What Role Does Design Play in Presidential Campaign Branding?

Two successful campaigns that redefined candidates' aesthetics

Joe Biden and Donald Trump posterized images
Experts debate whether presidential candidates can truly be authentic and to what extent design conveys that authenticity. Trent Joaquin/Getty Images
Headshot of Jess Zafarris

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 polished design can have a power of its own to unite voters behind a cause when it is unified with reflexive messaging.

These two campaigns—Barack Obama’s in 2008 and Trump’s in 2016—represented major, yet contradictory shifts in the use and priorities for presidential campaign branding and design. Both in many ways were defined by their messaging and the visuals with which it was communicated, and although the priorities and approaches with regard to these visuals differed greatly, they were both recognized for what was perceived by voters as “authenticity.” 

Now, in a time when brand strategy is all about conveying “authenticity,” Adweek spoke with design experts about the role intentional and professional design (or lack thereof) plays in the success of a candidate’s presidential campaign, how that has changed since 2008 and what that could mean for the Trump-Pence and Biden-Harris tickets in the impending election. 

When branding changes the world

In the 2008 election, Obama’s campaign introduced one of the most powerful and memorable logos in presidential history. The logo and other campaign assets centered around the slogans “hope” and “yes we can” took the country—and the world—by storm and were credited with solidifying the successful messaging of the campaign. 

Obama’s campaign utilized the primary typeface Gotham, which was credited in part with boosting the visibility of the campaign and its messaging. Design professionals, including design world icon, educator and author Debbie Millman lauded the “outstanding design aesthetic” and single-minded focus on change. “He is the only candidate in history to create a nearly universally recognized iconic asset out of a campaign logo,” Millman told Adweek. “It fundamentally changed the way in which design was used in political campaigns.” 

Obama's campaign assets and the artwork created around it in both 2008 and 2012 were groundbreaking for their clean, forward-thinking design.
Obama’s campaign assets and the artwork created around it in both 2008 and 2012 were groundbreaking for their clean, forward-thinking design

And it wasn’t just Obama’s official campaign assets that received widespread visibility, acclaim and staying power: Shepard Fairey’s iconic poster design featuring Obama’s likeness and the word “Hope” is still an inspiration for political posters today. (Most recently, a rendition featuring the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has appeared on social media.) “In the context of the first Black candidate, this imagery leaned into signaling a radical change, and the energy associated with that narrative,” said Adam Weiss, founder and creative director at Landscape.

Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign captured a devoted following with precisely the opposite of Obama’s carefully crafted campaign assets. In the book Trump University Branding 101, Trump writes, “You do not need a graphic design house to develop your logo.” And indeed, no design studios claim to have been involved with the most common Trump-Pence graphics, which are set in Akzidenz Grotesk Bold Extended. Akzidenz Grotesk has been called “standard” and “basic commercial” for its utilitarian and general-purpose aesthetic. Historically, Trump has ascribed to the “make the logo bigger” philosophy of design, notably doubling the size of his name (in lettering designed by architect Der Scutt) on Trump Tower in New York. The designer behind the red Make America Great Again hat remains a mystery as well, though they are produced by the California company Cali-Fame. 

Trump’s campaign assets were not created by a prestigious design house and have a clear hierarchy in comparison to Biden’s assets.

These symbols became powerful and connective ones for Trump’s voter base. Today, Trump’s loyal voters continue to rally behind his campaign’s largely unchanged brand.

Kelli Miller, co-founder and creative director at And/Or, calls the design one of the strongest pieces of political branding in history for its recognizability and popularity. “The point is people care enough to make something to express their commitment—which is powerful,” she said.

In fact, its rough-around-the-edges design gave Trump’s voters something to rally around—flying in the face of the “establishment” that both the candidate and voters sought to differentiate themselves from. “With the MAGA hat, Trump provided a voice and a platform that created the classic brand tribe,” Millman said. “The brand—and the person—is unrelentingly crass, as is his behavior. But that is why his followers like it.”

Daniel Edmundson, strategy director at design and branding studio Gretel, agrees that Trump’s 2016 victory had less to do with brand consistency than the consistency of the message, which initially drew on the power of nostalgia for the Reagan era and has now become a symbol of the ideology of his voter base. It’s also why the campaign is leveraging precisely the same assets in 2020. “The fact that it’s gone unchanged from the last election signals a steadiness in his values,” Edmundson said.

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment from Adweek.

But are they authentic?

These campaigns clearly and aspirationally communicated the campaigns’ values and gave people a symbol to rally around, but they were carefully manufactured to do so. 

Robyn Kanner, senior creative advisor for the Biden campaign, said the design system for the Biden-Harris ticket is defined by its authenticity because it reflects Biden’s values and platform. “Our design system was created to be a vessel for our campaign’s message: to win the battle for the soul of the nation, rebuild the middle class and unify the country,” she said. “These pillars have grounded Joe Biden’s campaign since its inception, and our visual identity has always remained true to them in everything we do.”

But Millman calls touting authenticity in politics an oxymoron. “Brand authenticity is achieved when a company relentlessly shows a callous disregard for convention, an extreme passion for the quality of its products, a refreshing honesty in the way it markets itself and a genuine commitment to a cause that is bigger than the brand,” she said. “You can’t market authenticity; the moment you do that you’re being opportunistic and phony.”

Other experts are more generous about the idea of political brand authenticity. Edmundson said it’s the actions and emotions that qualify authenticity. “Branding alone won’t sway an election,” he said. “It’s everything behind the brand that helps to give it meaning.”

Implications for the 2020 election

Biden’s campaign initially leveraged fairly standard typographic branding using the typeface Brother 1816. When Biden united with running mate Sen. Kamala Harris, the new lockup looked similar but shifted to use Decimal.

The Biden-Harris logo prioritizes an equal partnership.

What does the Biden-Harris branding mean? Kanner says there’s “no malarkey” in it, and it’s all about strength and teamwork. “The visual alignment of Biden and Harris in the logo helps convey the powerful impact of a strong partnership and unified America,” Kanner said in a statement to Adweek, adding that the choice of the Decimal typeface and the sizing, color and placement of the names serve “to ultimately strengthen its presence what our campaign offers Americans: a historical presidential ticket that is ready to unify the country and win the battle for the soul of the nation.”

Edmundson noted that equality is important to convey for a party that aims to unite people of wildly disparate beliefs, political affiliations, backgrounds, races and economic situations. He pointed out that it also contrasts with the Trump-Pence assets in which Trump’s name is far larger and clearly establishes the hierarchy of the president as the leader of the ticket over Vice President Mike Pence’s name. “Biden-Harris, as a mark, is steeped in sturdiness and alignment—all reactions to the perceptions of the current administration,” Edmundson said, “which is all it really needs.”

However, it has also struck some as ungroundbreaking. “I mean it’s fine; it’s nothing,” Miller said. “It has no resonance. It feels like a political campaign brand. And it is. And Biden is safe.” 

The power of emotion

Effectiveness and authenticity may not just be about what the brand is, but what it means to voters and what they do with it. Miller believes it’s also about the memes and responses that come out of a campaign and how they catch on: “I think the true brand comes through in the messaging and the swag, the stuff people make on their own, the memes, etc.”

Millman believes the Biden-Harris campaign assets are strong and lauds the designers who created them, but ideally wishes for a symbol as powerful as the pink “pussy hats” created for the 2017 Women’s March—a symbol that’s dynamic in its simplicity and universally identifiable, much like the MAGA hat. “The pink pussy hat was a brand, but it was more than that,” Millman said. “It was a rallying cry, a demand and telegraphic symbol of equality. That’s what we need more of.”

Much like memes that crop up around political campaigns, Fairey’s Obama poster and the pink pussy hats are not unlike the MAGA hat in their persistence, audience appeal and symbolic power. Weiss called these examples of “authentic expression … something to be displayed, signaling an attitude and the opportunity to be aligned with the bigger, simple story.” 

In short, these brand symbols that have the power to become memes and to be replicated across communities by those communities are those that take the manufactured authenticity of a candidate’s brand expression and extend it into a truly authentic movement that unites people around ideas.

Generating symbolism can lend authenticity—or at least the perception of authenticity—to a candidate’s brand. Whether it was the potential for the first Black president or the non-establishment political outsider president, “the candidates in recent elections have been very clear embodiments of their own brands,” Weiss said. 

@JessZafarris jessica.zafarris@adweek.com Jess Zafarris is an audience engagement editor at Adweek.