Good Fonts, Bad Fonts, and the Presidency

Somehow we’ve let the election season come to a close without thanking both parties for making this an 100% H&FJ election. Continuing the signature voice of its 2008 campaign, Obama for America kept Gotham as its typographic keystone, this year adding our Sentinel typeface as a companion slab serif. The GOP chose fonts from us as well, the Romney campaign settling on Mercury for its serif and Whitney for its sans.

We’d especially like to thank the teams at Obama for America and Blue State Digital for making us a part of their outstanding work on Barackobama.com. Eagle-eyed viewers may have noticed that webfonts from H&FJ made their first appearance on that site earlier this year, an especially meaningful milestone for all of us. It’s not often that your first beta tester is the President of the United States.

If the coming days bring a bitter electoral challenge, or the next four years bring the nation continuing deadlock on Capitol Hill, Americans will know exactly who to blame: typeface designers. According to this study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, bad typography may be useful in softening the stance of the politically extreme. The theory is that awkward or uncomfortable typography disrupts a reader’s “confirmation bias,” one’s tendency to only see things that are agreeable. What amateur typography might do for a candidate’s credibility is anyone’s guess, and whether the study’s choice of Times Bold really counts as an acceptable control for “good typography” remains an open question. But I look forward to the 2016 election, in which the honorable grunge candidate will face off against his esteemed colleague using Comic Sans. —JH

Typographic Gifts for Designers, Part 17

I wonder what sort of psychological profile one could draw from my favorite childhood possessions. I neither played nor followed football, but clung to my NFL lunchbox that showed all the team helmets with their different insignia. I had no special interest in English History, but was fascinated by the chart in our living room that traced the succession of British monarchs from William the Conqueror to Queen Elizabeth II. A kindergarten teacher gave me a chart of rocks and minerals found in the northeast; a kindly docent at the South Street Seaport Museum gave me a diagram showing how to communicate the alphabet using morse code, semaphore, and maritime signal flags. The list goes on and on, and only a graphic designer will understand the common thread: I had a thing for data visualization.

Whether these objects provoked my interest in design or simply resonated with it, they were marvelous things to have around as a kid. I’m therefore delighted to see that a company called HistoryShots is offering for sale a similar collection of visually engaging prints, not merely suitable for framing but actually framed. Clockwise from top left: The History of the Union Army and Confederate Army, The Conquest of Mount Everest, Visualizing The Bible, Death and Taxes, The History of Political Parties (Part II), and the Race to the Moon. —JH

Change We Somehow Can’t Quite Believe In, Though We Just Can’t Put Our Finger On It

Every four years, the month of November tenders an exciting opportunity for financial speculation, this year offering an almost practical alternative to your lending institution of choice (still solvent as of presstime) or your flameproof mattress. Behold the high-stakes world of political memorabilia, now doing brisk business on the internet.

To my surprise and delight, this year’s “process pieces” about the election included dozens of articles about the Obama campaign’s exceptional graphic design standards, none of which failed to mention Gotham, the campaign’s official typeface. Obviously not every piece of Obama paraphernalia featured the font — organizations unaffiliated with the campaign certainly produced their share of ad hoc design, and this was a candidate who attracted a tremendous number of independent enthusiasts — but the typography employed by the campaign itself was remarkably consistent, which is what made it newsworthy.

A search for “Obama” on eBay yields more than twenty thousand items, including these three pieces of questionable Obama memorabilia (Fauxbamarabilia?), none of which features the campaign’s signature typeface. First and last are rally signs set in Gill Sans, which is close to Gotham, but no cigar. At the top it’s paired with Lucida, at the bottom with Times Roman; let me suggest to anyone interested in counterfeiting printed ephemera that you look a little further than the fonts that came with your computer. The middle one has a certain primitivist charm that suggests the work of a cheerful amateur, but the legend “Paid for by Obama for America” marks it as a likely fraud: if it’s not, it’s the only piece of American political printing I’ve ever seen that doesn’t also include a union bug.

Anyway, if you’re hunting for genuine souvenirs, try the campaigns themselves. Both the Obama and McCain organizations are still unloading their extras. —JH

Voting Irregularities Already!

The donkey is universally recognized as the symbol of Democratic Party of the United States. Except inside voting booths in New York State, where affiliation with the Democratic party is marked by a five-pointed star. Midwestern voters indicate the Democratic ticket with a rooster, except in Missouri, where the symbol has traditionally been the Statue of Liberty — coincidentally also the symbol of the Libertarian party, which appealed to use the symbol when they joined the ballot in 1976. They’ve settled for using the Liberty Bell instead, though some Missouri Libertarians also use the symbol of the mule. Not the Democratic mule, mind you, the Missouri mule. The mule is the state animal of Missouri.

Those who suspect that Republican iconography will show the same mastery of political organization as the rest of that party are correct: Republican candidates are always signified by an elephant, except inside voting booths in Indiana, New York, and West Virginia, where an eagle is used instead. And in these states, as well as the 47 others, the eagle is also the national symbol of the United States itself.

The Chicago typefoundry of Barnhart Brothers & Spindler showed these “Election Typecuts” in their Catalog 25-A, published around 1930, and 78 years later I think my district is still using this same art. Cheerily Barnhart Brothers accompanied their samples with this legend:

When changes in the political situation — the birth of new parties, revision of election laws, or other causes call for new emblems or characters other than shown above, our facilities enable us to produce the material promptly at moderate cost.

I’m ready. You? —JH

…and Non-Fontogenic…

A journalist recently asked what it is about Gotham that we think suits the Obama campaign. We’ll defer to designers John Slabyk and Scott Thomas to make that call — they selected the font for Obama for America, we merely provided it — but one thing we can say as type designers is that Gotham isn’t pretending to be anything it’s not, which makes it an unusual and refreshing choice for a campaign. Political typefaces have a way of being chosen because they underscore (or imagine) some specific aspect of a candidate, working hard to convey “traditional values” or “strength and vigilance,” or any number of graspable populist notions. The only thing Gotham works hard at is being Gotham.

2008 is clearly a year of unusual thinking in political circles, because none of these familiar approaches can explain the utterly confounding typographic dress chosen by Senators Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Hillary’s snooze of a serif might have come off a heart-healthy cereal box, or a mildly embarrassing over-the-counter ointment; if you’re feeling generous you might associate it with a Board of Ed circular, or an obscure academic journal. But Senator McCain’s typeface is positively mystifying: after three decades signifying a very down-market notion of luxe, this particular sans serif has settled into being the font of choice for the hygiene aisle. One of McCain’s campaign themes is “Making Tough Choices:” is this the one you would have made? —H&FJ

Fontogenic

Typeface: Gotham Medium

Veteran campaigners know that the best way to gain someone's vote is to be photographed holding their baby. It seems that the same goes for fonts: it’s hard to take a non-partisan stance when one of the candidates looks so good standing in front of your typeface. Helvetica director Gary Hustwit shared this image with us, along with a hopeful observation about both the candidate and the typeface behind him:

“I think it’s interesting that the design of Gotham was influenced by early Modernism, another movement that was about change and social idealism. And I like that the design aesthetic that may help move Obama into the White House was inspired by the humble NY Port Authority Bus Terminal sign.”

A Font We Can Believe In, from the Helvetica Film Blog. —JH

Politics Without Gotham

Typeface: Knockout No. 48

Not all political typography has to be set in Gotham (though it seems that way) — here for example are some calls to action by Shepherd Fairey that don’t use any Gotham at all. They use Knockout No. 48.

Designers in Louisiana, Nebraska, Washington, and Maine have primaries this weekend; Virginia, Maryland and DC, you’re up Tuesday. This means you. —JH

A Banner Day

Typeface: Gotham Condensed Bold and Black

Primary season means banner headlines, and banner headlines mean condensed fonts. Above, some of our favorite Gothamophiles working hard to cement Gotham’s connection to politics; here’s Gotham Condensed being put through its paces at a range of sizes. Scott Goldman wins the size prize at The Indianapolis Star — and his state wasn’t even voting yesterday!

We’ll post some political front pages from the New York papers, provided they ever stop talking about the Superbowl. —JH

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