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  • POTUS Typographicus: Appealing to the Baseline and George W’s Typographic Legacy

    Karl Rove may be a brilliant strategist, but he knows absolutely nothing about good typography. He’d better get his ascenders in gear if his White House minions plan to continue placing banners and digital backdrops above, behind, and below the President while he’s making those key speeches. So far these ersatz billboards—with slogans like “A Brighter Future for America,” “Plan for Victory,” and “Protecting America’s Borders” underscoring W’s major themes and talking points—have been typographic monstrosities on an aesthetic par with those hideous subway advertisements hawking Dr. Zizmor, New York’s most publicized board-certified dermatologist.

    Whatever one thinks about this administration’s domestic and foreign policies, the White House’s garish type selections are so thoughtless they trivialize rather than enhance the rhetoric of our POTUS (no, not a synonym for doofus—or that substance he used to smoke—but rather the Secret Service’s acronym for President of the United States). While his handlers would never allow the leader of the free world to go out in public wearing a rayon leisure suit and white bucks, they nonetheless use clownish shareware typefaces with hokey beveled edges and cheesy drop shadows to represent his ideas.

    Bush’s typographic transgressions—or POTUS typographicus—began on May 1, 2003, when the President announced America’s victory over Saddam Hussein from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln as the carrier steamed toward San Diego harbor. His triumphant entrance, emerging from a jet-fighter cockpit, was precisely choreographed to stoke the patriotic flame for a war well fought and presumably won. Yet to ensure that the public really understood and appreciated this historic message, someone felt the need to create the now famous “Mission Accomplished” banner. Its presence—akin to those premium-space LED screens at sports stadiums—was so imposing that one would have had to be dead not to notice it. Appearing as a Photoshop rendition, typeset in a bastardized, souped-up version of the otherwise elegant Bodoni and printed to give the illusion that it was floating atop an American flag, the sign spanned the length of the carrier’s bridge and served the same purpose for the politically challenged as closed-captioning does for the hearing impaired.

    All the components—from a flight-gear-clad POTUS to the commanding “Mission Accomplished” slogan—created an essential mnemonic that Rove hoped would catapult W into American history as the first commander in chief to actually win a war since that one with Germany and Japan in 1945. Nonetheless, events in Iraq did not go as planned (or as touted), and a few months later reporters began questioning the origins of the banner: was it the navy’s idea or a White House spin operation? The New York Times referred to it as “the banner that will not go away.” By November 2003, when the Iraqi insurgency was gaining momentum, the White House reluctantly admitted it had created the banner, but as the Times further stated, “No one seems to want to take credit for coming up with the idea.”

    But this debacle has not prevented the White House from penning more slogans and designing additional signs set in garish types with clichéd graphic gimmickry derived from overused Photoshop filters. And what a bag of tricks they are. The most persistent is the use of Roman-like faux intaglio and engraved letterforms to give an air of authority and truth—although the effect is more Las Vegas casino. To celebrate the fourth anniversary of the “No Child Left Behind” act, someone got a little creative and added a drop shadow to a font that fakes the look of chalk or crayon lettering. This is only one evolutionary step away from introducing the Lariat font (novelty letterforms made from rope) whenever W is speaking from Crawford, Texas. Another intelligent design trope is the use of secondary colors to “complement” the classic red, white, and blue backdrops at many of his speeches. Sparkling gold and silver are now favored, as if a little bling might instill ideas pimped by POTUS with a certain regal street cred. He bad!

    No president before Bush—not Kennedy, Reagan, or Clinton—relied on such huge typographic statements to get their messages across. I checked 100 or so photographs of past presidents’ major speeches and saw no such signs or banners for “The New Frontier,” or even “The Evil Empire.” Their respective oratory did the job just fine without any need for read-along subtitles. But the current administration, perhaps worried that Bush’s less than commanding oratorical style could have an adverse or emetic effect, has committed to using visual/verbal aids—like cue cards aimed at the audience—to steer our gaze straight to the point. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in this age of diminished attention spans, but the strategy would be more effective if the White House communications department hired real typographers and graphic designers instead of computer geeks.

    “Sparkling gold and silver are now favored, as if a little bling might instill ideas pimped by POTUS with a certain regal street cred.”

    Whether they are geeks or bumbling DIYers, the evidence of typographic disregard—and malfeasance—continues unabated. During 2005 and into 2006 a string of new slogans appeared around podiums at speeches, bill signings, and town meetings—all annoyingly typeset in disproportionately large and small caps, some in bastardized versions of Optima, Copperplate, and other barely recognizable sans serif fonts. The reasoning makes sense: signs add content and context to photo ops. When W poses in close proximity to these illuminated slogans, it’s as though he becomes a living political poster. In fact, during the White House’s November 2005 blitz campaign, designed to goose sagging poll numbers on Iraq, type treatments for the demonstrative “Strategy for Victory” and the less effusive “Plan for Victory” were featured on newspaper front pages throughout the United States and abroad. Even when set so atrociously (and with all the subtlety of a PowerPoint presentation for a financial-services company), the slogans served as alternative headlines that spoke without ambiguity.

    Rove is expert at conveying “on-point” messages to the Republican “base.” So whether or not a typeface has subtle nuances that tickle a typographer’s fancy is irrelevant. Like socialist realism, POTUS Typographicus must be base as well as direct, clear, and downright all-American (no French or German typefaces are tolerated). Yet it is a mistake to disregard type’s nuances; even a seemingly neutral face adds to—or diminishes—a message. For instance, when the President addressed the White House Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Leadership Conference in March 2005, the sign bearing the slogan “Compassion in Action” was set in an expressionless serif font so bland that it removed any hint of ingenuousness from the word compassion.

    “When W poses in close proximity to these illuminated slogans, it’s as though he becomes a living political poster.”

    There is no historical reason why this White House should care about typography. Throughout the twentieth century the common charts and graphics used during Congressional hearings have been routinely lackluster. (And have you noticed that the Presidential seal has not been redesigned since Truman was in office?) Although good design is not totally ignored by government, as evidenced by the old Presidential Design Awards program inaugurated by Richard Nixon, it has never been near a top priority; there has never been an U.S. undersecretary of design. (Incidentally, I’m available.) Still it is not unreasonable to expect that the most powerful nation on earth could afford more sophisticated typography.

    Why must signs used at the celebration of important initiatives like “Preventing Human Trafficking” or “Stem Cell Therapeutic and Research Act of 2005” be routinely set without any respect for leading or word spacing—and then printed in gold? What’s wrong with a little more attention to detail? Will it make government bigger? Will it eat into the tax cuts for the rich? Will it make the nation soft? Beveled edges and Photoshop drop shadows may be fine for candy bar and football logos, but they don’t give our country the credibility it wants or, for that matter, deserves. In the final analysis, good typography is patriotic.

    Originally published in Metropolis, May 2006. Reprinted with permission.

    About the Author: Steven Heller, co-chair of the Designer as Author MFA and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts, is the author of Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press), Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (Phaidon Press) and most recently Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned (Allworth Press). He is also the co-author of New Vintage Type (Thames & Hudson), Becoming a Digital Designer (John Wiley & Co.), Teaching Motion Design (Allworth Press) and more. www.hellerbooks.com
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