Make Trump’s branding great again: in-house experts talk campaign design

donald-trump-logo-aiga-502For years Donald Trump has identified typographically with a variety of serif typefaces, just as long as they’ve come in gold. However, now that he’s set his sights on the Oval Office, he’s embracing a rebranding in shades of red, white, and blue. You already know how that particular reboot went down, and we have no interest in adding to the noise. What we do want is to engage in real analysis about why the design was so controversial and how it might have been improved. 

In lieu of an audience with Trump’s design team, we spoke with some of the members of the AIGA In-house INitiative Steering Committee to see what they make of the design direction taken by Mr. Trump’s campaign, and what a successful identity for commander-in-chief should achieve.

“It’s about functionality,” says Vanessa Dewey, art director at Mattel and special events director at AIGA Los Angeles. “With campaigns now stretching over a two-year cycle, the logo must be versatile and resilient, and ultimately needs to fit into a consistent program.”

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Donald Trump at a rally in Arizona, photo by Gage Skidmore.

In terms of consistency, Elizabeth Olson, the former vice president of design at P&G says Trump’s revised logo could hold up. “The initial Trump logo delivers on the ‘price of entry’ for any political campaign identity: The solid, straightforward typeface suggests the candidate is stable, responsible, and strong. The usage of all caps projects presence and leadership, as befitting the highest office in the land. The campaign promise is sized for clear communication hierarchy; the flush right and left maintains the stability of the centered position of the candidate’s last name while the ornamental frame and stars add a little interest.” 

So why the vehement public backlash?

According to Dewey, what Trump’s design direction lacks is an authentic personality. “Over the years watching the elections from the ’80s until now, it has always struck me how bland the branding has been for most of the campaigns—even Clinton in ’92,” she says. “All these logos and branding conveyed to me was suit-wearing, upper-middle-class white men, through their simple and unremarkable typefaces and variation of red, white, and blue. Even in the 2016 election, when designers have more access to amazing fonts and graphics, we see branding like Jeb!” 

While traditionally the bar may have been set very low for design in presidential campaigns, Dewey points to the 2008 Obama campaign as a notable exception—lauding both his official branding and the unofficial poster by Shepherd Fairey which conveyed something of the personality of the candidate within the all-American aesthetic.

It’s not to say Obama was elected solely on design merit. Olson emphasizes the logo alone won’t get you elected, but it can diminish your chances. “It must look professional, or it works against any promise that the candidate can be trusted. The amateurish design of the original Trump/Pence identity is proof of that. Even people who lack the expertise to criticize the design can look at it and just know that ‘something’s wrong.’”

But what’s wrong with it exactly?

“My personal reaction was immediate and visceral,” says Olson. “I always believe that design can prevail to produce great work, but like any other product, person, or service, there is work in deciding what the offering stands for and promises. Maybe the team’s brief was to communicate that the candidate is, indeed, ‘presidential’ (not just ‘commercial’ or even ‘mercenary’). If so, it met that brief.”

Unfortunately, simply meeting the brief isn’t enough at this level of visibility. “It could have gone further to give some sense of what distinguishes and defines the candidate. In order to do that, serious soul-searching, clear choices, and a commitment to consistency is required of the campaign and the candidate. Without those conditions, the design gets reduced to the common, generic denominator.”

donald-trump-new-logo-1000The new logo for the Donald Trump election campaign.

Though the branding fails to visually distinguish the identity or the candidate, one could argue that it’s better safe than sorry. But Olson points out how a status quo design could actually undermine Trump’s core political message. “This is particularly confusing, as the candidate contends that the current system is rigged. As a result, there is dissonance between the candidate and the promise of disruption and change. It’s an empty vessel.”

Jadalia Britto, of the Global Brand Design department of Colgate Palmolive agrees. Instead of taking the opportunity to highlight what defines his campaign, “The logo communicates and depicts Trump’s strong personality in his name rather than his ideology as a candidate.”

Trump’s failure to find a distinct voice for his visual identity is perhaps demonstrative of his campaign struggles in general. While he clearly feels he has the look and feel of a presidential candidate, entry-level graphics using a tried and tested vernacular fail to marry up to his promise of real change.