Form, Function, & Meaning

Why Hillary Clinton’s Logo Is Better Than You Think


Years ago — in the days when companies still hired designers to produce lavish annual reports — I worked on one for a biopharmaceutical firm focused on oncology. Somehow we ended up with a red cover. The client had concerns. Red is the color of cancer, they said, would a red cover symbolize that they were pro-cancer?

Some years later the college I was teaching at initiated a search for a design history professor. One of the finalist candidates, when presenting to the department, argued that the Chicago Bulls’ use of red, white, and black was an overt reference to fascism.

When the arts commission of my home town launched their “I ❤ Art” campaign (with no apologies to Milton Glaser), the Liberal party wanted the heart changed from red to blue (the color of their party). The concern? People might infer from a red heart that only conservatives loved art.

Each of these examples — and there are many others — demonstrates the kind of semiotic myopia that plagues much of popular design criticism.

Are the Chicago Bulls pro-cancer? No. Are Adobe, Target and KFC are using color to evoke the cultural power of Nazism? Of course not. These criticisms make the mistake of assuming (or pretending) that there is a single meaning associated with a symbol. They make the mistake of assuming (or pretending) that the audience has the same esoteric symbolic literacy as the critic. They make the mistake of inadvertently (or deliberately) evaluating form and symbolism out of context.

Part 1: Context and Meaning

Semiotic Histrionics
The intended symbolism of Hillary Clinton’s logo is rudimentary and obvious. Red, White and Blue + H + Arrow: America, with Hillary, moves forward. When people say that a right facing arrow, in this context, symbolizes right-leaning politics, they are being intentionally obtuse. No one actually thinks that, just as no one thinks the H stands for Huckabee (and no one thinks Huckabee is secretly a Democrat because his name appears in blue). No one is confused because red and blue are also the colors of Iceland. And no, Hillary’s logo bears no meaningful resemblance to the Cuban flag. Trying to look smart by feigning stupidity is fine for a few laughs on twitter, but counterproductive when offered by designers (or others) as a form of professional criticism.

Hillary wasn’t the only target, of course. Some claim Ted Cruz’s logo resembles Aljazeera’s. Designers gave Marc Rubio flack because his name appears larger than the symbol of the United States used in place of the dot over the ‘i’ in Rubio. Does it mean he thinks he is more important than the country? Of course not. Obviously the map is sized that way because it is standing in for the dot. Alaskans and Hawaiians are smart enough to realize that their states weren’t omitted as a matter of policy; they recognize the form as a symbol, not a navigational device. That makes it a poor formal choice, but not a confusing symbolic one. Hearts are red, forward arrows point right, the dot on the letter i is small. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

But if the first wave of criticism accused Clinton’s logo of having hidden, unintentional, or loaded meaning, the second wave accused it of having none. Even President Obama’s 2008 design director, Scott Thomas, was quoted as saying “I think the Hillary logo is really saying nothing…it’s just a red arrow moving to the right.” That’s like saying the 2008 Obama logo is just a blue circle rising over a field. Choosing to ignore the meaning doesn’t mean there isn’t any — just as choosing to misinterpret it doesn’t make the misapprehension true. Hope. Optimism. A new day. Obama rises to leadership and lifts the country with him. That’s the promise of the Obama logo. Progress. The future. A positive direction. Hillary will move America forward. That’s the promise of the Clinton logo. Whether or not a person believes these messages is a matter of political opinion. Whether one understands the symbolism is a matter of common sense.

Part 2: Function

It Is What It Does
When it comes to function, Hillary’s logo does three things really well. First, it has everyone saying “Hillary” instead of “Clinton.” Second, it has tremendous versatility. Third, it demolishes every other logo in the field.

Establishing the campaign as the “Hillary” campaign rather than the “Clinton” campaign is massively important. Doing so distances her (somewhat) from the specter of political dynasty in the same way that Jeb! seeks to distance himself from his own beleaguered surname. It comes across as natural, personable, and friendly — not qualities for which the candidate is otherwise known. ‘H’ was a smart choice.

When it comes to versatility, any good identity designer should have recognized early that the iconic minimalism of the mark was designed, in part, for maximum flexibility. Its basic, familiar shapes can be colored and oriented and filled to represent and include a variety of interests and issues and constituents. This is the logo in action. It can go rainbow in solidarity with — and later in celebration of — the achievement of marriage equality. It can become bunting on the fourth of July. It can be filled with the Iowa or New Hampshire landscape. You can even insert yourself into it. The logo can do these things because it was designed to do them. The idea that “design” is only how a thing looks and that how that thing works is somehow something else hopelessly misunderstands both the term and the discipline.

Besides its malleability as a vessel for ideas, the logo also has tremendous practical versatility. It is tailor made for social media, but works equally well on the big stage — literally.

So far, so good.

Part 3: Form

I Don’t Like It, Therefore It’s Bad
And now for the weeds. The brass tacks. There have been some — perhaps many — who have criticized Hillary’s logo for being generic, simplistic (as opposed to simply simple) and boring. From a strictly formal standpoint, I see their point. As someone who has had to design more than one “H” logo I can tell you that it’s not a sexy letter. And arrows? C’mon. Can you get more generic than an arrow? And combining them? Hasn’t that been done before? So I get it. On its own this is not a mark that evokes great pangs of professional jealously (except that almost any designer would kill to have a presidential logo in their portfolio).

But have a look below. Which mark is the most memorable? Which is the most iconic? Which is the most confident? Which, compared to its competitors, is the most progressive? Which one will continue to feel fresh after more than a year of repeated exposure?

My answer to all of the above is Hillary’s. For all its so-called clunkiness, its lack of nuance, its obviousness, it works. It sticks.

And we fault it for that?

Is the idea cliché? Sure. That’s what makes it so accessible. That’s part of why it works. Is the craft simplistic? It’s certainly simple. That’s what allows it to be so flexible. That’s also part of why it works. Its simplicity allows complexity. Its formal humility doesn’t resist adaptation. It may not be a sublime, sacred, sculptural object, but it is a logo with a plan — one with a clear role in a larger system — designed to connect, engage, motivate and mobilize a broad base of supporters over the course of 15 months.

To be sure, that system is not without its flaws. So far the typographic execution and the use of the arrow as a supporting graphic device have been labored at best. Alright, they’ve been downright hokey. But the campaign is still fleshing out its team. When the 2016 Design Director comes on board, I’m certian we’ll see a more sophisticated and consistent execution of the brand under her direction. Bet on it.

Awkward kerning and enormous, gratuitous arrows.

Part 4: All The Way Back To Meaning

Nothing Means Anything Until It Means Something
Logos are a lot like people; we want them to have both style and substance. We want them to be smart (but not smarter than us). We are attracted to them when we think they’re good-looking, but there is no universal standard. Some are serious and some are funny and some are progressive and some are traditional. When I meet someone well possessed of the qualities I admire, I have an easier time relating to them. When our personalities differ significantly, it can be harder. Hopefully, though, we still respect one another.

What’s important to remember here is that Hillary Clinton is, herself, a symbol. She represents a set of values, policies and priorities accrued over time. If those values and positions align favorably with yours then she is a predominantly positive symbol. Vice versa if not. Hillary, in other words, brings more meaning to her logo than her logo brings to her.