Could Better Fonts Have Helped Save the Romney Campaign?

The official Romney campaign logo. Via Wikipedia.

So, the election here in the US is over. After months and months of constant reminders, attack ads, political discussions all over Facebook, it’s finally come to a close. I, for one, am extremely glad. Not just of the outcome, but the return to normalcy. I don’t have to fear my Facebook feed like I used to, and that’s a good thing. Also, I’ve developed a major geeky crush on Nate Silver (if you ask me, math was the big winner of this election!).

Except one thing keeps bothering me. The night of the election, I tweeted with something that resounded with a lot of people on Twitter. It was a brief comment, but something I consider important. Ever since, I’ve been wondering what would have been different for the Romney campaign if their design choices hadn’t been so safe. (Yes, I’m a total font nerd, and while I have many missions here on Earth, one is helping people break free from terrible fonts and eradicate Papyrus and Comic Sans forever from our collective consciousness.)

I don’t envy the Romney design team going into this election. As far as political branding goes, the Obama camp pretty much redefined the approach in 2008. Slick fonts, great colors, a universal branding message. Up until that point I don’t ever recall feeling as if the design of a political campaign had that much of a bearing on its success. But they put their money into making Obama, and his brand, look good.

Now, considering how much financial backing the Romney campaign had from the get-go, I was prepared for something really groundbreaking design-wise when they announced Ryan as a running mate. I mean, surely, they’d have seen what Obama did. They’d have wanted to get a younger, brand-conscious vote. They’d want to at least look like they’ve been paying attention to the internet for the last ten years. Especially that coveted “undecided” demographic that isn’t affiliated with any particular party, and hadn’t made their mind up.

But they didn’t. They played it safe. Safe to the point of being almost illegible. (And before you laugh at my font criticism, take a second to read about how fonts really do affect how we process information.)

Out of the literally millions of font choices out there, the Romney designers chose Trajan for their message. If the font is familiar, it’s because it’s everywhere: from John Grisham and Anne Rice novels to The West Wing (clever!), and a variety of other political campaigns. It also was created in 1989. Sure, it looks “classic” and it takes a nod to Latin engraved text. But that is leagues away from contemporary, here. If I could have used it on my Aptiva, chances are we’re not using anything state-of-the-art.

In 2008, by contrast, the Obama campaign went with Gotham. Yes. Gotham. Which was originally commissioned for GQ magazine. Places you’ll find Gotham include Tom Ford, Yahoo!, various universities and colleges, and quite a few television networks. However! They didn’t let it rest there for 2012. While much of the branding remained the same, they shook up the font by going retro. Not old and boring. Now, some people felt that the Obama folks should have left well enough alone, and that their new messaging was odd (and not to mention the conspiracy theories…). But overall, I think it worked well as a refresh. The new font, called Revolution Gothic Extra Bold, still stays in line with the slick brand message but kicks it up a notch.

And all this is to say that the most egregious errors from the Romney side really falter with whoever decided to make that R so strange looking. You know what I’m talking about. Or maybe you don’t. Because if, like me, the first time you glanced it, you saw “Unintelligble squiggle… OMNEY.” What is it? A pair of buttocks, perhaps, and a well-toned thigh? Weird lips? Oh, wait. It’s the letter R. For all the strength and power of Trajan (did I mention it’s also on on Trojan condoms) it sort of defeats the purpose. Sure, sometimes you can get away with serif and non-serifs having a party together, but not in this case. In this case, is sets the entire design off balance.

Listen, I get that the Romney campaign wanted to seem less trendy in order to distance themselves from the Obama campaign. They have a voter base to pull from, many of whom are CEOs of large companies and, judging from my experience working in design, probably wouldn’t know a good brand package if it slapped them upside the face. But their design didn’t have to be boring.

No, politics isn’t a traditional business. We Americans like our brands, but make it too shiny and we get put off. Of course I get that. But the internet is streaming messaging 24/7. And political strategists fail to take this into consideration. (Note I don’t say designers: I don’t know who’s behind the final design, but having worked as a graphic designer for people who, uh, have differing options about what’s aesthetically pleasing, I can’t put them at fault for the final product).

Important observation: You know how many ads I saw on TV? Three. On Hulu, not on cable. All those millions of dollars didn’t even graze the surface of my consciousness. What did get my attention were the unavoidable signs, the banners, and the web presence, or lack thereof. No, we don’t need everything as tidy as a Campbell’s soup can, but if the Romney folks had tried just a little harder I think they’d have made some surprising impact among demographics they struggled to captivate. They would have broadcast a signal that was cooler, stronger, and fresher. Not that it matters, now, but fonts are certainly something the GOP should consider thinking a little harder about come the next election.

My vote is for Wayfinding Sans.

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