Design Writing & Blog

︎︎︎ The Politics of Typography 
︎︎︎ Designing with Intent 
︎︎︎ The function of...Beauty
︎︎︎ Idea by Committee
︎︎︎ What they don’t teach you in design school.
︎︎︎ Mastering an iteritive process  

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The Politics of Typography

1. The Hat

When Donald Trump came out with his infamous red hat and slogan set in Times New Roman for his first presidential campaign, I was completely amazed. Beyond all political opinions - I'm not here to discuss politics - the brand that hat represented was remarkable. And remarkably effective.

At that time (2016), I was still relatively fresh off of discovering Tibor Kalman and his "un-design" ethos. In my mind, design was slowly proving itself to be simply a luxury - and as such, slightly representational of wealth, elitism, and a price tag. And to be honest, I'm not wrong. Anything set with a modernist Vignelli treatment is immediately going to be more expensive. That style of design represents expensive cities, $6 coffee, $15 burritos, and, for a long time, most luxury fashion brands.

To add fuel to the fire, this is what designers and agencies often perpetuate as good design. How often have we seen it? Modernist typography, plenty of negative space, strong bold design elements, and very specific branded art styles. Basically, design upon design upon design upon design... to the point where the subversive quality of such a project is screaming at us, whacking us in the head with its BRAND WHACK.

Why is this a problem? Because this overly-branded visual quality is a preference; it's not "good"... and it's not for everyone. No, it's a luxury. It represents the fact that a company has invested heavily in their marketing to connect with you and take from your pocketbooks... or to get your votes. Yes.

Having been one of the lucky designers to work on campaign assets for Bernie Sanders, I can tell you that, WITHOUT A DOUBT, I rushed to the classic, friendly, bold, geometric sans fonts. I already knew exactly what style to aim for because I know what his audience craves visually.

2. The Burrito

Well, I think Donald Trump knew exactly what his audience craved too. They craved "un-design". Why? Because a lack of design represents practicality, affordability. It's not posh, and most importantly, it's not selling anything to you. Very much unlike the high-effort Pentagram-powered presidential campaigns of past Democratic candidates. We obviously know that Trump had his own ulterior motives, and ultimately, of course, he was bullshitting everyone, but when it comes to marketing, his campaign was spot on.

So, let's reel this in. In case you think I'm a bigot for saying all of this - I'm not. I hated every moment of 2015 and 2016, and it was a horrible experience for me. But as a designer, I learned a lot. I learned that there are deep associations with "too much design" and that "un-design" truly is an effective ethos for the right audience. This has impacted my own work going forward. I am very careful with the amount and type of "BRAND OVERDOSE" I incorporate into any given project. I want my design projects to fit the client and fit the audience. I don't want to accidentally make something appear subversively political or expensive if it's not meant to be so.

Let me give you one more practical example. When I was pretty broke, working in NYC, I wanted a burrito. I went walking around with my former professor, and he took me to a food court in Dumbo. Before we got there, he told me about how it had super good food and a lot to choose from. Well, once we got there, my eyes were bombarded by "BRAND OVERDOSE" in the form of what I knew very well to be overly priced okayish food. My heart sunk. I knew exactly what I was about to get - a subpar burrito and a big ugly receipt. Thanks Helvetica.

Matthew Roop is a designer and creative leader serving as V.P. of Brand at ZEBEDEE. He has worked for some of the most famous names in the design world like Sagmeister & Walsh, Lippincott, Foreign Policy, and &Walsh. When he’s not working you can find him chowing down on some Singaporean cuisine, helping his wife run their design studio: Yeye Design Studio, or most likely, playing Elden Ring.