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The real politics of type

Typefaces have political leanings. But there’s more nuance than just Democrats love Helvetica and Republicans love Times New Roman.

The real politics of type
[Illustration: FC]
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A recent study by Virginia Tech professors Katherine Haenschen and Daniel J. Tamul indicates that people make assumptions about candidates based on the typefaces they use. The study asked 987 people to rate varying typefaces as conservative or liberal in a series of two experiments and found that people do “perceive typefaces, type families, and type styles to have ideological qualities.”

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For example, Blackletter, a sharp serif, was rated most conservative; Sunrise, a bubbly sans serif, was rated most liberal. But the particular characteristics of individual letterforms are interpreted ideologically as well. Generally, according to the study, serifs are rated as more conservative and sans serifs as more liberal. And not even typography can escape the political polarization we face today: In this study, a typeface received a better rating when it was thought to be from the same ideological persuasion as the reviewer. Okay, so there’s not much crossing of the aisle here either, huh?

But while this study asked participants to rate typefaces as liberal or conservative, the reasons certain typefaces are chosen over others isn’t so obvious. According to the authors, it also has to do with underlying psychological and personality traits people associate with a liberal or conservative choice and how those are conveyed visually. There’s even more typographic nuance to dig into here than a simple serif-sans serif dichotomy.

Serifs don’t belong to one political party

Although the Virginia Tech study indicated that sans serifs are perceived to be more liberal than their serif counterparts, they’re actually used in similar quantities by both parties. According to data from the Center for American Politics and Design, 68% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans use sans serif typefaces. Not a major difference. According to Susan Merriam, cofounder of CAPD, stylistic choices within those classifications are often a better indicator of political persuasion.

[Image: courtesy Center for American Politics and Design]

Serifs are a marker of tradition and authority—for Republicans and Democrats

Sure, serif fonts were rated as more conservative than sans serifs in the study. But as any political theorist will tell you, having a more conservative or liberal point of view doesn’t mean you’re automatically a card-carrying member of the Republican or Democratic party. That tracks here too. According to Merriam, if a candidate uses a serif typeface, that person might be trying to convey a sense of tradition and authority. Yes, those are common traits of Republican candidates. They’re also common traits of senior-ranking politicians. Merriam lists Dianne Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi as two Democratic examples that use serifs. Does that come as a surprise to anyone?

[Image: courtesy Center for American Politics and Design]

Type weight is the more indicative factor

So if both Republicans and Democrats use sans serifs in similar amounts, what is the differentiating factor? According to Merriam, it’s the weight of the typeface. Republican branding, as seen with Senator Kelly Loeffler and President Trump, leans toward a very hefty-weight sans serif. That’s as compared to thinner-weight sans serifs, which are more likely to be used by a Democrat. (Merriam cites Lauren Underwood, Jamie Schoolcraft, and Zoe Lofgren’s logos from 2018 as examples.)

[Image: courtesy Center for American Politics and Design]

And then there are all the outliers

Senator Marco Rubio used a geometric sans serif for his 2016 campaign. And while the application of a modernist font might be surprising, it has to do with the underlying message Rubio wanted to convey: “likely using type associated in people’s minds with space movies to indicate that he is a forward-looking choice within the Republican party,” says Merriam. I’ll leave it up to you as to whether Rubio is a forward-looking candidate, but the visual application works well as a subliminal cue for the message he wanted to convey. No serifs here, people! There are other interesting outliers: Beto O’Rourke used condensed sans serif; Bernie Sanders opted for Jubilat, a heavy slab serif. All to say that the whole sans serif versus serif binary? It only scratches the surface.

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[Image: courtesy Center for American Politics and Design]
So why do people associate varying kinds of type with different value sets? According to Sean Adams, chair of the Undergraduate and Graduate Graphic Design Program at ArtCenter and author of The Designer’s Dictionary of Type, we’re not born with a predisposition for certain typefaces over others; rather we attach emotional responses to them based on previous experience. According to Adams, designers used sans serif typefaces like Helvetica or Univers for “no-nonsense,” informational content after the Bauhaus and modernism movements. More historical serif typefaces like Bodoni or Garamond, which were designed hundreds of years ago, are now interpreted as classic and literate. (Which is why Garamond will read as more traditional, but could also seem “overly erudite,” Adams says.)

While Adams clarified to me that he hasn’t done an audit of the typography political candidates use, he hypothesized that a sans serif would read as left-leaning, due to its connections to European modernism and the new Left. “This is double-edged,” says Adams. “On one side a typeface like Futura will say, ‘I’m the future (no pun intended), and ready to do business with no nonsense.’ But, as we know, all villains live in sleek modernist houses and use Bauhaus teapots.” No word on Rubio’s teapot collection as of yet.

I doubt very many voters would actively recognize those historical connections, but again, as Adams explains, value association comes down to a person’s personal experience with a font—even if they can’t place exactly where, or know what the hell Bauhaus is. That sounds a lot like politics to me.

About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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