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A Sharp New Political Vernacular

Each political season ushers in the usual array of candidates of every ideology and stripe, accompanied by the expected rhetoric, slogans, signage, and SuperPAC ads. Each season also births a new crop of campaign logos, and shortly thereafter, designers’ critical commentary of those logos. For better or worse, design writers will spend hours picking apart the styling, colors, and font choices made by each campaign, trying to find logic and reason behind them, and trying to define any new and emerging trends.

As Matt noted in his post on type trends, the 2008 Obama campaign was notable for its use of the typeface Gotham and for popularizing geometric sans serif typefaces in general. After the election, Gotham and similar typefaces were further utilized in branding for a variety of federal government projects, including the 2010 United States Census. The design world took note, launching a geometric sans serif trend that continues to this day.

For 2016, Hillary for America is riding the geometric wave with a customized version of Sharp Sans, designed by Lucas Sharp of Sharp Type. Now called Unity, the custom Sharp Sans was “redrawn and shaped by the rigorous typographic demands of modern visual communications.” What is more interesting to this designer, however, is the slab serif version included in the branding package. While not gaining much notice in popular design media, this slab version was highly visible during the Democratic National Convention, mainly in the vertical banners held aloft by the crowd.


Sharp Unity Slab Extrabold

A serif is a stroke added as a visual stop to the main horizontal and vertical strokes of a letter. Serifs that are squared or block-like are considered slab serifs. (Incidentally, for 2012, Obama’s campaign asked Gotham’s designers if they could add slab serifs to the typeface; they responded, “For the President of the United States? Yes We Can.”)

Slab Serifs (in blue) in the typeface Rockwell


The Bernie Sanders for President 2016 campaign also prominently featured a slab serif in its materials. Jubilat, designed by Darden Studio, “explores the history of the slab serif,” which is an engaging history indeed. It is also interesting to note that Lucas Sharp studied under, and later worked for, Joshua Darden of Darden Studio. The Obama campaign also made wide use of a slab (though overshadowed by Gotham) for its 2012 branding, Sentinel, billed as “the slab serif that works.”

Jubilat Semibold and Sentinel Black

The slab serif form is a relative newcomer to the area of typeface design, arising little over a century ago in an effort to conceive a new style of typeface that broke with tradition in order to satisfy the needs of modern mass communication. Although successful, the slab serif has always been relegated to the peripherals of typographic design. However, with its recent mainstream conspicuousness, aligned with popular political and civic movements, perhaps we will see the rise of the slab serif as the star of the arena and not just a companionable running mate.