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.”
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.
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.