A recent study by the northeastern teacher Katherine Haenschen, which studies the intersection of digital media and politics, explores the role of fonts in political branding.
Haenschen found that typefaces are chosen to convey information about candidates and differentiate them from their opponents, thus making typefaces a form of political communication.
Researchers interviewed graphic designers to analyze the logos of more than 900 candidates in the 2018 U.S. midterm elections, which saw Democrats win a net 41 seats in the House of Representatives to secure a majority, and Republicans retain control of the Senate.
Visuals are often overlooked and understudied in the realm of political communication, but have increased as online content has moved from text blogs to more image-driven platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, according to the study.
The analysis adds to the growing field of research by offering an empirical look at character selection in the logos and wordmarks of political candidates, which is a type of text-only graphics processing.
Your research revealed that typefaces themselves were not inherently political, but conveyed information about the candidate. What kind of information?
We’ve found that a lot of things predict what typeface people will use. One is the party: Republicans are more likely to use wheelbase than sans serif police versus Democrats. And they were more likely to use script or handwriting.
Incumbents were more likely to use serif, which tells us that there’s a design trend that shows up in logos that someone who was elected to Congress in 2008 or 2010 has a logo that’s probably from that time, which looks a bit different from the design now which leans more towards sans serif fonts.
Males were less likely to use script or handwriting than female candidates, and more likely to use slab serif, so we see differences based on party, years in power, office and the sex of the candidate.
[Note: Throughout this interview, Haenschen refers to serif, sans-serif, and slab-serif fonts. Common parlance in typography, serifs are the small lines attached to larger portions of a letter, such as the small downward strokes at the top, and the horizontal line on the bottom of a capital “T” in the font on this page. Sans-serif fonts, such as Arial, do not include the extra lines. And in slab-serif fonts, the serifs, or additional lines, are generally thicker and more pronounced.]
There seems to be a lot of thought going into the choice of fonts.
We spoke to eight designers and they talked a lot about their process, how they tried to find a typeface that conveyed the candidate, their qualities and attributes.
So, if a person is steadfast and dependable, you want a font that conveys constancy and dependability. It wasn’t so much that the font was necessarily liberal or conservative, but a font that looked very traditional might work better for a more conservative candidate. But they pointed out that the challenge is that you have to use the candidate’s name, so you have to find a font that works with that name.
The designers talked about using all uppercase or all lowercase letters. Or, just the last name, or the first name, or different combinations of letters.
It is designed for signboards, buttons, stickers, mailings and websites. It must therefore work in different formats and be really readable. You have to see it when driving by a sign on the freeway. And it has to work on a postcard and it has to work on a website, so there are a lot of constraints in terms of the function of the logo itself.
What prompted you to delve deeper into the question of fonts?
It’s all well and good to say, “Oh, this Republican has this police and this Democrat has this police.” But if it doesn’t change what people think of the candidates or what they think of them at the polls, then maybe it doesn’t have a broader impact.
So that’s what we’re looking at now. It’s about trying to understand when does design have an impact and if you give people other information, does that kind of swamp cancel out the effect of graphic design?
Congressional midterms are next year. What do you think is going on behind the scenes with some of the designers you interviewed?
On the one hand, we spoke to Ben Ostrow, who runs a large creative company. He did the Kamala Harris logo. But then we talked to people who work with local candidates, school board candidates, judge candidates, and so on.
For the people who are going to run these competitive, well-funded congressional campaigns, I think there’s a growing realization that you need to have some sort of visual brand in place to incorporate that into your deployment on social networks. When you make that two-minute YouTube video, you also have to have the logo, brand, website, Facebook page. Everything should look good on startup.
The 2022 mid-terms are going to be really interesting. Those wild back-and-forths we’ve seen over the past few semesters may not apply. It’s a big open question whether midterms are as traditionally bad for the incumbent president’s party as we’ve seen before. With everything going on with COVID-19 and the economic recovery, that’s a big question mark.
Is there a correlation between the professionalism of a logo and the increase in the chances of victory?
There is probably some sort of relationship, yes. Having a good graphic design means you spent money on it which means you had money to spend from the start because all that design work is done before they launch their campaign and their website and send out their fundraising appeals. You want the logo on everything, so you make the logo before you launch.
That means you had enough money to start your campaign to engage in some sort of professional services, and I think we’re seeing both an increase in professionalization in terms of an increase in the number of policy consultants, and this stuff goes hand in hand…share with raising more money.
So I would say if you saw a direct comparison between an extremely unprofessional logo and a professionally designed logo, I would say to myself that the candidate who has the more professional logo probably has more funding, probably has more infrastructure of campaign, and is probably better suited to win.
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