What That Campaign Logo Is Really Saying: A Design Critique
Updated with new (and in one case improved) candidate logos.
As a steady stream of presidential candidates enter the race, a new ritual is emerging: the campaign logo reveal.
The relative distinctiveness of campaign logos is a recent development: There was a time when they all looked basically the same, give or take a star, often featuring the same stylized, waving flag.
The 1990s and early 2000s were a different time, with less media noise and fewer shiny objects vying for voters’ attention, so there was less need for candidates to distinguish themselves through symbolism and color—and perhaps a hesitation to do anything that stood out too much. Instead, virtually all of them opted for similar shades of red and blue, and used similar fonts and imagery.
It was the 2008 election, and that famous letter “O,” that changed everything, says designer Sagi Haviv, a partner in the New York firm Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv who has designed logos for the Library of Congress, Armani Exchange, and Harvard University Press, among other clients.
“Whatever you say about [Obama’s] mark—[it’s] maybe a tiny bit cheesy for me—but it has been so successful and so impactful. It had a huge impact on the campaign,” Haviv said. “It was extremely well-used throughout. I think that in some way, it changed the course of history in terms of design for campaigns, and everybody is now trying to achieve the same thing.”
It’s true that many of the candidates who have already announced have taken elements of President Barack Obama’s style as their own. The increased attention to branding makes sense in an era when candidates need attention-grabbing, shareable social media profile pictures for themselves and their supporters, easily recognizable images for browser-tab “favicons,” and designs to apply to a wide range of merchandise. Among the Republicans, strong branding can also help in the effort to stand out in a crowded field.
Haviv said the crop of logos for 2016 candidates reminds him more of corporate iconography than what had previously been the political norm.
“There has been kind of a shift in the way that these identities for candidates have been treated,” Haviv said. “There’s [a] much more kind of corporate or commercialized approach to the branding—and even using that word, ‘branding,’ of the candidates.”
One of the most striking examples of that shift is Clinton’s new logo, a complete departure from her previous presidential-campaign logo, which followed the classic name/billowing flag model.
Initially, Clinton’s logo was a magnet for criticism. Some questioned whether the red arrow was pointing to the right. Others criticized the decision to go with her first initial instead of her last name. Haviv said it’s not actually all that important that a logo be liked, especially right after people see it for the first time.
“Sometimes it’s kind of awkward, or maybe kind of rubs you the wrong way the first second you see it,” Haviv said. “That’s what we’re looking for, something kind of unusual, distinctive.”
Unusual and distinctive, Haviv said, is precisely what this cycle’s candidates seem to be striving for.
“It’s not enough now to write the name of the candidate in some kind of national setting using national iconography,” Haviv said. “They really are trying now to kind of claim something distinctive, something ownable, something that will say something about them that nobody else can possibly do, to varying degrees of success.”
Haviv said he considers Clinton’s logo to be one of the successful ones. Also on that list, with a caveat or two, is Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s logo. Paul made his symbol a torch similar to that of the Statue of Liberty, and it utilizes negative space between the “A” and the “N” in his first name to make the torch’s handle; an illustration above the name completes the torch’s base. Haviv said that the inconsistency between the uses of positive and negative space confuses things a bit, but that the liberty torch is a good pick for Paul, who incorporates the word into so much of his rhetoric.
“I think conceptually, recalling the Statue of Liberty, the idea of liberty, which is very much his hallmark, is appropriate.”
A less successful use of fire imagery, Haviv said, is in Ted Cruz’s logo. While the typeface and arrangement of words and symbols calls to mind more traditional campaign logos, the star inside the flame doesn’t work.
“There is something extremely awkward about the cropping of that star,” Haviv said. “It’s kind of a crippled star that is missing two of its limbs.”
Another logo Haviv says misses the mark is Marco Rubio’s. In his quest to find something unique, Rubio settled on a map of the United States, shrunk down to dot the “i” in his last name. The small size of the map makes it lose its meaning, Haviv said, adding that it looks like “little red whale.”
One Republican candidate logo appears to have taken even more cues from Obama than the others: former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee’s. It's the juxtaposition of the red and white stripes with the word “hope” that makes it hard to see it as anything else, Haviv said.
Here, in alphabetical order, is Haviv’s take on the full (and ever-growing) field.
"Omitting the loaded, some say toxic, last name from the logo was a pretty obvious and smart choice. And interesting to see that both 'dynasty' candidates did that. The mark overall is simple and strong. The traditional serif typeface and all-red color treatment are perhaps an attempt to give the identity a conservative and distinctly Republican look—he may be looking to shore up his conservative credentials. The exclamation point, however, is a little forced."
Ben Carson: First Try
“I am almost speechless on this one. First of all, the ‘A’ of America instead of the ‘C’ of Carson, or something in his name, again something that could be used for any of the candidates because they all represent America. But what they did to this letter is criminal.”
Ben Carson: Second Try
"Big, big improvement on the previous identity. This new bold, purely typographic mark with a nice modern sans serif font comes across as strong and sophisticated. Much better!"
“It’s not terrible but it’s not really anything. It looks like they thought that if they throw more stars at it—I counted 13—it would get better. It didn’t."
"Setting Christie’s name and tagline in a clean simple font (Futura) isn’t a bad idea. The problem here is that there’s nothing else going on. Whatever else you might say about Chris Christie as a person or a politician, 'boring' is not the word that usually comes to mind—but this logo is boring."
“It’s extremely effective and well done, in spite of—and maybe because—there is no overt American iconography in it. The designers were able to kind of go beyond that.”
“There’s a clear nod to tradition, a nod to the conservative audience that he’s very much vying for. It is a well-done effort, design-wise, to appeal to that audience. [But] there’s something extremely awkward about the cropping of that star. It’s kind of a crippled star that is missing some of its limbs.”
“Here we find something we haven’t seen in other designs, which is a very thin, very light face. It’s a modern face. The lightness brings in a challenge because it has less visual impact and it’s harder to use in small sizes. The other problem with this design is that the focal point is not the first letter.”
“This design is unusual for the Republican field in that it does not feature overt national iconography. Perhaps there was none left to claim? Otherwise it is utterly unremarkable, and the ‘16’ in the half-circle is baffling. I wonder about the absence of the ‘for’ before ‘president’—a very bold assertion.”
“What I see here, with his tagline, ‘From hope to higher ground,’ and [then] echoed in the visual, is that this is kind of a reactionary logo to the Obama campaign and ultimately to the Obama legacy.”
"There’s a reason that Jeb Bush didn’t do a “J” for his logo— it’s a funny letter that is inherently uneven, and so it’s very hard to make it into a mark that feels balanced. Here it looks like they took a candy cane and adorned it with stars and stripes, and unfortunately, the result is fussy and sharp. Fairly amateurish."
“A refreshing, imaginative effort featuring a twist on the traditional billowing flag. In terms of execution, however, it would have been much better had the designer rendered the 'K' in the same line-weight as the stripes. This would have introduced some cohesive magic to a mark that is otherwise just OK.”
“Here is another Democratic candidate who avoids altogether any literal national iconography. Even the colors—and especially the blue—are not the typical American hues. [But] there is a sensible attempt to create a flexible system that allows for a visual shorthand (O’M in the bubble) and also for the separate state-level campaign organizations (NH or IA in the bubble). This is building on the kind of flexible logo system used so effectively by the Obama campaign.”
“This is a case of good design intentions with unfortunate results. The name is set in a distinctive font, sure, but it’s an extremely itchy and annoying typeface. There was a nice attempt to create a highly simplified American flag ... that somehow went terribly wrong. It looks like the top right stripe is missing, which is not something you should do if you’re running for president of a country!”
“The Rand Paul logo is, in fact, much better than the Ted Cruz logo. Yes, it’s a similar cliché image of a flame, but what we look for in dealing with typography, and dealing with logos in combination with typography, is a magical moment where the image and the type are merged beautifully into a single unit. In this case, they were able to achieve that to some extent.”
“Like Hillary’s logo, this design is attempting to combine a letter with another element, here a star. However, unlike Hillary’s design, [which] marries the H and the arrow nicely, this marriage is extremely awkward. The star looks like it’s been slapped on top of the P, and the two elements are fighting each other visually.”
“Funny thing is that he’s one of the candidates who has a pretty good chance, but it’s not going to be because of the logo if he wins. Let’s start with the good things about it ... the selection of typeface is pretty smart. It’s a bold sans serif, quite geometric and all lowercase. He’s saying ‘I am the leader of tomorrow.’ However, when we’re looking for what is special … they kind of stumbled there. They picked the map of the United States, the shape of the United States, which is a vast country, right? In this case they shrunk it to the size of a dot on the “i” and they made it red and it looks like a little red whale.”
“Bernie, I think, is literally building on [Obama’s legacy], right? His typography is literally sitting on top of these stripes that recall the Obama stripes. My biggest pet peeve with this design is the interaction between the ‘r’ and the ‘n,’ which is so awkward. Once there is something so awkward about a logo, it is very difficult to give it a second chance.”
“His design seems to be an evolution of his 2012 identity, which similarly featured a red eagle—perhaps an attempt to emphasize that he has run before. This time around, the mark is much improved: The type and the image are in better balance with each other, the font has more impact, and the equal emphasis given to his first and last name helps to get away from his famous ‘Google problem.’ All around, not bad.”
“One of the basic things we look for in a logo is distinction—this one lacks any. While the typography is perfectly nice, the mark is too generic to leave a lasting impression or memory of any kind. Worth noting that for his business and real estate ventures, Trump’s name is always set in a serif font, and here it is a bold sans-serif—but it’s too boring to wonder why.”
“The good news is that the icon they designed—a highly simplified American flag—is very nicely done. I especially appreciate the perfect square. However, it is unfortunate that they jammed the symbol into the name in place of the ‘E,’ because it is emphatically not an ‘E.’ So it makes reading his name difficult, particularly since ‘walk’ is a common word. Scott Walk R.”
“They started off nicely by setting the name in some version of Franklin Gothic, which is a great font. But when they tried to squeeze in a piece of American iconography, they stumbled: The star on top of the ‘i’—certainly not a novel idea—is way too small in relation to the size of the overall logo. (Marco Rubio’s logo has the same problem.) It would have been better in this case just to leave the typography alone.”