The Daily Heller: Can Two Types Topple Trump?

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Typefaces have taken on considerable importance in presidential election branding. With less hullabaloo than a position speech but arguably no less importance when it comes to messaging, on July 4 Joe Biden’s campaign introduced its two official typefaces, designed by Hoefler&Co., which has also produced type designs for Elizabeth Warren and Barack Obama. They are the sans serif Decimal and the serif Mercury. Hoefler announced the rollout on his website: “We could not be more proud to see our work support a campaign of nuanced thinking and decisive action, in the critical election before us.” Being singled out as type designer for a national political campaign has become as full of notoriety as designing a gown for the First Lady to wear on inauguration night.

Hoefler met with the campaign’s senior creative advisor, Robyn Kanner, who posed a communications challenge: The campaign will rely on “sophisticated and irreducible messages, which would need the clarifying effects of typography,” writes Hoefler, adding that Kanner used a musical analogy—“talking about the ways in which rhythms and harmonic resolutions can shape the contours of a long lyric.” Hoefler likened this idea to lettering of the first American Revolution, when significant words in the Declaration of Independence were capitalized (Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness). In concert, Hoefler and Kanner developed guidelines going forward for how the typographic language would establish and amplify the tenor of Biden’s message.

I asked Hoefler to explain why these two were the faces of choice:

Tell me, did the campaign have a clear concept, mood or style in mind?

My first conversations with the campaign were about language, not image, which is a refreshing place to begin. Robyn Kanner came to me with a typographic puzzle: The vice president's messages tend to be sophisticated and irreducible, not the usual 10-word answers that pass for political discourse. Remember that after the murder of George Floyd, while so many officials were offering the usual "thoughts and prayers," it was Joe Biden who stepped up and said: "ENOUGH. It's time for us to take a hard look at some uncomfortable truths." This was a sentiment that needed to be heard, and Robyn and I agreed that it deserved the amplification of some good typography.

What we came up with was the idea of distilling such messages into "words of action" and "supporting syntax," and using two typefaces to articulate these—not that differently from the way the Framers used capitalization (think Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness)—to create a new and recognizable typographic idiom that would imprint in the minds of voters. I've been so pleased to see everything the campaign has put together using this system, and the best has yet to come.

Why did you select the approaches? In other words, what characteristics make Decimal and Mercury the right faces for the job?

Decimal is based on the lettering on wristwatches, which gives it a no-nonsense equality that I think resonated with the campaign. Remember that unlike typefaces, which are consciously designed to evoke a particular feeling, lettering is often the product of engineering: these are letterforms shaped by what's achievable at a given size, using specific materials, which gives them an unmannered quality. There's a candor about this approach that I find refreshing, which Decimal hopes to capture: these are letters that just say what they are.

And Mercury, because it was originally designed for setting text on newsprint, is similarly no-nonsense. It doesn't sacrifice style, and it's especially adventurous with its peripheral bold and italics, but it's not fussy—again a quality that I think serves to echo the vice president's style.

Were they building on the karma of Obama's campaign?

Not at all, which is why everything from the color palette to the typography has been different from both the 2008 and 2012 campaigns. I think everyone recognizes that these are different public servants at different points in their careers, and perhaps most importantly, that 2020 is a very different time from 2008. What the campaign's design team has been committed to, which I don't think we've seen in a national election since Obama-Biden in 2012, is a real determination to make design a meaningful part of their communications strategy.

For now the concrete results will take a time and unceasing bombardment before we will see whether or not this typographic strategy will add resonance to the campaign and, most important, help the candidate to defeat his incumbent rival.