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Lessons in branding and communication design from the 2016 American presidential election

The 2016 American presidential election has thrown up all sorts of talking points, but let's keep this one restricted to communication design.

And let's start by acknowledging that all of the campaigns have been designed, however shambolic some of them seem. There's a definite plan - at least I'd hope so - which is evidenced by logo design, merchandise, advertisements, set design, tone of voice and much more.

For this short discussion, I'm only going to cover the two main candidates: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and some of the lessons we can learn from their campaigns.

Logos can be misinterpreted. Or not.

Hillary Clinton's logo was designed by Pentagram partner Michael Bierut, while no attribution has been given to Donald Trump's. Right from the start, that says Hillary Clinton is either more serious about, or more aware of, how important comprehensive branding can be.

Barack Obama's branding was great, with the cool logo and the optimistic slogans, and it certainly helped him become president. Neither of this year's main campaigns are as good, but both are effective in very different ways.

Clinton's campaign has tried to maintain optimism and inclusiveness, attempting to woo voters by telling them they're "better together". Her logo has been criticized, with some saying the arrow pointing to the right symbolizes a policy shift to the right, with others arguing it symbolizes progress. Another interpretation is that if you're behind her - i.e. support her - the arrow (viewed from behind) is pointing to the left. Whatever your interpretation, it's better than Trump's.

Donald Trump has simply gone for his name, as he has done with pretty much everything he's ever branded. It's far from exciting, but it's also not terrible. It's just...TRUMP. The slogan is pretty meaningless when you get down to it. America is the world's biggest economy and arguably the most powerful nation on earth politically. His desire to make it great 'again' draws the obvious questions of when was it great and why isn't it now? He doesn't seem to answer either question.

The takeaway is that logos can easily be misinterpreted: the 'obvious' reference in your logo design (like the arrow expressing progress) could be completely misinterpreted by somebody else. When it's just your name, of course, there's not much to misinterpret.

The point being that it takes much more than a logo or a slogan to create a brand, to be discussed below.


This is interesting when you consider the size of the candidates names compared to their running mates on their updated branding.


For Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine, the font size for their names is the same, giving an impression of equality. The only hint to hierarchy is Clinton's name being above Kaine, which visually defines their status should Hillary Clinton become president.

The alignment of the text is also pretty good - look how the first 'n' in 'Clinton' aligns with the 'i' in 'Kaine', for example. The kerning could be better, but overall it looks well thought-out and executed.


For Donald Trump and his running mate Mike Pence, the message is quite different: Trump is number one. The font size and spacing makes this visually obvious. This campaign is about Trump. Mike Pence is there because Trump needs a running partner. The text isn't spaced well, giving it an awkward, unbalanced appearance which only adds to the feeling of inequality and lack of full consideration.

Hierarchy is important in branding because it shows what you value in your branding, marketing and message. Giving prominence to words or images on your website, in your promotional materials and whatever else, guides people in certain directions and tells them what to expect.

Don't underestimate how powerful these seemingly subtle details can be.

It's not just about the logo

As mentioned above, it takes much more than a logo and a slogan to create an effective brand. The Nike swoosh means nothing by itself, but when we consider our own experiences and how they connect to that symbol, suddenly it has much more power.

In terms of the slogans, "Better Together" appeals to those who believe in more inclusiveness, equality and the power of unity. "Make America Great Again!" seems to appeal, much like the Brexit campaign, to those who hark back to a rosy past that probably never existed.

Both can be criticized quite easily. Why are Americans 'better together'? To help the economy? To fight terrorism? Or does it mean the whole world? If that's the case, what role is the US to play? And so on.

What exactly does make America 'great' again? On what terms? Political, economic, military? How about welfare, race and gender equality, education and safety?

The logo and the slogan can only say so much. They need to be backed up by genuine action and policies. And nothing should be overlooked.

Let's look at the set design both candidates have gone for. Clinton has been criticized for not displaying the US flag, while Trump has been criticized for displaying it a bit too much and looking like a nationalist. Both are clearly aiming at certain demographics, perhaps Trump's being easier to define.

Then there are the colours chosen, and no risks have been taken. Pretty much every candidate has gone for red, white and blue. Patriotism for all to see.

It's when you start to notice little details, like members of the audience, choice of location, things in the background, etc. that things become all the more interesting and the message of the brand begins to come together and make sense.

Which brings me onto...

Beware hidden messages.

In writing and branding, we often talk about tone of voice, which isn't limited to the actual tone of your voice. It includes, among other things, the overall feel of your brand, the messages you include in your promotional materials and on your merchandise, the images you invoke, the facial expressions and hand gestures you use and, naturally, the actual words you use.

On these terms, the two campaigns couldn't be more different.

Trump continues to paint a picture of an America that's in ruins: violent, dangerous, overrun with immigrants, failing at all levels, losing control, supporting other countries and getting nothing in return, losing out on every deal it makes and in danger of sliding even further down the pole if something urgent isn't done.

His tone is one of negativity and doom, of abject failure, and only he can save the country from certain ruin. Throughout the campaign he has smeared all opponents, both real and imagined. He has also lumped diverse groups of people together, particularly Muslims and Mexicans.

You'd think this kind of rhetoric would be shunned, particularly as the facts refute it, yet it's resonating with a lot of people. Many people aren't just upset, they're angry, and they take the "something needs to be done" message, and the so-called plain speaking behind it, to heart.

And when you read a newspaper or watch the news, who can blame them? There's a lot of bad news out there and people are frightened. In this respect, Trump's branding has worked incredibly well. He's tapped into genuine concerns, and perhaps a touch of latent xenophobia, and marketed himself as the answer.

Hillary Clinton's campaign has been much more positive. She doesn't see the US as failing, although she admits there are many things that could improve. She talks of inclusiveness and equal rights, and of fair treatment for immigrants and refugees.

Her main problems are of trust and authenticity. Especially early on in her campaign, she came across as not particularly authentic. Compared to Trump - who many people said "tells it like it is" - Clinton came across as too much like a politician and not a regular person.

In my opinion, she's done well to appear more authentic of late. While Trump repeats dystopian rhetoric to scare people into voting for him, Clinton prefers to stick to policies and facts. Even in that area, though, she's still not trusted by many people.

Then there are other differences you might notice: the diversity - or lack thereof - in the audiences attending each candidate's rallies, the choice of designs for the apparel they sell (see here for a comparison and draw your own conclusions: Clinton / Trump), and small details like the fact that Clinton's website is also available in Spanish.

In conclusion

This is only a basic overview of some of the considerations that go into creating a coherent brand, and hopefully it's highlighted some of the things to look out for.

The fascinating thing about viewing the presidential election as a branding and communication design study is that it's ongoing and unfolding before our eyes, and is very much on view.

For those points alone, it's well worth following.



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