Twenty-three contenders are marching toward the Democratic Party nomination, each boasting they alone can defeat President Donald Trump in 2020, their campaign logos flashing like rival coats of arms across the front lawns and Instagram feeds of battlefield America.
The military analogy falls apart at this point, because the majority of those 23 campaign logos are as inspirational as bottled-water labels.
Is Jay Inslee running for president or trying to sell us Internet service circa 1995? Who is “Jo Biden”? How on Earth did Amy Klobuchar and Wayne Messam end up with styles so similar that their campaigns appear to be subsidiary brands of a company called “for America”?
Half the logos don’t look like anything at all — a soulless collage of red-white-and-blue typography and American flag parts secreted among the letters like a “Where’s Waldo?” puzzle. He’s streaking across the Y in “Yang 2020.” He’s hiding in John Hickenlooper’s mountain range!
“It’s an abomination. It’s just one cliche after another,” said Debbie Millman, who chairs the branding program at the School of Visual Arts in New York. “What we really need now is a new pussy hat — something so powerful in its simplicity people will be able to identify it all over the world. These are stars and stripes and waves and lines.”
The electoral landscape has been plastered in flagstuff ever since politicians acquired the technology to mass-produce red, white and blue. Witness Lewis Cass’ patriotic poster from the 1848 presidential election, or the star-festooned “HHH” on Hubert Horatio Humphrey’s campaign buttons from 1968. Bill Clinton stuck a flag in the middle of his name in 1992 and won the presidency. Eight years later, George W. Bush did exactly the same thing and won, too. A can of Pepsi has undergone more visual innovation in the past century than the collective aesthetic of those who would lead the free world.
“We’re living in such a highly graphic culture,” Millman said. “We post pictures on Instagram that tell an entire story about who we are . . . You really need to put a flag in your logo to tell me you’re running for president?”
Barack Obama’s campaign famously subverted cliches in 2008 with a simple, wordless logo: three rippling red stripes inside a blue circle. It looked like a flag inside an O, but flip your perspective and the stripes became a road or hill leading off into a sunny sky. “The strongest logos tell simple stories,” the campaign’s hired designer, Sol Sender, said in a video for his firm after Obama won the presidency. “This means the sun rising over a horizon, the dawning of a new day in America.”
Turns out it was also the dawn of a new cliche. Mitt Romney stuck stripes inside an R when he ran against Obama the next cycle, unfortunately evoking a brand of toothpaste. This year, Obama’s former Vice President Joe Biden is campaigning with what looks like the famous 2008 logo married to an Esso sign.
“There was a 10-year period where that’s what everyone was doing after Obama. People don’t want their politics commodified in that way,” said Ben Ostrower, whose design company Wide Eye tried to avoid cliches when creating Sen. Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign logo — one of the few designs this cycle that looks like no other.
It simply reads “KAMALA HARRIS FOR THE PEOPLE” in block capital letters, the red and blue words Jengaed together into a vaguely flag-shaped block against a yellow background. The typographical design was inspired by the 1970s presidential campaign of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, to whom Harris has linked her campaign.
“There was a lot of reaction to the color, both negative and positive,” Ostrower said, “which is exactly what we were going for.”
That’s unusual though; the typical campaign appears to live in fear of getting bad reviews on Twitter. “No designer is going to want to create a logo that gets crucified online,” said Millman, the branding expert. “It’s incredibly nerve-racking to put out a new logo that has the potential of outraging half the population and delighting the other half. So you get milquetoast.”
Sometimes, they get crucified anyway. Biden’s logo has been picked apart online for being “an obvious rip-off of Obama’s logo,” as New York magazine put it. Or for stuffing the design full of assymetrically aligned Os. Or for turning the E in his first name into flag stripes, which makes the rest read like “JO.”
Pete Buttigieg arguably put more effort into his branding than any other 2020 candidate. The South Bend, Indiana, mayor has not just a logo (which reminds Millman of the Levi’s jeans tag), but an online design kit for supporters — “your home base for downloading the graphic assets you need to support our grassroots campaign.”
Fans can get customized logos for “Farmers for Pete,” “Agnostics for Pete,” “Humans for Pete.” They can download face art of Pete and his husband, Chasten Buttigieg, and make their own designs with campaign-recommended fonts and color palettes to best represent Pete’s Midwest roots and his vision for America.
If Obama’s logo told a simple story, Buttigieg’s is a choose-your-own adventure.
“It’s really smart and really, really elegant,” Millman said. “The problem I have with it is it’s really forgettable. It dilutes the overarching ability to identify a logo instantly.”
Maybe that’s a problem with the 2020 Democrats in general.
At its best, branding can incorporate a candidate’s identity and sublimate a campaign into a movement. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York bartender who had never run for office before last year, filled her posters with sharp-angled text and Spanish exclamation points. She used purples and yellows instead of reds and blues. It looked like revolutionary artwork from another era. It looked like her, and she swept into office with a fan base that some presidents would envy.
But Ocasio-Cortez isn’t running for the White House. The 23 Democrats are hoping to defeat a president who is essentially a walking, breathing brand — his name emblazoned on hotels around the world, his campaign slogan on red trucker hats throughout America.
And by and large, they’re going into 2020 looking like they just tumbled out of 1992.