What We’re Not Talking About When We’re Talking About the Presidential Campaign Logos

Presidential campaign logos are often criticized for any number of reasons, but there’s one important aspect that’s often left out of the discussion. Amongst designers, the critiques themselves are often heavy-handed and short-sighted.

And I’m one of the worst offenders.

As a designer, I have one of those fortunate roles of being compensated for having an opinion on things. Much like the inflammatory radio talk show host and the personal shopper at an upscale department store in Manhattan, I get to show and tell how I feel about any number of things on a daily basis. Granted, my vocabulary may be a little different, in that I speak in layouts, colors, screen flows, and the like — but with an archetypal role as influencer, my core responsibility is to investigate nuance, dig it up, and put it on display for everyone else. If I’m really feeling high and mighty, I might say “for the greater good,” but I digress.

Honestly, it’s pretty fun. And it makes for some great party tricks. Hand on my heart, when I was teaching publication design at a high school in southern California, I could spot a student’s spacing error of two pixels from all the way across the room. Another time, a friend showed me a nifty coaster he’d nabbed at a convention, with a radical logo stamped at its center. “Too bad the alignment’s off, it would have been so much better,” I remarked, arrogantly. He wanted proof, so I tossed it into the air with a flick of the wrist, giving it a nice spin. The coaster spiraled all the way up and all the way down about its axis, and revealed the unfortunate truth about its off-kilter decoration.

It’s easy for designers to miss the demarcation between work and play, because when they’re one in the same, it’s nearly impossible not to take a keen eye and a sharp wit everywhere else. If you’ve ever befriended a designer, you know what I mean.

And then there’s the tiny fraction of us who are in a whole other universe. (courtesy of Randall Munroe at xkcd.com)

I’m convinced, then, that the recent onslaught of presidential bid announcements and their accompanying logos has been, at least in part, an effort to lure the design community out of its hole of a wacky office and mark itself as a pseudo-elitist organization that preys on the gross aesthetic ignorance of plebeians. Of course, we fall for this trick every four years and take the bait hook, line, and sinker. Try as we might, keeping ourselves from a design criticism opportunity has the same significance as Homer passing on a donut, or House letting symptoms go undiagnosed.

Even as I write this, it’s hard not to mention the blaring typographic errors, the predictable color and pattern choices, and the impressively blasé iconography (how did they make it more boring?) that proliferate the field of presidential campaign logos. In fact, it almost seems to be a prerequisite to be in possession of an unchallenging mark if one is making a play for the executive office. Of course, there are exceptions, and I’ll risk the deafening roar of every eye rolling by mentioning that the Obama campaign utilized the nonpareil logotype of any presidential candidate. Ever.

Up until now, I’ve been using the term logo quite liberally, as “real” logos generally meet a very specific criterea, among them simplicity, memorability, timelessness, versatility, and relevance. For the designer with something to prove, those first four tenets are rattled off in quick succession during the critique of a design, as they are usually the easiest to defend, hardest to counter, and — because they do this stuff for a living — allow the designer enough conceptual room to suggest alternatives that better align to those four tenets.

from @Larkef

But the fifth tenet — the one that we’re not talking about when we’re talking about the presidential candidacy logos — is relevance, and relevance is an outright bitch to defend well, so much of the time we leave it out if the critique. Relevance suddenly opens up the entire design process to multiple branches of pursuit, chief among them sociology, psychology, and other “soft” sciences that are only called that by “hard” scientists who don’t know any better. Relevance has to do with having a general knowledge of one’s own audience, ranging from their preferences, personal histories, and both the specific and larger narratives that surround their demographics. In short, it’s equal parts research, boots on the ground, refinement of one’s taste, and trust of one’s gut.

from @Larkef

It’s maybe the most difficult and comprehensive aspect of this wonderful job of ours, because any nephew with a copy of Illustrator can draw a bezier curve, provided he’s being compensated with food. But that same nephew might not understand the pressures of a small business owner, the satisfaction of a newly-minted trade school graduate, the grapplings of a university economist, or the passion of a protestor. Designing for them and everybody else requires a sophisticated level of empathy that most of us miss, and in an ego-driven field like this empathy often gets left behind. But empathy is the lynchpin to which all of the other tenets of design are subject, and the key to effectively communicating across all kinds of human experiences.

Let’s bring relevance and empathy back to the critiques, and go a little easier on some of the more lackluster presidential logos out there. After all, as Paul Rand (a demigod of design, if there ever was one — not Rand Paul, the presidential candidate) reminded us once,

“A logo derives its meaning from the quality of the thing it symbolizes, not the other way around.”

Such an observation should clue us in to an underlying truth of logo design: when you attack a logo that represents a person and leave empathy by the wayside, you sully the value of your critique. Worse, you run the risk of implicitly attacking the person it represents and the people supporting her/him. Case in point: calling someone’s logo a “piece of shit” doesn’t do much to either advance design awareness or facilitate healthy conversations. There’s a fine line separating parody and putdown, and a savvy critic can tell the difference.

And now if you’ll excuse me, my uncle is starting a lawn care company and needs an entire identity system designed. It’s due tomorrow, and I’m being paid in sandwiches.

My first foray into human flight was when I was 6. I fell like a rock, but my head stayed in the clouds. I design for IoT, travel, and write @ sparkpunk.com