters to thoughts of the past and seek to usher back in the former greatness of America.

Ted Cruz //


The Ted Cruz 2016 campaign is a mix of a few different styles which seems to be the main thrust of the campaign message. The campaign uses some of the more traditional elements of campaign design with serif fonts, darker patriotic colors, and a mark/logo that includes some American flag like elements. But this campaign is a little different from traditional pre-2008 campaigns because it also uses some clean modern designs with a sans serif typeface over some brighter patriotic colors.

Cruz 2016 seeks to reach the “Courageous Conservatives” that desire to retake Washington D.C., from the bureaucrats, lobbyists, and special interests in both political parties. It seeks to gain momentum off of the tea-party movement that declares that the Democratic party and many in the Republican Party have sold out to lobbyists and has lost sight of traditional conservative values. The Cruz campaign targets their marketing and promotion to this brand of conservatism and tends to look like a mixed bag of design in order to reach the varying age and social demographic of the main constituency. The campaign started with the tear drop or water drop campaign logo with a simple but clean “Ted Cruz 2016” serif font, but has recently utilized “TrusTed” in a serif font with younger and cleaner look. When the shift took place, it seemed that the campaign abandoned the traditional logo and typeface, but now it is trying to balance the two designs as the campaign moves forward by placing them together in campaign ads and other marketing pieces.

Recently, the campaign fired a campaign spokesperson and many believe that the campaign might make another shift in its messaging as the campaign has become one of the top three on the Republican side of the election. This campaign has seen many changes but these seem to be due to the fact that the campaign got traction leading into the caucus and primary season and now realizes that it must branch out in terms of design to reach a larger segment of the conservative population.

Marco Rubio //

From a design perspective, the Marco Rubio 2016 campaign is one of the better examples of a post-2008 presidential political campaign. The campaign is focused on younger voters and that can be seen through web design, promotional products, and the use of social media. The campaign deviates from traditional political design by not including American flag elements into the design very much. It uses a lowercase version san serif typeface for Rubio’s name with an outline of the contiguous United States as the dot on the “i.” This typeface based campaign mark/logo came from his successful Florida Senate campaign from 2010, where the campaign used his first name in the same lowercase typeface as the current campaign. The current campaign utilizes the tagline “A New American Century,” which some have compared to the Hope campaign that Obama ran successfully in 2008 and 2012. The sense of moving forward to a brighter tomorrow seems to run between the campaigns.

Rubio 2016 combines a more contemporary design and also a heavy use of social media including Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram. The campaign also has branded many items in their store with clever taglines and phrases, all which seem to help the voters connect with the candidate. From “Water Great Nation” water bottles to “Let Freedom Ring” phone cases, the Rubio campaign wants to connect conservative principles to younger voters by engaging them through a more youthful and hopeful design.

Overall, four of the five major presidential campaigns have elements that harken back to the successful campaigns of Obama 2008 and 2012, with the lone exception being Trump 2016. While the principles and messages are incredibly different than Obama in 2008, the design and marketing of all campaigns have connections to the culture shifting design that the Obama team implemented in previous elections. Graphic design might not win a candidate an election but it plays a vital role of communicating the campaign message and how the campaign connects with voters. Time will tell which campaigns will succeed at attaining the nation’s highest office and communicating the winning message to the American people.

Image credit: Alissa Walker