The Politics of Typography

Arunabh Satpathy
Mar 10, 2017 · 3 min read

Most of us don’t think much about fonts. We usually just go for the default fonts on our Google Docs and avoid Comic Sans for fear of ridicule. But whether we like it or not, typography has a massive effect on our everyday lives. And by extension, it has a large effect on our politics as well.

I’ve written about design and politics before. I briefly mentioned Donald Trump’s business typography and how it was sneered at by elite designers, but what was he trying to convey? On his current website, Trump uses a font called Trajan, a capitals only typeface whose serifs (the little foot-like protrusions on the ends of letters) are inspired by Roman columns.

It’s meant to convey a sense of authority by alluding to a part of European history widely associated with grandeur. The effect is complete when the font is put beside the Trump Network’s faux-heraldic shield. This association with fiat is strong enough that Trajan is also used for the logo of political drama “The West Wing.”

The letter “I” in Trajan font next to a Roman column

Serifs’ association with the past also associates them with traditional values. By contrast, sans-serif fonts like Helvetica usually inspire modernity and progressivism. This isn’t always the case, but there is a preponderance of evidence suggesting serifs’ association with conservatism. Ted Cruz, who stood out as the constitutional traditionalist in the Republican pack in 2016, had large serifs in his logo bordering on the phallic.

Among Republicans, relatively left-of-center candidates tend to have sans-serif typefaces. John McCain underlined his “maverick” status by choosing Optima, a sans-serif font popular among magazine designers in the 1970s. And of course, Donald Trump went with a combination of Akzidenz Grotesk Bold Extended and FF Meta Bold, neither of which have traditional overtones.

I’m not claiming that the candidates intimately care about the typefaces. They likely contract that work out to marketing agencies. But it’s also unlikely that the candidates don’t subtly grasp the implications of specific typefaces. Is it an accident that serifs were prominent in Mitt Romney’s campaign logo?

The implied values communicated by typography to constituents is also undeniable. Obama’s use of Gotham, a modern sans-serif with a perfectly round “O,” is a great example. Named after one of New York City’s nicknames, Gotham was commissioned by GQ Magazine.

The word “politics” in Gotham. Note the perfectly round “O”

“GQ had a dual agenda of wanting something that would look very fresh, yet very established, to have a credible voice to it,” said Jonathan Hoefler, one of the designers of Gotham.

The idea of being simultaneously fresh, established, and credible is a pretty good description of the sentiments that first got Obama into the presidency.

In typography, history can shape notions, but so can contemporary uses. For instance, Gotham became ubiquitous after the Obama campaign. Its overexposure is now starting to create pushback. When the City of Vancouver released a logo in Gotham last month, nearly 200 people signed a letter rejecting its use.

So the next time you open Google Docs, take a moment to consider the politics of the type you choose.

Reach columnist Arunabh Satpathy at Twitter: @sarunabh

Arunabh Satpathy

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