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What Fonts Say About the Presidential Campaigns

As part of the Content Campaign ’12 Series, The Content Strategist examines the content published by the presidential campaigns as part of their strategy to win November’s general election.

Last week Mitt Romney found himself in an uncomfortable pickle  or maybe a pica? —regarding his unlicensed commercial use of a font.

“Pay-what-you-want fonts are there to make the work affordable to people who can’t pay like others,” James T. Edmonson, the creator of Wisdom Script, the font in question, told The Content Strategist. “So when an organization uses the font who clearly has funds allocated for these types of expenses, it’s a bit of a slap in the face.”

Rather than dwell on what the candidates presidential campaign fonts  might mean about their regard for copyright law, this week’s Content Campaign 2012 installment focuses on the messages the fonts themselves send. We asked designers of various fonts now in use by Obama and Romney what they had in mind when designing them in hopes of gaining insight into what the campaigns are going for  at least in a design sense.

According to Edmonson, Wisdom Script, which the Romney campaign used on T-Shirts that were for sale on his online store, was originally designed for Woods of Wisdom, a poster series of bad advice.

“Because I was creating sarcastic posters, it was important that the typeface reflect a sense of honesty, a look that was familiar and trustworthy,” said the San Francisco based typographer. By setting the font, which is available at Lost Type Co-op, on a 30-degree incline, he wanted to make the font seem optimistic.

Obama’s campaign, too, claimed a font on Lost Type Co-op, though it has not yet used it. According to its creator Andy Mangold, the font Pompadour’s numerals were designed to be displayed at very large sizes and were meant to look “sassy and elegant.”

Perhaps counter-intuitively, Mangold said he’s glad the font, whose numerals “are catered to desktop calendar cubes with a single number on each side,” hasn’t been used by the campaign.

“It would look goofy to set 2012 in Pompadour,” the Baltimore-based designer said.

Though the presidential candidates have many divergent content purposes for which to solicit distinctive fonts, they derive their main fonts from more widely known fare.

Both Romney and Obama have purchased their main fonts from Hoefler & Frere-Jones‘ ample stock, although Obama has been more widely praised for patronizing the popular American typography foundry. (The Obama campaign only specifically commissioned an Obama-Biden logo, and the rest were readymade by H&FJ).

According to Tobias Frere-Jones, principal and director of typography at H&FJ, the Obama Campaign uses mainly Sentinel and Gotham. The majority of Romney’s content is written in Whitney and Mercury Display.

H&FJ has a lot to say about its fonts (the descriptions are elaborate and a joy to read in full). We’ve included relatively brief excerpts below so you can see what they’re trying to say.

Sentinel

“Unbound by traditions that deny italics, by technologies that limit its design, or by ornamental details that restrict its range of weights, Sentinel is a fresh take on this useful and lovely style, offering for the first time a complete family that’s serviceable for both text and display. From the Antique style it borrows a program of contrasting thicks and thins, but trades that style’s frumpier mannerisms for more attractive contemporary details.”

Gotham

“Gotham celebrates the attractive and unassuming lettering of the city…Gotham is that rarest of designs, the new typeface that somehow feels familiar. From the lettering that inspired it, Gotham inherited an honest tone that’s assertive but never imposing, friendly but never folksy, confident but never aloof.”

Mercury Display

“Spirited, subtle, ferocious. A succinct family of display faces, Mercury answers the call for a contemporary serif that’s smart, quick, and articulate.”

Whitney

“Typefaces for catalogs and brochures need to be narrow enough to work in crowded environments, yet energetic enough to encourage extended reading. But typefaces designed for wayfinding programs need to be open enough to be legible at a distance, and sturdy enough to withstand a variety of fabrication techniques: fonts destined for signage need to anticipate being cast in bronze, etched in glass, cut in vinyl, and rendered in pixels.

“While American ‘gothics’ such as News Gothic (1908) have long been a mainstay of editorial settings, and European ‘humanists’ such as Frutiger (1975) have excelled in signage applications, Whitney bridges this divide in a single design. Its compact forms and broad x-height use space efficiently, and its ample counters and open shapes make it clear under any circumstances.”

The fonts and what they convey are surely complex  but they’re certainly clearer and more straightforward than some of the messages the candidates are trying to send using them.

Check out our more recent political coverage:

The Presidential Election, According to Campaign Swag

An Incredibly Dorky Look at Each Candidate’s Marketing Stack

Women Are Angry About the Election. Here’s How They’re Taking Action Online

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