Election campaigns, full of sound and fury, are quite the assault on the senses. The sloganeering, the memes, the gaffes, Jeremy Paxman, and louder than words: the typefaces. An election campaign is an occasion when graphic designers and political wonks, two natural enemies in the wild, unite in a common cause, to produce the posters, the manifestos, the broadcasts, stuff of the modern campaign. The most fundamental issue, at the heart of any design campaign, is the font. What’s the point of having a great slogan if it ends up in comic sans or papyrus? But four letters, all caps, in Gotham – that could make a political career.
In 2015 David Cameron went for Aktiv Groteskfor the Tory manifesto font. It was purposeful, upbeat, and above all modern. He coupled it with the uber-friendly party logo in Lucida Sans, a font that embodied David Cameron’s distinctive brand of light-weight disposable charm. Lucida Sans is the kind of font that can make the slogan “bring back badger-baiting” seem wholly reasonable, convivial, uncontroversial.
Theresa May has taken a different tack. She’s gone for Bembo. Classy. Created in 1929, just before Ramsay MacDonald became PM for the second time, it’s redolent of an age before the NHS, when millions of children suffered from malnutrition, scurvy, and rickets, and a quarter of the nation lived on a subsistence diet. But at least we lived within our means, and had no truck with Europe. It’s a font that says “Ending child poverty is utopian madness, lets go foxhunting instead.”
Labour’s manifesto, by contrast, uses two frankly delicious weights of Avenir. Between the sordid brashness of the blatantly commercial, and the austere geometric minimalism of the kunsthalle, Avenir is a truly democratic font. In fact, it was designed by the same font maestro who came up with NHS font. Consequently, it says “trust me”, in the well-modulated, if chronically overworked tones of an experienced GP.
Thank heavens that Corbyn’s team have de-emphasized Neo Sans, the font of the Miliband years. Neo Sans was originally designed at the behest of a big corporation, but never rolled out due to a bureaucratic error. In that sense, it embodies the very market failure that Miliband sort to overcome. Sometimes mistaken for Calibri (the laziest of the fonts, let’s be honest) Neo Sans had the chummy slightly commercial edge that made it perfect for Miliband’s “Vote Labour win a microwave” 37 per cent strategy.
What of the Lib Dems? During the coalition, not content with being part of the government, sliding in the polls, and performing the mother of all U-turns, the Lib Dems insisted on a rebrand. Back in 1988 the Social and Liberal Democrats launched with Gill Sans Kayo. That’s the knock out (hence “Kayo”) weight of Gill Sans, a weight so heavy that a year after its launch the 1937 Review of Graphic Arts was forced to question the mental state behind “this odd outburst”.
Recent revelations about the private life of Eric Gill, creator of the font, led to a rethink. After a brief flirtation with Myriad, once Silicon Valley’s font of choice, the Lib Dems launched Democrat Sans. The kerning’s tight, the weight’s heavy, and the ascenders are jaunty. It’s OK. It’s a bit like an update on Gill Bold, a bit like Miliband’s Neo Sans, a bit like Cameron’s Aktiv Grotesk. If its got a distinct message no one’s listening. Notably, the Lib Dem rebrand has not been thorough going. The Lib Dems, a party so greedy that one font isn’t enough for them, still use Gill in the Lords. And harking back to the glory days of Kayo, local parties are using Omnes – if you haven’t seen it imagine Calibri inflated like a bouncy castle.
Whatever the outcome on June 9, we can look back on this campaign as a graphic design feast. Fonts, like democracy, are a force for good in the eternal war against evil, and when I say evil I mean Arial, 18 point, all caps.
Dr Robin Bunce is a historian of political ideas at Homerton College, University of Cambridge. His most recent publication, Renegade: the life and times of Darcus Howe, written with Paul Field, is published by Bloomsbury.