Trump is a F*king Amazing Designer

7 Design Lessons from Trump’s Terrific 2016 Campaign.

Tony Aubé
May 15, 2018 · 11 min read

For a while, I’ve been arguing that Trump is smarter than he seems. Every time I say that I get my share of surprised and condescending looks. I understand why. Trump says and does a lot of dumb things. Yet, at the end of the day, he was elected against extreme odds. This doesn’t happen by accident. The fact that he was elected is a testament that he and his team knew exactly what they were doing, and they executed it perfectly.

This doesn’t mean I agree with his politics. My political views are the polar opposite of his. However, I don’t believe disagreeing with someone means you can’t learn from them. Everyone has something valuable to teach you, and I believe it’s particularly the case with Trump.

Here are 7 design lessons we can learn from Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Simplify

After Trump’s announcement, it took a long time before he was considered a serious candidate. I believe a big reason for this is the way he talks.

When he speaks, Trump avoids long and complex words. Instead, he uses short and simple sentences. A study by the Boston Globe pointed out that Trump speaks at a 4th-grade level, the lowest of any presidential candidates. On social media, a lot of people shared this finding as proof of how much of an idiot he is.

Among all the candidate’s announcement speech, Trump’s score’s the lowest on the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease test.

I don’t think the way Trump talks is idiotic. I think it’s deliberate, calculated, and part of why his campaign was so successful. He explains it in one of his campaign’s most mocked moment:

Taken out of context, the “I have the best words” comment sounds pretty dumb. However, what he explains is that he could easily use complex and long words. He just chooses not to.

Trump understands that not all voters are equally fluent in English. A presidential campaign is all about communication — and good communication first requires people to understand you. With his simple vocabulary, Trump makes sure his words reach as many people as possible.

The way he talks also plays directly into the cognitive fluency bias. Because of our limited attention, human developed a positive bias towards things that are easy to understand. In other words: easy feels true. This bias plays a surprisingly big role in every part of our life where we weight information. It explains the products we buy, the people we find attractive and, as Trump understands it, the candidates we vote for.

As a French native, I used to worry that my limited English wouldn’t be good enough to publish on Medium. I did it anyway, and my stories turned out to be pretty popular. Looking back, I believe my limited English was a blessing in disguise. When I write, I don’t use long and complicated words because I just don’t know them. This forces me to stick to basic vocabulary and, in the end, everyone has an easier time reading me. While I used to be ashamed of my limited English, now I embrace it as one of my core strength.

What does this have to do with design? Copy is one of the most important part of any product design. To prove it, try to remove text from any product: the design completely falls apart.

Reminder: Design is still about words by Mig Reyes

Design is all about words, and when it comes to words, simple is usually the best. Understand that not all of your user will be equally fluent in English. Whenever you find yourself dealing with copy, try to simplify as much as possible. Have a bias for shorter words, shorter sentences, and shorter paragraphs.

Lessons learned:

1. Simplify your copy

The Boston Globe used the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease test to evaluate Trump’s speech. Whether you’re a writer or a designer, you should use this tool to review your work. Try to score as low as possible. Many versions of this test are available for free online. This story scores a grade level of 7, which shows I still have a long way to go to reach Trump’s level.

2. Learn about psychological bias

Trump’s incredible effectiveness comes from a very deep understanding of human psychology. This goes beyond simplicity. For instance, Trump also re-organizes the way he talks, so most sentences end with a keyword. This plays directly into the Serial Position Effect. Furthermore, by repeating the same words over and over, Trump takes advantage of the Illusory truth effect. Understanding human psychology is a key to become an effective designer (and it is a great tool for life in general). You can get started by reading Wikipedia’s list of cognitive bias, 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People and Universal Principles of Design.

Great Design Doesn’t Need to Look Good

Remember Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign? It had some pretty amazing designs. By far, the most memorable one was the universally praised and now-famous Hope poster.

Fairey’s Hope poster did a great job of underlying Obama’s promise while cleverly avoiding the issue of race.

From a design perspective, the 2016 campaign wasn’t very exciting in comparison. This FastCompany article argues that the campaign didn’t have any equivalent to the Hope poster. I disagree.

I believe the Trump campaign had the best design piece of this presidential campaign. No, I’m not referring to the suggestive Trump-Pence logo. I’m referring to the much simpler Make America Great Again” hat.

As designers, it’s easy to dismiss the hat as being bad. It’s sloppy, lazy, loud and completely unrefined. The typography is hard to read and the kerning is a disaster.

Yet, it worked. The hat was simple, cheap, unisex, familiar, and extremely practical during the hot summer rallies. Its bright red color, along with the memorable “Make America Great Again” slogan, were super effective. The hat was so popular it even took a life of its own. It became the source of countless memes, parodies, and controversies. Depending on who you ask, it was either a symbol of hate or free speech.

The hat was also a clever decoy: not only it allowed Trump to hide his infamous hairstyle, but more importantly, it also allowed him to completely rebrand himself. A trucker cap is as American as apple pie. By wearing one, Trump didn’t look like a silver-spoon billionaire anymore. He looked like a man of the people. The perfect anti-establishment outsider.

For these reasons, I believe the Make America Great Again hat was both this election’s Hope poster and one of the best branding of 2016.

Compare it to Hillary’s high-end branding, starting with the logo:

Hillary’s highly corporate, by the book, logo.

Design-wise, Hillary’s brand had everything to be successful. For starters, the logo, created by a senior partner at Pentagram (one of the best-reputed design agency in the world), had many of the same successful attributes of Obama’s campaign: clean, legible typography, colors, and a well-thought, design system. From a designer’s perspective, it was a great, by the book, well-executed design. And that was its downfall.

The problem with the brand is that felt completely corporate. This further positioned Hillary as being the establishment, which was exactly what Trump’s supporters were rallying against. Even the way it was revealed supported it. The reveal was treated like a MasterCard, Airbnb, or Uber. For Middle America, who felt that corporation failed them, this highly corporate identity felt emotionless and untrustworthy.

The Trump team doesn’t get credit for their incredibly effective design probably because it doesn’t even look like it was designed. I believe this was a calculated decision by Trump and his team. A simple look at Trump’s hotel chain clearly shows he and his team understand good, clean and refined design. They simply chose not to use it.

Lessons learned:

3. Don’t design for yourself

Looking back, I understand why I initially dismissed Trump’s design as bad: I wasn’t the target audience. The trucker cap speaks to the soul of his supporters. Hillary’s branding, on the other hand, was designed by designers for designers. While being technically good, it failed to reach the heart of the people Hillary needed to win the elections.

4. Great design doesn’t need to be expensive

Hillary’s logo was created by Michael Bierut, a senior partner at Pentagram. For such a project, Pentagram easily charges in the 6 to 7 figures. Compare this to Trump’s hat, which was likely made in a few minutes by someone with no formal design education. This is a humbling lesson for designers. Today, because design is so highly valued in the business world, it is easy for us to become somewhat of a design snob and fall into the trap of thinking what we like is the best. The Trump campaign is a reminder that good design can come from anyone and anywhere.

5. Great design can be ugly

Despite being one of the most effective designs of the year, the Make America Great Again hat would have never made it on the front page of Behance or Dribbble. While these platforms make incredible contributions to the craft of design, they also contribute to the increased confusion between beautiful design and good design. As a designer, it is important to understand that visual aesthetic is just one of the many tools in your toolbox. Sometimes, it is better not to use it. This is why websites like Drudge Report, Craigslist, and Wikipedia — who would be considered ugly by popular design standards — are also considered among the best-designed websites online. While the web re-invents itself every year, these sites have remained unchanged for decades, and they are still as popular as ever. This is great design.

Left: Great, functional and timeless design. Right: Trendy and bland.

6. It’s All About How People Feel

Here’s a funny video showing Newt Gingrich arguing with a CNN anchor about crime rates in the US. Even though the anchor supports her position with factual data from the FBI, Gingrich just doesn’t give in. He believes his point is equally true, and couldn’t care less about facts or statistics.

At first view, his whole argument sound completely silly. But then, Gingrich said something that stuck me:

“As a political candidate, I’ll go with what people feel, and I’ll let you go with the theoreticians.”

While I first thought Gingrich sounded dumb, after hearing that, I couldn’t help but have some empathy for what he was trying to say. This is because, as a designer, I also deal with how people feel every day. I understand how important it is.

People who laugh at this video are missing the point. Gingrich isn’t arguing the facts. He’s not even talking to the anchor. He’s having a completely different discussion with his own audience: the people watching television who are worried and scared. He’s tapping right into their emotions, and he’s slowly gaining their votes.

I believe this video is the perfect metaphor for the entire Trump campaign. Trump had a better understanding of human nature than his opponent — and most people don’t get how valuable that is.

This made me realize that politics and design aren’t so different after all. When you’re designing something, every single choice you make — whether it is copy, flow, colors, shapes or typefaces — it all boils down to one thing: the user-experience. How people feel.

7. Be Open-Minded

Like most of my friends — and probably a lot of Medium readers — when Trump first announced he was running for president, I initially dismissed it as dumb. I didn’t think he was a serious candidate and the idea of him winning the elections would have never crossed my mind.

After months of being continuously proven wrong, I became curious. I studied him. I watched Scott’s Adams explain how Trump uses A/B tested “linguistic kill shots to destroy his opponents. I watched Evan Puschak demonstrate how Trump manipulates people by the way he talks and how he uses Tweeter to redirect attention just like a magician. It blew my mind. Looking back, I learned more about psychology and design in a few weeks of studying Trump than I did in the past year.

This is a lesson on being open-minded. Do you ever find yourself thinking the world is stupid? Is there a breakout success that you simply don’t understand, and you assume that people who fall for it are dumb? It could be anything: Snapchat, Pewdiepie, Fifty Shades of Grey or Donald Trump.

When you find yourself thinking that a major cultural success is stupid, you should pause and reconsider. The odds are you are the one being stupid.

Behind every breakout success, there is always a fundamental piece of human psychology at play. By dismissing these, you deprive yourself of the valuable lessons you could learn by studying these successes.

The world we live in is rapidly changing. This is why your most valuable asset isn’t which college you went to or what grades you got. It’s your ability to learn and adapt. Albert Einstein famously said “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” Eric Smith explains why Google seeks to hire “learning animals” — people who are naturally driven to learn on their own. Warren Buffett says the secret to his financial success is that he continuously learns.

Creativity is about connecting the dots. The wider and most diverse your pool of dots is, the more creative and smart you will be. If you limit your learning to only the things you like, you are dramatically limiting your creative dots. You are essentially building your own creative filter bubble.

The best lessons I ever learned came from the most unexpected places. I learned as much about design from stand-up comedy, filmmaking, writing, and yes, from Trump’s 2016 campaign, than from years of design school.

Get out of your safe space. Look beyond your own filter bubble, seek out the things you think are dumb or silly, or that you disagree with, and try to understand them. You’ll end up better off in the long run.

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