The President's Aesthetic Goes Global

Editors' Note: This piece has been corrected.

If you were watching the leaders of the G-20 nations speak to the world at their recently concluded summit in London, you might have noticed something familiar. Something modern yet comforting, authoritative without being stern, confident but not showy. I'm not talking about President Barack Obama or any of the other assembled presidents and prime ministers. I'm talking about a typeface. More than a few people probably said what I did when they looked at the G-20 logo: “Isn’t that Barack Obama’s font?”

Actually, it wasn’t. But the typeface the G-20 used, called Gill Sans, is in its capital letters nearly identical to Gotham, the font the Obama campaign brought to the world’s attention (the text on the podiums and banners was in all caps, making it easy to mistake it for Gotham). Gotham and fonts that are close enough to be mistaken for it are spreading all over the world, used by those who want to communicate a particular set of ideas.

Gotham was the dominant font on barackobama.com, not to mention the ads, signs, and just about everything Obama's campaign produced that featured printed words. The visual vocabulary was so cohesive and reflected such attention to detail that many commentators noticed the campaign's design success, paying particular attention to the use of Gotham. During the campaign, other people started using not just Gotham but Obama's color scheme as well, in a seeming attempt to capture the Obama campaign's mojo by copying its look.

Among the first out of the gate was Sen. Kay Hagen of North Carolina, whose campaign Web site was so similar to the Obama campaign's, it almost looked as though her staff simply copied the html code from Obama's site and substituted her name for his (although I suppose that color could be Tar Heel blue, not Obama blue). Then came Israeli prime minister candidate Benjamin Netanyahu, who didn't use Gotham but seemed to copy everything else from Obama's site for his own. Netanyahu is many things, but a fresh dose of hope and change is not one of them.

By the time Election Day came, Gotham, the reassuring palette of blues from barackobama.com, or some combination of the two was cropping up everywhere. When Starbucks initiated a campaign to encourage people to vote, it aired a text-heavy television ad using Gotham (but in green, of course). The Web site of Blue State Digital, the firm that managed much of Obama's online program echoes the look of the Obama site, with similar colors and layout, as does a site it created for National Geographic. But the best evidence of the Obama campaign's aesthetic influence may be this: Look at the red box on the right side of this Facebook group, asking people to join. Like the G-20, it uses Gill Sans all caps, easily mistaken for Gotham. And whose Facebook group is it? The Republican National Committee's.

It was clear during the campaign that Obama's team had put a lot more thought into visual presentation than its opponents had. Neither Hillary Clinton nor John McCain could be said to have had a consistent color scheme. As for the typefaces on their logos, Clinton used a font called Baskerville, which was created in the 18th century (not exactly a signal of modern thinking), while McCain used Optima, which seems to have been chosen for the sole reason that it is the font in which the names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial are written. Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones, the designers who created Gotham in 2000, didn't think much of McCain's and Clinton's choices. On their blog, they described them this way: "Hillary's snooze of a serif might have come off a heart-healthy cereal box, or a mildly embarrassing over-the-counter ointment; if you're feeling generous you might associate it with a Board of Ed circular, or an obscure academic journal. But Senator McCain's typeface is positively mystifying: after three decades signifying a very down-market notion of luxe, this particular sans serif has settled into being the font of choice for the hygiene aisle." Ouch.

Though Hoefler and Frere-Jones weren't available to comment on the fact that the font they created seems to be slowly taking over the world, I spoke about it with David Feinstein, a partner at the Washington, D.C., design firm Beveridge Seay, Inc. He describes Gotham as "articulate," because it works well in almost any size, in titles or in text. It's expressive, because though it is a clean, sans serif font (serif fonts are those with little tails and feet), it has enough curvature to avoid the bluntness of simple horizontal and vertical lines.

Feinstein, who has worked with some candidates, noted that the political world is paying much more attention to design, an evolution likely to accelerate given the attention the Obama campaign got for its look. He described it as part of an increasing aesthetic awareness to which the Internet has contributed greatly. Not only do many of us look at 50 Web sites every day (which makes you notice what works and what doesn't), we also interact with graphics in ways we previously didn't. Feinstein also cited the 2000 Florida recount as a key event in teaching Americans the practical implications of bad design. Remember the butterfly ballot? If Theresa LePore, the hapless supervisor of elections in Palm Beach County, had not chosen to design the ballot herself, the world would never have seen the presidency of George W. Bush.

There's no doubt that Gotham is an attractive font. But it isn't being chosen by so many people and organizations because of its letter spacing or the particular sweep of its curves. Certain typefaces evoke a set of associations because of the historical period in which they became prominent or because they commonly appeared with certain other kinds of design. One look at a typeface like Monotype Broadway, and you immediately think Art Deco -- a particular style of architecture and a time in history, the 1920s and 1930s, when America was moving rapidly into the modern age. It isn't anything about the particular lines and strokes of the font that evokes these feelings; it's because fonts like it dominated design at that particular historical moment. And today, if people look at Gotham and think it's cosmopolitan and confident, it isn't because of anything inherent in the typeface.

So when the organizers of the G-20 summit chose the font they did for their logo, what were they trying to communicate? It would be overly simplistic to say the message is nothing more than "We're Obamish." But they probably wished to impart many of the things Obama has successfully communicated for the last couple of years. They also wanted to appear strong without being threatening, forward-looking but not showy. Before I get carried away, it's worth noting that for some reason, it seems almost impossible to write about a font without describing it in the "it's X, yet Y" construction. "It's substantial yet friendly. Up-to-date yet familiar," said a "branding expert" interviewed by The New York Times about Gotham. Another one, interviewed on ABC News, called Gotham "both simple, and yet memorable. It is blunt, and it is also friendly. It feels new, and it also feels familiar."

If there was one thought the G-20 wanted the citizens of the world to have when they watched coverage of the summit, it was probably "Everything's going to be OK." Given how people around the world feel about the American president -- he has maintained enormous popularity even as conditions seemingly worsen by the day -- incorporating a design aesthetic that has become associated so firmly with Obama probably didn't hurt.

Correction: The original version of this piece misidentified the fonts used by the Web sites of the G-20 and RNC. They use Gill Sans, not Gotham, as the column originally stated. The two fonts are very similar in appearance. The piece has been edited to reflect the difference.

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