Branding Hillary 2016 and the Semiotics of Neoliberalism

The Baffler Magazine No.57

Branding Hillary 2016 and the Semiotics of Neoliberalism

Writer: Lucas Sharp

Hillary 2016 Campaign

WHEN IT COMES TO POLITICS, CONTENT IS KING. Our obsession (mine included) with the horse race of presidential politics leads us to obsess over the minutiae of campaigns, and in this endeavor graphic design is tasty chum. After all, in a world this batshit insane, analyzing inconsequential matters like font choice is an appealing distraction from darker topics like, say, the fact that our planet is dying.

What follows is a post-op of the Hillary 2016 visual identity, in the parlance of the profession. Its intent is not only to learn from history in order to produce better work for better candidates in the future, but also to understand the responsibility of the profession in contemporary politcs.

In a functioning democracy, our role as designers and communicators should be to make a candidate’s ideas and policy positions clear so that voters are better equipped to make a free and informed choice. Hillary’s campaign design was considered a success though it did little to articulate policy positions, which corporate Democrats assiduously avoid for good reason. Although graphic design was at most barely consequential when it came to the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, the design of the campaign materials is inextricably intertwined with the political realities of the Clinton campaign organization, and as such, I’m about to betray my own political leanings. While the “content issue” in her campaign is a glaring one, this piece is not meant to be a hit job on Hillary. Instead, I will examine past approaches to the visual “branding” of American presidential candidates and how they reflected the political realities and power dynamics of their time, and use these perspectives as a means of glimpsing the horizon of the possible. I believe Graphic Design has an incredible potential for political organization, but no graphic treatment can substitute for ideology, it can only serve to amplify it.

As Graphic Designers, we weren’t the only wonkish set of experts who got our asses handed to us that fateful night in November ‘16, and even on the other side of four years of Trumpism it’s going to take some serious red-pilling for all of us to truly understand what went wrong. After all, by industry standards and conventional wisdom, everyone involved in the campaign’s visual identity did a fantastic job.

The Electoral Marketplace

Throughout American history, our political visual communications have roughly been congruent in style and approach to the commercial advertising of their day. Theoretically capitalism, like voting, is all about choice. So it follows that the same capitalist mechanisms of persuasion: advertising, marketing, and later branding, would all naturally come to be applied to political contests.

Neoliberalism is a term that’s become squishy in public discourse lately, but its common modern usage refers to a hyper-capitalist political and economic philosophy characterized by globalization (foreign labor competition to beat back domestic labor), unfettered capital flows, and mass privatization of previously public spaces and resources, all in order to subsidize a permanent, partially meritocratically determined ruling class, that typically refuses to pay much in taxes. This way of thinking has become the unassailable consensus among most of the world’s politicians, coming to dominate both major American political parties by the mid 1980s. In practice, seeing the effects of neoliberalism can be a bit like trying to identify the contours of a white object on a white background. It’s hard to imagine anything that’s beyond the reach of capital.

This effect is sometimes known as hypernormalisation, a term first coined by Alexei Yurchak to describe the state of mental impotence experienced by citizens of the Soviet Union during its faltering last years, and more recently associated with filmmaker Adam Curtis. It’s a state of mind in which people know that the system they live under is dysfunctional and wrong but, lacking alternative modes of being, they accept it at face value. So even when the wrongness is in full view, they choose to look away. We know our system is broken. It’s not just rising wealth inequality and rampant social injustice, the world is now also on fire and all the animals are dying really fucking fast.

Neoliberalism is so hypernormalised that it can be almost impossible to lift its curtain up far enough to question the merits of our actions, like a presidential hopeful making tons of money giving speeches to rooms full of Wall Street executives, for example, or treating a presidential campaign like a corporate branding exercise. It’s how the most highly decorated members of every politics-adjacent technocratic discipline in the nation (graphic designers included) assembled behind a candidate and still managed to pull off the most humiliating political loss in American history.

Even catastrophic “system failure” events like Trump’s 2016 victory do not shake the neoliberal orthodoxy. Hillary, for example, has taken zero responsibility, opting to blame the entire fiasco on Putin and Bernie. Damn you Fortuna, you capricious sprite!

Michael Bierut, the brilliant scion of Graphic Design behind the Hillary 2016 visual identity, had some interesting but ultimately impotent reflections on how the election played out. Unable to reconcile the events with his understanding of the world, he meekly pointed to the colloquial homemade pink “pussy” hats worn by participants of the Women’s March. Michael was right, of course: those incredible pink hats did contain an inscrutable kernel of elusive truth. Those resplendent pink pussies constituted a truly democratic political statement, participatory in both its conception and practice. I am not advising that politicians embrace or knit or wear said hats, I am merely pointing out that those hats were the symbolic antithesis of the official 2016 Hillary campaign identity. The fact that nobody questioned the merits of applying the aesthetics and principles of a corporate visual identity to a presidential campaign, [[even one in which such human issues as bodily autonomy and the right to equal health care, as the protest hatmakers showed, were at stake]], shows what a severe state of hyper-normalized neoliberalism we all inhabited.

Elections are the means by which individuals in a democratic society collectively exert agency over their institutions. Corporate branding is one of the many ways in which powerful corporate entities exercise agency over individuals. These two obviously opposing forces can only be assumed to belong together in a world in which individuals have no agency beyond consumption, as atomized organs of capital. To those of us working on the campaign identity at the time, voters were shoppers browsing the aisles of the political marketplace, looking for the shiniest product. I would like to offer my fellow professionals an alternative approach, but it will require us to challenge ourselves in ways we are not accustomed to being challenged as commercial designers. We must approach the way we think about design in the context of politics differently, because capitalist and democratic endeavors are by definition distinct, and require vastly different approaches and strategies.

A Little History

Although a more complete survey of presidential campaign materials going back even further would be all the more informative, for the purposes of this article, I have chosen four examples that I think best illustrate the origins of American political visual strategy in the neoliberal era. Our story begins at the dawn of a prosperous and triumphant post-war America.

The collection from the library's vault includes a miniature I8th-century atlas from France and a book from William Morris's Kelmscott Press. But the publication that receives the most enthusiastic reception is an 19th-century artist's scrapbook containing hundreds of capital letters. "These drop caps are insane,” says Lucas Sharp, who co-founded Sharp Type in 2015 with Chantra Malee. Partners in business and life, the duo's firm counts Samsung, the Royal Danish Theatre and La Repubblica among its clients. “We're part of a pretty niche and esoteric industry," savs Lucas. "It's not something that a lot of us think about, yet type design is omnipresent in just about everyone's life."


Eisenhower-Nixon, 1952

Eisenhower was swept into office by a body politic united in opposition to communist Russia and by the victory and trauma of World War II. The 1952 Eisenhower-Nixon campaign materials were characterized by affable, rhyming catchphrases and unironic declarations of personal loyalty. By and large, Americans had more faith in their institutions and way of life than at any other point in modern history—thanks in large part to their relative economic prosperity—and the earnestness of the resultant graphic materials is striking.

Whimsical, alliterative taglines like Alka Seltzer’s “Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz, Oh What a Relief It Is” and Brylcreem’s “A Little Dab’ll Do Ya” being a common advertising trope of the era, Eisenhower’s iconic “I Like Ike” buttons reflected the ardor with which Americans sought to affirm their faith in both public and private institutions and their society’s greater moral purpose: ensuring the victory of freedom and capitalism over tyranny and communism.

Note that the narrative voice of Eisenhower’s campaign slogan is speaking in the first person. “I like Ike” was an earnest expression of participation that caught on quickly, appearing in both official and unofficial campaign materials, including those from citizen groups, unions, social clubs, and other political organizations–each producing their own unique graphic materials. By today’s hyper-rigid branding standards, this assortment creates a visual effect of democratic participation, simply by virtue of it looking slightly uncoordinated—a far cry from the often ruthlessly enforced homogeneity of the Hillary 2016 campaign.


Carter-Mondale, 1976-80

By 1976, serious fault lines were forming in the cultural consensus of the post-war period. Rocked by a turbulent time of radical change and the challenging of racial and patriarchal power structures; disillusioned by horrific political assassinations, nineteen years of meaningless bloodshed in Vietnam, the constant threat of nuclear annihilation by the USSR, and finally the ultimate humiliation of Watergate, America elected a man who gave them a sober and honest assessment of the many problems facing their country. His prescription? Less war, but also austerity and massive deregulation. Somewhat ironically, it was Carter who opened the door to some of the neoliberal economic policies that Reagan and Thatcher turned up to 11. The Washington establishment and prideful Americans everywhere convulsed under his program of fiscal austerity, harsh critique of their culture, and bad publicity. The initial success and subsequent epic failure of Carter’s aesthetic strategy contains crucial lessons that the architects of the Hillary 2016 campaign would have done well to examine.

Reform was a fundamental aspect of Carter’s political persona, and with that came an implicit admission of past failures. Carter’s campaign visuals in ‘76 and ‘80 are the least nationalistic in American history, omitting almost entirely the traditional motifs of flag symbology, monuments, and even red/white/blue color schemes. The choice of white type on a green background applied so consistently was striking, and the contrast of this approach to all previous strategies cannot be overemphasized. The utopian vision for society that Carter’s campaign materials spoke to felt like a new way forward. In 1976, in the aftermath of so many failures, America was finally ready to eat its vegetables. Carter’s aesthetic strategy in ‘76 was a brilliantly timed departure from traditional patriotic American political aesthetic motifs.


Reagan-Bush, 1980-84

In 1980, Reagan—embodying a distilled image of the mythological American frontier hero—wrapped himself in the flag and steamrolled the re-election campaign of Jimmy Carter by nearly 10 points. Reagan was a cultural icon of American nationalist strength and his victory was a rejection of the Carter narrative (the “crisis of confidence,” his mild critique of U.S. imperialism, even the fact of asserting the need for reform). Of all the visual research I’ve done, I found in Reagan’s candidacy and aesthetic strategies in ‘80 and ‘84 the most synergy between popular consumer culture and political visual communications.

His campaign and graphic materials told the story of a great and noble society led astray by an occupying gang, and of a man on a big, white horse who would rustle the belligerents out of town and reclaim the mantle of American greatness. The former movie star played the role brilliantly and, pitted against a collapsing hostile superpower, acted out the mythological battle on the world stage. Ronald Reagan embodied the archetypal conservative vision of Americanism with such power and resonance that he is straight-up deified on the right today. The divine substance of American exceptionalism in the shape of a man, he demands homage from Republican candidates and plenty of centrist democrats, even from beyond the grave.

A look back through the technicolor graphic ephemera of his career highlights how the aesthetic foundations for his campaigns were laid in almost every aspect of American culture, from our early settler colonial ideology, to Hollywood film tropes, to corporate advertising.

By the end of his first term, Reagan was in possession of 4 of the 5 America Stones: The Cowboy Stone, The Whiteness Stone, the Freedom Stone, and the Capital Stone. He had grown far too powerful to be successfully opposed. After taking a moment to savor the destruction, he pried the Victory Stone from the cold dead clutches of his vanquished foe. With a slight gesture of his gauntleted hand, our ability to conceive of political ideologies outside of those acceptable to the business community vaporized into the cold november air. We’ve been living in The Zone ever since.


Obama-Biden 2008-12

In 2008, before the effects of the Great Recession had corroded away the last structural supports of the American people’s collective faith in their own institutions, Obama was spirited to decisive victory along with a new kind of political aesthetic strategy. Obama-Biden 2008 marked a paradigm shift in the history of American campaign design, in which the political class began deliberately conceiving of the endeavor of politicking as explicitly within the realm of branding and corporate communication. I think many (myself included) mistakenly took this coincidence for causality (insofar as any graphic design can be decisive in a political victory).

The Obama campaign materials were comprised of vague affirmations of American progressivism and a bland refutation of the hawkish neo-conservatism of his predecessor. The Obama campaign’s use of corporate branding principles, namely a strictly enforced “style guide” dictating a homogeneous, uber-coordinated approach to all media treatments, is widely heralded as an unprecedented innovation in the history of political campaign design. Obama was the first candidate to be promoted in the same manner as a trans-media, high-end consumer brand. To designers and marketers in 2008, enthralled by the most charismatic guy of all time, this development felt like a natural progression and even a culmination of sorts. In October of that year, Advertising Age named Obama “Marketer Of The Year” for 2008. As the Guardian’s Will Brady noted: “There are stories of supporters at rallies having their lovingly handmade ‘Yes we CAN’ signs exchanged by campaign staffers for officially branded materials . . . That’s how brands function—by establishing themselves as culturally ubiquitous, a normal and inevitable part of everyday life.”

The success of the Obama campaign marks the beginning of a phenomena that Noam Chomsky often points to when describing how graphic design functions in contemporary movement building: “electoral campaigns, especially in the U.S., are being run by the advertising industry.”

While the advertising industry would come to leverage the success of the Obama case study into a cottage industry of banal Gotham-over-a-stock-photo visual marketing that will likely last for decades to come, the most iconic piece of graphic ephemera from this time was not a part of the official materials, but a poster by the street art mogul Shepard Fairey. This piece, more than any other in modern political history, amplified a message that spread contagiously throughout the American body politic. The distillation of an entire political philosophy into an evergreen single word, combined with the potent symbol of a charismatic black man as the focal point of institutional power and public ardor, was the defining graphic of a generation. In my opinion, most of the success of Obama’s campaign design can be traced back to this single unofficial poster, in which the use of the official brand typeface, Gotham, and the consistency of the color palette with the official brand guide helped to legitimize the entire suite of official materials and achieve escape velocity in terms of earnest “brand participation.”

With its resounding success in 2008, the “Obama style” was hastily adopted by the arbiters of global commercial aesthetic culture. By 2016, Obama’s brand typeface, Gotham, and other fonts just like it, became the primary ingredient in the visual fabric of a new gilded age. Indeed, one could not walk down the street in a major city almost anywhere in the modern world without being bombarded with an eyeful of Gotham at every turn. On billboards, food packaging, television, magazines, and architectural signage, Gotham has come to represent the totalizing corporate influence on today’s world. It is the wallpaper of globalization; a constant semiotic signifier of the unassailable dominance of corporate financial power. Helvetica was the typeface of modernism. Gotham is the typeface of neoliberalism.

Corporate branding used to be about product/service awareness; later it was about competition. In the neoliberal era, that competition is either non-existent or part of an obese oligopoly, and many corporate communications are just blatant demonstrations of their power over individuals. Turn on cable TV if you still have it, and watch Facebook and Wells Fargo using commercial time for PSAs to literally apologize for cheating and selling you out.


Trump-Pence 2016-20

Throughout my visual research for this piece, I have been consistently struck by the degree to which Ronald Reagan served as a prototype for the candidacy of Donald Trump. In the lead-up to both men’s political careers, they painstakingly constructed their public personas to fit the mold of the archetypal American protagonist of their time. For Reagan, on the heels of a prosperous postwar era of durable institutions weathering social upheaval, that persona was the patriotic frontier hero, restoring a great nation to its former glory. After forty years of middle-class-crushing financialization, the disassembling of our manufacturing sector, and having to watch the plutocrats drink our milkshake with zero consequences, the ghost of Reagan is now a far more sinister apparition. In this era of the valorization of greed, the Trumpian archetype is characterized by a relentless pursuit of money, fame, and power. This persona is just as relevant to the dreams and aspirations of American society at the end of the neoliberal era as Reagan’s was at its onset. Trump traded in Reagan’s horse and saddle for a golden Bentley, and the slow-grinding history of the intervening years has made a very similar appeal to a dispossessed electorate dangerously potent.

The Trump campaign had a brilliant aesthetic strategy; one that played to the political realities of the electorate much more successfully than the Clintonian approach. Reflecting the distrust and antagonism with which his constituency still views the gilded castles of elite America, Trump’s materials were strategically undesigned. Where the Hillary materials had all the aesthetic hallmarks of corporatism, Trump’s materials, in spite of his businessman status, looked like what a bunch of average people engaged in an organic political movement would come up with by themselves.

Trump 2

The Financial Crisis had triggered yet another unraveling of America’s trust in its institutions, eventually allowing Trump to harness an anti-establishment movement to outflank Clinton, who had willingly taken on all the aesthetic associations of corporate institutional power. Trump’s strategy of using a plain, “unbranded” aesthetic was a deliberate negation of the visual language of neoliberalism. Melania’s “Be Best” campaign is a potent example, and it’s hard to believe that its ugliness (along with its weird ungrammar) is not deliberate.

What’s more, the lack of a formal aesthetic language in the Trump campaign served as fertile ground for participation, a blank canvas for his constituency of memetic tribes to build an organic, ever-expanding semiotics that empowered its participants and gave them a sense of belonging.

hillary swag

Confessions of a Neolib Type Designer

When I was first approached by Michael Bierut’s team and the Hillary campaign to be the typeface designer for her 2016 materials, I was overjoyed. “What an incredible business opportunity” thought my fatally pre-2016 brain. The team had decided on my typeface Sharp Sans Display No.1 as the primary campaign font; a 70s-feeling geometric sans serif based on Avant Garde Gothic. The typeface has very tight spacing, which—while fundamental to its flavor—creates issues at smaller sizes: the letters start to bleed together and become illegible, especially on screen.

Through some trial and error, I eventually drew an entirely new version of the typeface for the campaign—one that functioned well in every environment and optical size while maintaining as much of its original affect as possible. The campaign needed a sturdy type system that could withstand the abuse of the most amateur campaign staffers in the field, and in applying this methodology to the geometric sans-serif genre, we ended up with a very neolib aesthetic. Although it was conceived of organically, Sharp Sans can be seen as sharing the same aesthetic lineage as Gotham (i.e. Futura and Avenir), albeit two to three trend cycles downstream.

The graphic system that Bierut’s team designed was a clinic in high-end commercial branding. The logo, while widely panned in the media, was a stalwart specimen of the modernist tradition of Bierut’s forebears like Massimo Vignelli and Paul Rand: simple, communicative, and iconic. The Hillary 2016 campaign materials represent the most “designed” and “branded” approach to political visual communication in American history. While Obama’s campaign pioneered this approach, Hillary’s perfected it.

Trump campaign

In a recent article, Bierut expressed his incredulousness at the loud outpourings of bile and hatred online in reaction to corporate redesigns. I suspect that this dynamic is best explained by the political realities of the average shit-poster on Brand New (a blog about design and branding with a very active comments section). We hate corporate brand refreshes because deep down we know that they are disingenuous attempts at coercion, and that we as atomized individuals are powerless to do anything about such coercion. Like Facebook and Wells Fargo, Hillary Clinton was just a feature of our reality that seemed intractable. And before our former disrupter-in-chief took a massive shit all over the Republican primary, it seemed even more like Washington’s two-party system was just another facet of the neoliberal system’s oligopolistic control: Coke and fucking Pepsi. Hillary 2016 was just one more shiny logo, an emblem of the grim inevitability of the system, and of our own powerlessness in the face of it. This is the heart of my critique of Hillary Clinton, as expressed by both her politics and the aesthetic strategy that came to represent them: there was no room for participation beyond absolute fealty.

A Democratic Strategy for a Democratic Endeavor

This last time around, I observed the same pattern of prescriptive brand systems applied to the field of Democratic primary challengers. And while I will admit that the nature and attitude of the average staffer does play a role in how campaigns find aesthetic form, I am including the 2020 Sanders campaign in this assertion. While every campaign needs to distinguish itself, I had hoped that those of us devising aesthetic strategies for the left this time around would have learned the hard lessons of 2016 and resolved to conceive of corporate branding and political communication as separate and distinct activities. After the most recent Democratic primary season, I’m not sure that this is something that the Democratic party is able to or even should do. It’s ok to have a coherent aesthetic system. Official campaign materials should look deliberate and connected, but not at the cost of authenticity.

We also need to make room in our aesthetic strategies for organic participation. Campaign designers should be working to empower coalitions of like-minded creative people to participate on all levels and encourage individual expression in support of their candidates’ ideas, policies, and philosophies. Remember: diversity is the visual expression of democracy. We should be encouraging a diverse array of visual expressions from different constituencies and social organizations—foster variety instead of prescribing homogeneity. Lastly, I would encourage campaign designers to explore aesthetic motifs conceived outside of the traditional capital-intensive systems of aesthetic production.