“Sex is a powerful predictor of typeface”

On the political salience of fonts

People, let’s talk today about fonts. 

Of course, it goes without saying that how people show up visually in American politics matters. (Or, in the case of this Orthodox Jewish woman running for city council in Brooklyn, whether they show up at all.) The typefaces1 that candidates choose to represent them might seem a small part of that visual representation, but it’s often one of the earliest and most enduring choices a campaign makes. You can’t even get started with yard signs, bumper stickers, or a website without a logo, and it looks shifty for a campaign to change it mid-stream. 

Fonts make for a quick, often gut representation of how people are allowed to act when trying to get elected to office – and that makes for a fascinating topic of study. 

But first, a quick aside: how exactly is this about technology, which is our concern here? People who work in the political design field insist, with good reason, that design has never been more important. The cacophony of the online space means consistent branding is needed to break through, and with the weakening of the national Democratic and Republican parties, candidates are emphasizing their own brands. During a recent Twitter back and forth on all this, Ben Ostrower, a designer who’s done work for political candidates, argued that when it comes to design, “Between audiences having become more savvy and comms in general moving almost fully online, it's INCREDIBLY important to invest in.” 

Which brings us to “Font Matters: Understanding Typeface Selection by Political Campaigns,” a just-out paper from Northeastern’s Katherine Haenschen, Virginia Tech’s Daniel Tamul, and the University of Texas at Austin’s Jessica R. Collier looks at 908 logos from 2018 mid-term campaigns in the United States. 

One key finding? “Sex is a powerful predictor of typeface.”

Male candidates tend to embrace slab serifs — the extra-chunky version of serifs, or the strokes found the ends of letters — and shy away from script or handwriting-style fonts, the paper finds. But more than that, “Men are less likely to put their first names in their logos and are likelier to include their last names relative to women.”

And women who do use their first names in their branding, it turns out, often render them in highly stylized fonts. The researchers suggest that the inclusion of first names on the part of female candidates is at least in part to avoid confusion. “Without a female first name on a sign, voters might assume that the candidate is male,” they write. But it’s part of a pattern of calling female candidates by their first names — “Hillary” or “Kamala” or even “Amy” — that’s generally alive and well in American politics.  Doing so suggests a familiarity that can make female candidates less threatening, all the more so when that name’s rendered in something with a lot of loops and swirls. 

A prime example of that is seen up top, in the 2018 logo of Jaime Herrara Beutler, a Republican woman running for re-election to the House of Representatives from Colorado. We’ve got the dominant first name rendered in a hand-written font, and the last name in a serif font of the sort that’s popular on the right. (More on that below.)

Now, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is sort of the exception that proves the pattern. As a Democrat running in New York City for a seat in the House in 2018, she emphasized her last name, rather than her first. She also highlighted her Puerto Rican roots in two ways, first by putting the focus on her first family name of “Ocasio” and then by using the using the inverted exclamation point common in Spanish. More than that, Ocasio-Cortez “employs a typeface reminiscent of unionization campaigns,” the researchers judge. It was easy to guess early on that AOC, as she’d come to be known, was going to be an unconventional politician in office. 

There’s a lot more in the paper worth parsing beyond sex. Republicans, as mentioned above, tend to go in for serif fonts. But the researchers suggest that it’s less a partisan decision than one that falls along a traditional-to-modern spectrum. Republicans tend to embrace traditionalism, and thus serifs, but so do candidates of any stripe running for more establishment jobs, like judgeships. Some Democrats are eager to look traditional; the paper points to Heidi Heitkamp, running for the Senate from North Dakota. “The campaign wanted something that evoked North Dakota to show she represented the state and not Washington, D.C.,” goes the paper. So we get a big slabby serif. But there are also some Republicans who want to look modern, like Marco Rubio, gunning for the White House in 2016 as a forty-something of candidate of the future with a questionable serif-free and all-lower-case logo. 

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Another nugget: close elections tend to produce more sans serif logos. Why? Because competitive contests boost fundraising, and as more money pours into a race, campaigns hire professional graphic designers — who prefer sans serif fonts as they’re seen in the field as more sophisticated. 

Lastly, the researchers quote Ostrower, the designer cited above on the importance of design in politics, saying that in 2018 a lot of Democrats when for fonts with high x-heights, or the distance between the baseline and the top of lower-case letters, in order to “convey a sense of standing above Trump.”

Which suggests one sign of how seriously Democrats are taking Trumpism in 2022: how stretched-out their fonts are. 

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Technically, fonts and typefaces are two different things. Or, more accurately, fonts make up a typeface. More here. But for simplicity’s sake we’re using them here interchangeably.