Ever since the 2008 election, the design community has been delirious that the Obama campaign used Gotham by Hoefler & Frere-Jones. It has become received wisdom that this was the most adventurous font decision ever made by a political campaign and further proof that Obama deserved to win. McCain’s choice of Optima, on the other hand, has been mocked as somehow typical of a conservative candidate. But this narrative, recently reinforced by an article by Kate Murphy in The New York Times two weeks ago, is flawed. The article, “The Candidate Is Not My Type,” states that “Gotham—an elegant 21st-century font—was praised by graphic designers for its modernity and implicit message of change.”
The Obama campaign graphics were notable more for the sophisticated “O” logo—is it the sun rising? a new day for America? the light at the end of the tunnel?—and its sharp interactive design rather than its use of Gotham, which was not the only font used in conjunction with the logo. (It’s still pretty easy to find official Obama bumper stickers and other election paraphernalia employing Perpetua. I was unable to identify another serif font, distinguished by a B with open counters, that was employed by the campaign; after several hours scrolling through seriffed fonts on the MyFonts website, I gave up trying to figure out what it was. It’s similar to Eplika or Alizeé but is neither. It may be customized—now that would be big news in the world of campaign graphics!)
How radical was the Obama campaign’s use of Gotham? The Times article calls it a 21st-century font in contrast to Optima which “was developed in the 1950s.” Yet, Optima (issued in 1958) is the more radical typeface. It is a stressed sans serif with humanist proportions that were so unusual when it first appeared that type critics argued over what to call it. Some said it couldn’t be a sans serif since all such faces since their appearance in the early 19th century were marked by strokes of even thickness, and they subsequently dubbed it a serifless roman. We now accept Optima as a sans serif, but that is only because its popularity in the 1960s and 1970s led a new generation of designers to create faces inspired by it. As a result, we now have a category of humanist sans serifs alongside the 19th-century grots and the 20th-century geometric sans serifs. Gotham is a geometric sans serif, one of many that have been designed since the late 1920s.
In the world of political graphics, McCain’s use of Optima was at least as daring as Obama’s use of Gotham. My quick search of campaign graphics from 1960 to the present turned up no examples of Optima before 2008. The preferred sans serif faces of the past were Helvetica and Futura. The Ford/Dole ticket in 1980 and the Bush/Cheney team in 2004 both used Helvetica Bold while Carter/Mondale in 1976 and Bush/Quayle in 1992 chose Futura Bold. (By the way, Jimmy Carter’s slogan sounds very familiar: “Leaders, for a change.”) These are still popular typefaces in this year’s election: Charlie Crist, who was running for Senate in Florida, did so with Helvetica Bold Italic, and John Kasich, who won his governor’s election in Ohio, used a range of Helvetica weights and widths. Carly Fiorina in California was championing Futura Light.
Robert Arnow, described in the Times article as a font designer in San Francisco, explained the font choices in this year’s elections as such: “For the most part, the fonts chosen by candidates do not take chances, but rather tend toward what’s been done in the past.” Mr. Arnow, the designer of a very nice graffiti font I stumbled across on MyFonts, is absolutely right. Political candidates and their advisors seem to choose either typefaces that are commonly used— whether “classics” such as Helvetica and Futura or once-trendy faces such as ITC Garamond (Hillary Clinton, 2008), ITC Cheltenham (Dukakis/Bentsen, 1988), Aachen (Clinton/Gore, 1992)—or faces that are readily available and cheap (in 2008, Palatino for Ron Paul and ITC Stone Serif for Fred Thompson; in 2010, Britannic for Carl Paladino and Georgia Bold for Sharron Angle and Rand Paul).
I think this explains Obama’s use of Gotham in 2008, Barbara Boxer’s use of Rotis this year, and Dino Rossi’s choice of Trajan in the most recent election. By 2008, Gotham was a popular font choice—it was chosen for the cornerstone of the Freedom Tower in 2004—and was no longer something only graphic design community insiders knew about. Similarly, Rotis, a popular font in the 1990s, has finally caught up with the general populace. (Contrary to Ms. Murphy’s comment, it is not “a conservative, Reagan-era” font. Rotis was issued in 1989 during the presidency of George H.W. Bush but also the year that the Berlin Wall came down—so maybe it should be seen as a symbol of freedom over tyranny?) Trajan, on the other hand, has been a Hollywood staple since the mid-1990s. If it helps sell tickets, it ought to be able to help garner votes.
But the problem with that Times article and other discussions of fonts in political campaigns is that they are often marred by pre-determined conclusions that assume liberal or Democratic candidates have better fonts than their conservative or Republican rivals. In fact, a broader survey of fonts used in this year’s mid-term elections turns up some unexpected choices. Perhaps most surprising, Gotham has now become one of the favorite fonts among conservative politicians.
Gotham Bold was preferred by Marco Rubio, the Tea Party candidate for Senate in Florida, while CPAC, the political action committee of The American Conservative Union, goes for Gotham Light. The black version of Gotham could be found in the campaign of Christine O’Donnell, as well as in the c of Ken Buck’s logo—a fact not mentioned by Mr. Arnow in the Times, where he simply refers to the letter as fat and blocky. Even Sarah Palin has jumped on the “hopey, changey” font thing and used Gotham, alongside Futura, on SARAHPAC.
The second surprising news from this year’s election is that there was a wide range of fonts being used, some of them decidedly odd or, at least, not what graphic design professionals would choose. Andrew Cuomo used Bank Gothic—alongside a sans serif C hugging the state of New York that is a parody of the Obama O. (The National Fiscal Conservatives PAC uses the font too.) Ted Strickland, Democratic candidate for governor in Ohio, opted for Century Schoolbook Bold—perhaps a signal that he is strongly in favor of education reform.
The famously flaky Jerry Brown used an appropriately flakey melange of sans serifs on his website: Franklin Gothic (with a mangled J) for his campaign logo combined with Alternate Gothic, Frutiger, and Arial. Republican John Thune in South Dakota went the Adobe route, marrying Adobe Garamond with Myriad, while Republican Matt Blunt in Missouri preferred Albertus for his logo and Trajan for his website buttons.
But the winner for innovation, hands down, is Chris Coons, O’Donnell’s opponent in Delaware, who combined Hoefler & Frere-Jones’ Mercury for his logo with DIN for his website. Now, that is change that we can believe in.
I just returned from Seattle where I gave a talk on W.A. Dwiggins as a type designer at Type Americana. The conference, small but jam-packed with excellent speakers and an enthusiastic crowd, was organized by Juliet Shen and held at the School of Visual Concepts. The school, located in a former hat factory, is several blocks from downtown where I was staying. On my way to the school one morning, I walked by the central Seattle Parks and Recreation Department building located at the edge of Denny Park, Seattle’s first public park (1884). The building was designed by Young and Richardson, Architects in 1948. The plaque pictured here is near its entrance. The inscription is in Gotham-like capitals. Close inspection reveals some slight variations among the letters (e.g., the length and position of the middle arm of E and the shape of the bowl of R). Here is precedence for the use of Gotham as the typeface for the Freedom Tower cornerstone.