Graphic Meaning and the Median Voter
by Virginia Postrel • Oct 18, 2004 at 11:54 am
At a speech to graphic designers last week, I cited the October 9 NYT op-ed by Scott Dadich on "the visual messages of the two candidates" to demonstrate how aesthetic elements take on meanings through association--and how those meanings can vary from person to person. Dadich, the creative director of Texas Monthly and a self-described Democrat, writes that the Bush-Cheney logo is:
brash and snazzy: a field of powerful, militaristic navy blue punctuated with the four letters of his surname spelled out in white in what appears to be Folio Extra-Bold Italic letters. (Even the name of the font sounds forceful, doesn't it?)
The effect is striking, simple and progressive. The rightward lilt of the wide, capital letters reinforces Mr. Bush's ideology while at the same time portraying a buoyant sense of forward movement, energy and positive change. The type is strong without being oppressive, nimble without being fanciful - a successful construction reminiscent of the 1992 Clinton-Gore logo. Add a simplification of the American flag - 20 stars and seven stripes - and a supportive "Cheney" in a smaller font underneath, and you've got a strong visual hierarchy that reinforces the candidate's spoken message that he is a firm and resolute leader....
A typical Kerry logo displays the same inconsistency that his opponents accuse him of. A steady visual message requires the consistent use of the same font over and over again. On a typical drive to work, I encounter no fewer than five typefaces used in as many different Kerry-Edwards logos. One is stretched out; another is condensed. One looks masculine; one looks feminine. In contrast to Mr. Bush's aggressive sans-serif font, Senator John Kerry's multitudinous font choices center on the use of thin, delicate-looking, "girlie-man" type. No wonder some voters think he's a vacillating wimp.
In letters to the editor, some readers disagreed. John Thomas, an associate professor of graphic design at Northeastern University, wrote:
Serif types are the original typographic forms of the Roman alphabet. Sans-serif types are derivative letter forms that have been stripped of their serifs (as the name implies, if you know a little French!), a simplification that lends itself to short, simple messages.
Sans-serif type is the medium of corporate graphics and sound bites; it is associated with selling and spin. Serif type is the medium of books, editorial and content; it is associated with learning and knowledge.
When looking at the Kerry logo, you do get what you see, but some see intelligence, wisdom and integrity.
And Kevin Salatino, curator of prints and drawings, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, commented (so vociferously that I at first thought his letter was a parody):
As a curator of prints and drawings, I know a thing or two about meaning in graphic design. The fat, crowded, sans-serif capitals of the Bush-Cheney logo connote lethargy, rigidity and intolerance, and their partisan rightward tilt is stopped in its tracks by a poorly designed flag that looks like a trio of speed bumps.
The typography of the Kerry-Edwards logo draws upon a rich history, from imperial Rome to the classical revival of the Renaissance.
If you question its weight and authority, just look at the lettering on most bank buildings.
It connotes dignity and rectitude, and its refusal to slant right or left suggests inclusiveness and centrism, as do the 50 stars on John Kerry's handsome flag.
Even experts disagree. Meaning is in the eye of the beholder. And regular voters may not see what the experts see at all. Reader David Noziglia emails this question:
Why do the campaign posters for the two candidates look so much alike? Now, I'm no Scott Dadich, to look at the details of shade and font (and to spin the result for my candidate). All I can see is a blue background, the candidates' names in white, the American flag attatched to the names, and a red stripe on the bottom with, respectively, Kerry's slogan and Bush's url. The arcane details that Dadich treats with such importance aren't nearly as striking to me as the sameness of the basic design. What is this? Have the campaigns gone to the same design houses, who went to the same focus groups, who decided that this is the One Best Way?
In this reading, the logos graphically express what political scientists call "median voter theory." In a two-party system like ours--mathematically, the constitutional arrangement leads to two parties, no matter how much alternatives squawk--candidates will crowd the middle, the better to attract as many votes as possible. When designing a logo to attract 50 percent plus one, the most important thing is not to alienate people, and you can't go wrong with red, white, and blue. (Jimmy Carter's unusual excursion into green, like Jimmy Carter's presidency itself, just demonstrates how odd post-Watergate politics was.) But, of course, candidates also need to hold their bases; hence, the typographical and rhetorical signals that only the especially attuned pick up. And the electoral college adds a wrinkle to the median voter theory of design. What you really need to know is what kind of typeface they like in Ohio.