Why Romney lost

BAD branding, of course. This is a design blog, so I won’t go into the confused voice and personality of the campaign. But Romney was cooked as soon as they unveiled that toothpaste RRR logo. It had all the quality of a logo on the “For Sale” signs of a big realtor in Ohio. (Maybe that was the idea.)

But after the widely praised big O of the Obama 2008 campaign, we are expecting better design from our politicians. A great leader in this Steve Jobs legacy era would have taken one look at the R’s and told them, “Get outta here.”

Of course a practiced corporate art director would counter, “It’s all about the applications.” Staging this logo successfully would have required a white, or near white background all the time. In a red-white-and-blue universe, you only get white one-third of the time.

Romney sign going up at the GOP convention
A sign goes up at the Republican convention in Tampa last August. (Getty Images)

So the art department started adding a white border around the logo, creating an awkward shape that has all the grace of a dead catfish.

Typographically the Romney effort was a step up from McCain’s bland Optima trademark, last time around. That must have been specked by a left-wing mole who was told to come up with something well-designed and familiar. Like the Helvetica and Times Roman used for thousands of campaigns, the real problem with Optima is that is too familiar. The result, though, is a timid design that adds nothing to the effort.

Romney, taking more than a page from the Obama type book, came on strong.

Romney Ryan
After the convention, Romney-Ryan’s branded aircraft.

Those disenchanted with Obama over the past four years can point to the softening of the President’s own visual brand. Charged with the big Gotham “CHANGE” posters and the street-ready Shepard Fairey icon, it would have been hard to keep up that energy, particularly after four years of soft-and-elegant Whitehouse.gov typography.

But the slogo, (as David Berlow calls wordmarks) became “FORWARD.”  Not so strong. (And wasn’t that period oddly small?) The last-minute addition of the bang at the end, the correct punctuation for this imperative, was the typographical October Surprise. It may not have been responsible for the last-minute uptick in the polls, but it could not have hurt.

The Obama team, which believes that that the groundwork is what counts on election day, deployed thousands of cards set in Hoefler Frere-Jones fonts. But so did the Romney people.

Obama victory rally, McCormick Place, Chicago. [Photo: EMR, Creative Commons]
A Romney rally has plenty of type signs, too

Romney matched Obama’s HTF Gotham with HTF Whitney. (The logotype is set in Adobe Trajan, to give that nice Presidential dignity.)

While Obama used a serif font a lot more in 2008 (with a Perpetua logo), we didn’t see much of the HTF Sentinel, chosen for 2012. It was all Gotham. But there was plenty of it.

In Salon David Rainbird wrote about the strange move by the Romney campaign to block his opponent’s messaging—with fonts from the same foundry. “Whilst Obama freely admits to borrowing some of Romney’s ideas, like Massachusetts healthcare reform, Romney wouldn’t dare admit to stealing anything from Barack. But the Massachusetts governor is clearly cribbing from Obama’s campaign typographic strategy.”

When Obama’s squad rolled out a non-HTF script font, so did Romney—Wisdom Script (evidently failing to get a license for it, according to a report in the Content Strategist. Obama also added the gothic, Revolution, perhaps to provide a little relief from all this “good design.” It’s based on old Cuban graphics.

[This paragraph was updated on Election Day. Revolution and the script, MVB Mascot, are described in a post on Types in Use.]

The end result we’ll know election night. When you have millions of people out of work, and big structural problems in Washington that are preventing any solutions to our problems, the choice of fonts and the visual branding of candidates may not seem to be important.

But in an election this close, bad branding may have been the stick that broke the Republican elephant’s back. On one side we have a comprehensive, relentless, “good design” approach that makes the brand police and the Design Observer bloggers happy. On the other an imitative typographical program that failed to create “Real Change.” Can a great nation elect a President with a bad logo and copy-cat typography?

I left it to the people to decide.