The Use of Visual Communication Design + Messaging to Enhance the Political Brand
2020 Presidential Campaign Case Studies
The space of political branding is going to proliferate and grow more complex as voters gradually begin to consume more of their news through digital mediums. Political campaigns in the United States understand the importance of establishing an effective brand and visual identity as a means to cultivate an ideal persona and reach new voters. Through the lens of visual communication design, this paper assesses the brand identity and messaging strategies of four 2020 presidential candidates. I argue that a visual identity system and coherent messaging strategy must work in tandem for political brand campaigns to be effective. Visual communication designers and academic researchers must better understand the role of visual communication design within political brand strategy and assess its efficacy as a tool for effective political communication, especially given the rise of social media and political news consumption.
Red trucker hats emblazoned with the words “Make America Great Again” have become a cultural icon synonymous with the Trump presidency since 2016 (see Figure 1). The cap alone, with its familiar Times New Roman font, set in white against a bold red, might have appeared lackluster without the distinct voice and brand identity of Donald J. Trump, America’s 45th president. The visual design and communications strategy worked in tandem to create a message that resonated with voters and propelled an unlikely candidate into the highest office of the United States.
Often overlooked in academic research, visual communication design can be used as an asset to tie together a candidate’s political message by using distinct visual imagery that resonates in voters’ minds and leave them with an impression of the candidate overtime. Especially in the age of social media and viral content, having an effective visual identity system that can be rapidly deployed and distributed across various media streams, as well as a streamlined communications strategy, is paramount in effectively engaging and informing potential voters.
In the 2020 presidential election, over 20 candidates vied to become the next president of the United States. Many of them developed unique visual identities, forgoing traditional color choices and typefaces: Beto O’Rourke (see Figure 2) disregarded the traditional colors of red, white and blue often used in presidential campaigns and instead embraced a simple black and white motif; Kamala Harris (see Figure 3) with her red, purple and yellow hues and Elizabeth Warren (see Figure 4) with a mint green and navy blue color palette, both utilizing unconventional all-caps, sans serif typefaces. Pete Buttigieg (see Figure 5), with his rustic blue and deep yellow tones and curved letter forms, also crafted a unique open-source platform via his website that allowed anyone to access his campaign’s visual assets, accompanied by specific guidelines on how and when to use them.
Having an effective visual or brand identity, alongside a targeted communications strategy, can help voters better understand a candidate they are entrusting to safeguard their nation. It aids in conveying to voters their personality, their character, their story, their platform, and their agenda. Overtime, voters form an impression of a candidate and associate them with a specific set of values and cultural beliefs. This is political branding. Political candidates understand this and are allocating more resources to the crafting of their brand image. They are purposefully imparting an ideal impression of themselves to voters through a calculated and professionalized visual identity system.
Visual Identity System
A visual identity system is the visual language developed to characterize a candidate. It is composed of all the visual and graphical elements of a candidate’s campaign or brand. The logo is usually the most recognizable component of the visual identity system. Those identifying components were created using formal elements of visual communication or graphic design: typography, color, balance, and hierarchy. Complementary assets are also often generated, including patterns and imagery. Together, these elements build a comprehensive and consistent visual style. The visual identity system is then applied across an array of touch points, including: websites, posters, apparel, advertisements, and social media, among other collateral. These elements aim to convey a candidate’s beliefs, emotions, and values, and the most effective visual identity systems reinforce their candidate’s personality, values, and message.
Visual identity in political campaign design has traditionally been overlooked. Often in academic research, assessments of political branding have focused on communication strategies, but not specifically on how visual communication design can help enhance a candidate’s political message. I argue that visual communication design should not be overlooked in a campaign’s brand strategy, especially in an age where America sees a trend in political news consumption through social media (Mitchell et al., 2020).
This article addresses this gap between political branding and the position of visual communication design within its brand strategy, arguing that a comprehensive visual identity system can help cultivate a candidate’s ideal persona, especially if they are new to mainstream American politics. Most contributions to campaign brand analysis are currently done in professional circles or by type and brand enthusiasts. I believe more empirical research needs to be conducted with regard to visual communication and political branding in order to prove its efficacy and better understand the nuances of voter perception of a political candidate.
To assess this topic, I analyze the visual communication and brand strategies of four U.S. presidential candidates of the 2020 election: Joseph R. Biden, Donald J. Trump, Kamala Harris, and Pete Buttigieg.
For my findings and analysis, I will provide overviews of the strategies deployed by campaigns in how they utilized the visual identity system across the public sphere to convey to the public their values and vision for America. I will conduct a semiotic analysis of each candidate’s logo. Additionally, I will dissect select examples of their visual design in action. For instance, the use of certain graphic elements in the context of a social media post or in the form of apparel. It is difficult to distinguish form from messaging, so I will also look at the messaging strategy for each visual element. Lastly, in the discussion, I will assess what designers can learn about how visual identity and social media shapes the public perception of candidates.
Marketing and research practices are no longer confined to for-profit institutions but applied to political entities, including: whole nation-states, political parties and political candidates (Marshment et al., 2019). Under the umbrella of political marketing is political branding. A visual identity system sits within and works alongside both these frameworks. The branding of presidential candidates have been with the United States since its founding. Long before its professionalization, and well before modern advertising and marketing, campaigns have used imagery and messaging to appeal to the personal values of individual voters (The Library of Congress, 2012).
The modern political brand began with Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign (See Figure 6). What made Obama’s strategy effective was the application of his logo alongside his messages of and appeals to hope and change. His campaign employed new media strategies uncommon for its time: the development of visual assets made accessible for voters through his website, including: desktop wallpaper and posters. His campaign also used the internet to mobilize voters, and through this, his imagery and messaging became ubiquitous (Seidman, 2010). After 2008, social media campaigns were no longer an amateur activity, and campaigns invested efforts into better understanding this space and it became something to be studied, researched and specialized (Enli, 2017, p. 55). President Obama’s campaign was the first to effectively capitalize on multimodal avenues of digital campaigning and provided a blueprint for how the current arena of political branding and messaging operates.
The importance of visual identity in political campaigns
“The importance of visual language has never been stronger,” says Lukas Bentel, Co-founder of the branding agency, Hello Velocity. He adds, “Despite this fact, political coverage and analysis often overlooks the more subtle nuances of imagery that can silently but strongly influence the way we perceive candidates” (Brooke, 2019). Visual communication designers attempt to shape belief through the two-dimensional object. They attempt to engage and persuade an audience through the creation of symbols that the viewer interprets and attaches certain beliefs and values to. These symbols become a form of shared knowledge in society and when attached to a candidate, endows them with meaning (Tyler, 2006). I agree with Bentel and Taylor’s assessments and add that an effective visual identity system is not simply a visually pleasing logo, but must be implemented alongside a targeted communications strategy. For example, the potential virality of social media posts can prolong a candidate’s moment in the spotlight and amplify their messaging, and with a cohesive and consistent visual identity system, like the Obama mark, can help drive their brand image and identity into the minds of voters.
Political candidates are also aware of this importance and are uniformly allocating more resources to the development of a professional, targeted and intentional visual language in order to shape public perception.
My approach is threefold: one, provide a brief contextual background of each political candidate. Two, through the lens of visual communication, conduct a semiotic analysis of each candidate’s campaign logo. Three, analyze a visual asset of their campaign in action.
For the purposes of this inquiry, I reference a handful of resources on the topics of political branding, communication strategies, and visual communication design. I also refer to various news and media platforms that assessed or commented on the brand identity of the presidential candidates. Additionally, I use my personal experience as a graphic designer to contribute to the discourse on the visual design of political campaigns.
Visual communication design basics
The following elements of visual communication design are used in my assessment of the candidate’s campaign logos and visual assets.
A logotype uses letterforms to create a distinct visual image and is used as part of an overall visual brand (Lupton, 2010). The four campaigns I analyze use a logotype as their logo, as opposed to, for example, a symbol like Obama’s “O” motif in his 2008 campaign. Rather, the candidates use their first and/or last name as the basis for the visual representation of their campaign brand identity.
Typography is the visual component of a written word and encompasses all considerations about the visual appearance of type (Buttericks, 2020) and letterforms make up the fundamental components of all typographic communication (Carter et al., 2007). Visual communication designers use type to communicate an intended message to an audience.
In typography, a designer considers the fundamentals of visual communication design which includes: balance, hierarchy, and color. Spatial balance must be considered when arranging letterforms; their sizes, weights, spatial intervals, and other visual properties are adjusted until there is a unity achieved (Carter et al., 2008) between the letterforms. That is, until the design becomes balanced and pleasing to the eye. Visual hierarchy expresses the organization of content where the arrangement of elements is seen in a graduated series from most prominent to least prominent. When elements have similar characteristics, they must take on contrasting characteristics or with a cue, using shifts in scale, weight, placement, or color, to enable one element to take a dominant position over another in a composition (Carter et al., 2008; Lupton, 2010). Colors are used to convey a mood, describe reality, or codify information (Lupton & Phillips, 2015) and designers can use specific colors or color combinations, like red, white, and blue hues, to elicit cultural connotations and evoke an emotional connection to a brand.
The four campaigns I analyze are: Joe Biden, Donald Trump, Kamala Harris, and Pete Buttigieg. I chose President-elect Joe Biden and President Donald Trump because they were the winners of their respective political party’s 2020 presidential primaries. I selected Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg
because of their relative newness as political candidates in the American news media. They were also assessed for the following reasons: their typographic style in a presidential campaign, their communication strategies, and because of the importance of their candidacies as the first African American and South Asian Vice President-elect and the first LBGTQ+ presidential candidate to win in a presidential primary in the United States. This is not to say these are the best examples of visual identity in the 2020 presidential election, but given the constraints of time and informational volume, I decided to look at these particular candidates for the reasons above.
Background and Semiotic Analysis
Biden had some difficulty creating a strong resonating message in the early stages of the Democratic primary. “We wanted to win the internet,” declared Carahna Magwood, Deputy Design Director of Biden for President, on her goal after she joined his campaign. Magwood knew that, in order to win, she needed to rebrand the former Vice President and find his voice and generate better messaging (Magwood, 2020). Joe Biden announced his candidacy in April 2019 with the sans serif Brother 1816 typeface (Schwarz, 2020a), set in traditional hues of red, white and blue, a call to the familiarities of presidential campaign design and signaling to voters that he was a traditional and safe choice amidst the tumult of the Trump presidency (see Figure 7). Notice that he emits the word “for” from his logo, a mark of his confidence as a candidate and a bold declaration that he was ready to be president amidst his twenty competitors. The most notable element of his logomark is the “E” in Biden, differentiated by color, to represent the American flag, a nod to patriotism.
A sign that visual design mattered to his campaign was the transition to a new visual brand identity after he clinched the nomination and when he announced his running mate, Kamala Harris. His campaign hired Hoefler + Co., a renowned typeface agency, to rework his logotype to better suit his new image as the President-elect of the United States (see Figure 8). His cam-paign unveiled the new Biden-Harris logo and additional transition assets that evoke a more polished and serious tone. The new logo is more sophisticated, using deep muted blues. Also important to note is Harris’ name is set so that it is equal in length to Biden’s, symbolizing a strong partnership and equal footing with his running mate (Schwarz, 2020). This is significant because it lets voters know how he wants America to view this partnership, one that is based on mutual respect for the individual first in line to the presidency. This shift in both tone and image is a clear indication that messaging and visual design were important elements of their brand strategy, the elevation and elegance of the new brand design meant that they were taking Joe Biden’s image seriously and the strategy emerged at a crucial point in his campaign, at the announcement of who would be the 2nd most powerful politician in the United States following his inauguration.
Visual Identity System in Action
Along with a new logo, his team gradually introduced new visual assets that set a different tone for his candidacy. Amidst the tumult of the coronavirus pandemic, the campaign unveiled new imagery of Joe Biden, evoking a serious and somber candidate who was ready on day one to tackle the toughest challenges in America (see Figure 9). Rather than continuing with his vibrant color palette and imagery (see Figure 10), his campaign shifted to subdued blues tones on his website and the new imagery used offers a more mature and reflective candidate. Pictured is a resolute Joe Biden (see Figure 11) collecting his thoughts on his daily commute from Delaware to Washington, D.C., which he did for over 30 years in order to take care of his two sons after his first wife and young daughter were killed in a tragic car accident. This is meant to convey the seriousness with which he took his job as senator, tackling challenges for his constituents all the while being a father committed to raising his two young children. Contrast this with his early campaign imagery of a fun-loving, optimistic Joe who loves to eat ice cream.
These deliberate revisions tell us that the context of messaging strategies is important. With Biden moving into the position of President-elect, it was time for his candidacy to reflect the challenges facing the nation in 2020, with the U.S. grappling with a global pandemic and civil unrest in the wake of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor. It is apparent that visual communication design principles were examined when developing a new brand identity during the transition from his primary campaign and into the general election.
Background and Semiotic Analysis
The Trump campaign did not update its 2016 logo with the exception of updating the campaign year to 2020 (see Figure 12). The traditional red, white and blue hues are used, which are safe, traditional, and patriotic. They use a sans serif typeface, with their names “Trump” and “Pence” set in Akzidenz Grotesk and “Make America Great Again!” typeset in Montserrat (Schwarz, 2020c). The fonts are straightforward and unassuming, and lack a distinct character, in contrast to Trump’s bombastic personality. Trump’s name is larger than Pence, signifying a hierarchy in leadership. Surprisingly, Pence’s name is set in red, the brightest color in the palette. Color theory, taught early in visual communication design programs, teaches that the brightest colors are those first noticed with our eyes. This overlooked detail displays the lack of seriousness with regard to the campaign’s visual identity system. I reason that Trump’s name was set in blue for legibility, as well as to balance the Make American Great Again slogan below Pence’s name.
When you take a closer look at the Trump campaign’s design strategy, it is evident that it lacked a cohesive brand strategy. Across his campaign assets, the visual styles vary, with inconsistencies in typography, color, and feel. Take for example his campaign logo and the emblematic MAGA hat. Two different typefaces are used with the hat set in a familiar serif typeface versus his campaign logo (see Figure 13), which has the slogan set in a sans serif font with an exclamation attached at the end. These design inconsistencies clearly did not matter to voters and his MAGA hat is now the most recognizable political artifact in the U.S.
Visual Identity System in Action
Donald Trump signed paperwork to trademark his most famous and far reaching slogan, “Make America Great Again” in 2012. During his campaign for president, the ultimate design decision for the now ubiquitous red MAGA hats was made by Donald Trump himself after reviewing a few rounds of prototypes (Spodak, 2017). It is clear that, regardless of whether or not the was good or bad in terms of formal visual communication design, we can definitively say that it was effective as this hat has become a physical manifestation of Trumpism, with supporters proudly donning this hat at rallies, protests, and counter protests across the United States (see Figure 14). From the point of view of form, there is certainly one mistake that was overlooked: the two “G” letterforms do not match. The “g” in “great” is missing a downstroke compared to the “g” in “again”. This inconsistency was not officially fixed until five years later in June of 2020 during Trump’s second campaign for president (Schwarz, 2020b). The reasoning behind the design change is unclear but the fact that it took the Trump campaign over five years to correct this oversight is an indication that “good” formal design does not always matter. With regard to this symbol, the messaging of the “Make America Great Hat” coupled with Trump’s effective amplification of the meaning behind his slogan was enough to sustain this movement into the 2020 election and beyond.
Background and Semiotic Analysis
On Martin Luther King Day in 2019, from her hometown of Oakland, California, Kamala Harris announced her candidacy for president of the United States. The symbolism of this announcement did not end there. Her campaign design was simultaneously unveiled and it eschewed typical campaign design. Harris’ font choice of Bureau Grot, a bold, grotesque sans-serif typeface, was inspired by the historic candidacy of Shirley Chisholm (see Figure 15), who in 1972, became the first African American woman to run for president (Wide Eye, 2020). The type choice was also drawn from Muhammad Ali’s typographic boxing posters from the 1970s (see Figure 16), depicting a strong-willed, and confident fighter, paralleling Harris’ experience as an experience prosecutor who took on big banks and corporations as Attorney General of California.
The use of color and form works well here (see Figure 17): Kamala Harris is set in a different font color from her campaign slogan, “For the People,” creating a strong visual hierarchy as well as a connection to her message as a candidate who works on behalf of the everyday citizen, an implicit nod against special interests. The way that the type is set creates a unique visual form, setting it apart from most other campaigns that either used the candidate’s first or last name as the primary logomark. Unconventional hues of red and blue were chosen for the campaign’s color palette and a bold yellow and black were added, evoking a fresh, vibrant feeling, a reflection of a candidate who broke traditions and barriers on her way to becoming a candidate for the U.S. presidency.
Visual Identity System in Action
This graphic, of a young Kamala Harris with the words “That Little Girl Was Me,” was generated after a viral moment early on in Harris’s campaign at the first Democratic primary debate (see Figure 18). This moment became a point of contention between her and Biden’s campaign after a pointed and personal moment where they sparred over Biden’s record on his opposition to federal busing policy in the 1970s, where Harris was directly impacted as a child growing up in Berkeley, California, “There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school every day. That little girl was me.” (Nguyen, 2019).
Immediately following this debate moment, the Harris campaign released this graphic on her Instagram profile and began selling t-shirts with the same image, understanding that it was a moment to capitalize on, both in terms of name recognition and online fundraising. Those who did not watch the debate in real time were informed of this moment on her social media channels, with the introduction of new imagery of a serious, determined, elementary-aged Harris, personally impacted by the segregationist policies of the United States, now standing next to the man on the debate stage who once opposed the busing of African American children to white schools. Notice the integration of her brand language into this specific moment: the simple and impactful line, “That Little Girl Was Me,” is marked with the same red used in her logotype and the modified the tone of the picture to align with the purple of her color palette. This young Harris embodies the promise of change, progress, and opportunity of her country, fighting to break the barriers of racism and supremacy in America. This moment garnered the attention of the news media for days following the debate and generated her best day of online fundraising, raising over $2 million dollars in the 24 hours after the debate (Epstein, 2019).
Background and Semiotic Analysis
Pete Buttigieg’s logomark (see Figure 19) is typeset in Industry with customized curved forms at the baseline, following an abstracted bridge symbol that envelops his name. The use of his first name is intentional, with his last name, Buttigieg, too unfamiliar and difficult to pronounce. His strategy of going by “Mayor Pete” was to more easily ingrain his name into the minds of voters. The bridge represents the Jefferson Blvd Bridge located in South Bend, Indiana where Buttigieg was born, raised and also mayor for two terms. The bridge is a metaphor for the candidate, acting as a bridge between different generations, a connection between his midwest roots and the coast, an individual with progressive values from the American heartland. The nine-color palette is homey, vintage, approachable, evocative of his Rust Belt roots and sports paraphernalia. Each color reflects different aspects of Buttigieg’s life: Calm Blue evoking Buttigieg’s demeanor and the two brown colors, named after his dogs, Buddy and Truman (Segran, 2019).
Buttigieg’s rise to prominence as a contender in the 2020 presidential candidate was due, in part, to his campaign’s communications strategy, which relied on a structured, organized, and approachable brand identity. The campaign released a downloadable Design Toolkit (see Figure 20) which gave everyone access to campaign-approved design assets, that included posters, logos, color palettes, campaign photos, and specific guidelines for use of the assets. Furthermore, they hired artists to create typographic illustrations of every state, so that each state had a customized Pete 2020 poster. The intent behind this strategy was so his supporters could download his assets and use them but have a coherent visual applied across all mediums, whether it be for use on social media, pins, shirts, hats, posters, and the like. This strategy was done in the hopes of giving his campaign a recognizable look that voters would feel connected to. His sense of inclusivity and openness was an intentional messaging strategy and was also relayed through other assets.
Visual Identity System in Action
This “Rules of the Road” poster (see Figure 21) released by the Buttigieg campaign was introduced to relay his campaign values to the public. This easily digestible message served as an introduction to who Pete Buttigieg was and what his values were. As a newcomer to mainstream American politics, this was a deft strategy, using his campaign’s color palette to punctuate and highlight key words, with both his logo and signature at the bottom. It was disseminated across news outlets and social media channels. Stickers were also designed for distribution to his voters. This pledge made character a cornerstone of his election (Axelrod, 2019). These guiding principles set the tone messaging during the campaign trail and also guided how he and his campaign would behave. This simple messaging effort would also drive how his supporters would engage with rival campaigns when discussing policy differences. His campaign’s strategy was elevated when the Biden campaign, influenced by Buttigieg, also released their own campaign rules, called “Joe’s Codes” (see Figure 22) with Joe Biden personally writing about the importance of Pete Buttigieg messaging strategy (Biden, 2020). The broader message here is about accountability and both campaigns used the tools of visual communication design to reinforce their message in the broadest way possible through various social media channels where this message could best be amplified.
Established candidates vs. political newcomers
It is evident that developing a political brand identity is currently a nuanced and non-formulaic process. Its importance and relevance to a candidate is dependent on numerous factors. It is clear that for politicians such as Donald Trump and Joe Biden, having been in the public eye for decades lent them an advantage in this political branding space. Donald Trump did not need a sophisticated brand architecture because he was a public figure for decades before his campaign launch, with citizens already having an impression of his persona through his stint as the host of Celebrity Apprentice, where he was characterized as leading a successful business empire. Joe Biden was also steeped in a generation of political life and just spent the most of the last decade as Barack Obama’s Vice President, thus having cultivated his image over the years. It was not until he clinched the nomination that he formalized the brand image of his campaign and hired a well-renowned creative agency to establish a more dignified, polished and professional visual identity. Still however, we see how visual communication played a significant role in various aspects of their campaign: with Trump establishing an iconic artifact with his MAGA hat and Joe Biden rebranding his image and visual identity since becoming President-elect.
For candidates new in their political career, however, I believe that it was more crucial for their campaigns to establish a unique and identifiable visual language that set them apart from their competition. Political campaigns are aware of this and a clear expression of branding’s importance is in the development of campaign budgets for political branding (Schneider, 2004). Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg both hired creative agencies to build out their political brand campaigns, signifying the importance of a cohesive visual identity system as part of their overall marketing and messaging strategies. Furthermore, candidates who did not have an established brand identity allowed themselves to be more adventurous in their visual identity design. Both Harris and Buttigieg, and others in the 2020 Democratic primary, decided on non-traditional hues and unique typefaces, a contrast to more traditional tones of red, white and blue and serif typefaces typical of political campaigns. This approach perhaps signaled to voters a fresh vision and new approach to traditional politics. Visual communication design can help enhance and shape the identity of a candidate. It is certainly not the only facet of the political brand: candidates must have the skill and charisma to capture and engage voters but I argue that visual communication design is an effective tool that should not be disregarded within political brand strategy, especially if the candidate is new in their political career.
This article discusses the importance of visual communication design
within the brand strategy of political campaigns. I overview political branding and how visual communication design can be used as an asset within this framework to enhance a politician’s ideal persona. I discuss the relevance of visual communication design in the context of the 2020 presidential campaign, using four presidential campaigns as case studies for my analysis.
I assess the following presidential campaigns: Joseph R. Biden, Donald J. Trump, Kamala Harris, and Pete Buttigieg. First, I provide a brief background on each candidate and conduct a semiotic analysis of their logo. Finally, I assess a component of their visual asset in action.
It is evident through my findings that a visual identity system must be implemented alongside a strategic communications strategy to maximize the potential for influence and connection to voters. It becomes clear that it is more crucial for candidates who are younger in their political careers to establish a unique brand identity in order to define their agenda and values, and set themselves apart from their competition and gain voter trust and confidence.
The area of political branding will proliferate and increase in its importance given the rise of social media and news consumption. Americans are increasingly obtaining their political news through social media channels and political campaigns need to understand the influence of social media on political brand identity. I believe that it is important to examine this future space of political messaging and brand identity and define areas where academic researchers can investigate its efficacy. I argue it is crucial that visual communication designers explore how social media-use influences political knowledge as it will continue to grow as a tool for political communication. Due to this, it is also pertinent to assess how political campaigns can use their visual identity system and communication strategies to maximize their impact in this emergent political domain.
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