When Democrat Jon Ossoff’s U.S. Senate race in Georgia was forced into a runoff, his campaign changed up its social media strategy. Throughout the campaign, Ossoff’s Instagram account posted screenshots of his tweets set against a dark navy background, but a few weeks after Election Day, the screenshots began featuring colorful gradient combinations of pink, yellow, purple, and blue. These new graphics popped when you scrolled through your feed. They also happened to look a lot like the visuals coming out of the Biden campaign.
In the closing weeks of the 2020 race, President-elect Joe Biden’s visual identity took a turn towards the trippy. It oozed with gradients. There were reds and blues that blended together into pink and purple hues, splashed against a handwritten-style “Keep the faith!” graphic posted on election night, as well as neon gradients used on @votejoe, a secondary campaign Instagram account that ditched the strict campaign style guide for a look that was more VMAs than DNC.
It’s not unusual for design elements used by winning politicians to pop up in creative assets for other campaigns. After Barack Obama’s 2008 win, his campaign’s typeface Gotham became popular in politics, and this year, a number of congressional candidates ran using logos inspired by those of President Donald Trump and Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
With Biden’s win, his brand identity could well inspire the look of politics for years to come, but that didn’t always seem likely. When Biden announced his campaign in 2019, his logo wasn’t particularly well received. It made a comeback, though, and on the way to Election Day, his brand evolved to be trend-setting.
“It was really not loved,” Biden logo designer Aimee Brodbeck said of the logo. “As a designer, you always dream of something that makes an impact in the world, but you kind of always know there’s this risk that something that you make is going to be hated.” Over the course of a couple of months, Brodbeck and a team of five at the creative agency Mekanism developed the logo and other creative assets on a volunteer basis. The agency had previously worked with Biden for It’s On Us, the Obama administration sexual assault awareness campaign.
After testing hundreds of typefaces and lockups, the final logo was set in two versions of TipoType’s quirky geometric sans serif Brother 1816—one for “JOE” and another for “BIDEN.” Three distinctive red stripes stretched outward from the O and D in place of the letter E. It was an intentional Obama homage, Brodbeck said. The typeface was chosen because of its similarities to Gotham, and the three red stripes were inspired by both the flag as well as the three stripes inside Obama’s O logo, designed by Sol Sender. The logo was designed to convey unity, a priority expressed during conversations the Mekanism team had with former Biden campaign manager Greg Schultz and Biden’s sister Valerie about the direction of the logo.
Over time, the logo has become a pop hit. Throughout the campaign it showed up on face masks and flags; it was plowed into a soybean field in North Dakota, and projected onto Trump Tower Chicago. Taylor Swift turned it into cookies. “At the end of the day, the public loved it,” Brodbeck said. “It was made for the public, it was made for people to feel like they had something to rally around and that’s what’s important… to see people take it and apply it to their own things, that’s when you’re like, okay, we’re onto something.”
“People who are young, who are on the internet, they are not looking for traditional, they are not looking for the status quo red, white, and blue. They need something with more depth.”
But when Biden first unveiled the logo in his 2019 announcement video, reviews from Fast Company and critics on Twitter were not positive. In a primary that saw Democratic campaigns explore non-traditional political color palettes, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s “liberty green,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s bold pink, and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s black and white, Biden’s traditional red, white, and blue risked looking outdated. There were also some early, clunky applications of the logo, like an acrostic-style Joe-Iowa banner at a May 2019 rally in Des Moines. Biden’s campaign design team felt restricted by the initial iteration of the brand they inherited.
“I really had no context of where or why or what this brand was and what it represented,” said Carahna Magwood, Biden’s deputy design director, who inherited the brand in July 2019. To Magwood, the campaign’s red, white, and blue felt patriotic, but it didn’t feel like “all of America.”
“There isn’t a lot of depth,” she said of the initial color palette. “It’s very straight-laced.” The new design team soon brought different reds and blues to give the brand what Magwood described as a more modern presidential look. “People who are young, who are on the internet, they are not looking for traditional, they are not looking for the status quo red, white, and blue,” she said. “They need something with more depth.”
The campaign also updated its typefaces in time for Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to join as Biden’s running mate, after Biden senior creative advisor Robyn Kanner reached out to type designer and Hoefler&Co. founder Jonathan Hoefler. “The first message I sent to Jonathan was, ‘talk me out of Gotham,’” Kanner said. “He called me, and we had a three-hour conversation about it and we went through the weeds of type.”
Kanner ultimately chose Decimal, a sans serif inspired by vintage watch lettering that was released last year and featured in the Netflix series “Abstract,” as the primary typeface, with the serif Mercury as a secondary typeface. Kanner, who talks about design in musical terms, likened the two typefaces to major and minor chords that could be used to arrange text in a graphic like notes of a song. They were both chosen in part for their connections to truth, Kanner said. Decimal was “true as time,” while Mercury held the “truth of the written word” because it had been used by publications like The Atlantic.
“The first message I sent to Jonathan was, ‘talk me out of Gotham.”
The gradients—lovingly referred to as “luscious gradients” by Biden’s 25-person design team—were meant to counter the feelings of seclusion and isolation born of the pandemic, Kanner said. “I think isolation is a very big thing that happened over the last year, and there’s a fundamental warmth to gradients that beats flat color. Basically, I wanted everything to have a feel and a life, a luscious quality to it,” she said. “It took on a life of its own. It worked really well when you were scrolling through your feed and you saw something really luscious and tasty.”
For Biden’s victory rally in Wilmington, Delaware, the team created a special “victory gradient” in blue and gold, and you can spot gradients on a number of other political Instagram accounts, including the non-partisan civic engagement group New Georgia Project and Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley. Politics’ embrace of gradients is a mirror of what’s happening in culture at large. Colorful gradients are everywhere, and have been for years in the technology and entertainment worlds. Spotify’s 2020 Wrapped design pulsates with loud, vibrant gradients, and the Miami Heat recently debuted special pink-and-blue-gradient “Vice Versa” jerseys. Last month, Madison Square Garden was lit up in an Instagram gradient for a Louis Vuitton X NBA capsule collection launch designed by Virgil Abloh. The graphic trend’s popularity in an otherwise depressing lockdown year feels not unlike disco pop music’s quarantine comeback. Gradients are pretty. When done right, they glow like a setting or rising sun, promising a new day. In 2020, we were hungry for things that looked and sounded optimistic and happy.
While Biden’s campaign design team created plenty of unconventional and creative work—like the Chromatica pink graphics promoting a campaign rally with Lady Gaga, a “World Stage” concert-style tee designed by Joe Perez, and a Giphy account packed with hundreds of animated pro-Biden and pro-voting gifs—many of the campaign’s visual assets used in Facebook and Instagram ads remained relatively standard. Ultimately, the brand proved flexible enough to do both.
Since Biden won the election, his team has filed away the red three-stripe E, but his transition and inauguration branding still use Decimal and Mercury. The transition even uses gradients now, like a blue and green one for Biden’s statement to mark the 50th anniversary of the Environmental Protection Agency. Though the campaign is over and the logo is gone, Biden still has a political need for design that conveys warmth and optimism that colorful, luscious gradients have proven to provide.
“I think isolation is a very big thing that happened over the last year, and there’s a fundamental warmth to gradients that beats flat color.”
The story of Biden’s visual brand is in many ways parallel to his appeal as a candidate. His record as the former Veep to a popular ex-president didn’t hurt him with voters, and his logo embraced that association. Like the Obama O and Michael Bierut’s Hillary H before it, Biden’s logo isolated a single letter and altered it in a distinctive way, and he stuck with red, white, and blue in a crowded primary where other Democrats running on more progressives platforms used any colors but those. In most ways, Biden was a moderate who ran with a traditional logo.
And yet, Biden has also been called one of the most progressive Democratic nominees ever, and his branding broke new ground visually. Though he’ll be sworn in as America’s oldest president, Biden won voters under 30 by 60%, and he used experimental campaign graphics with acid trip colors, stretched text, and pop art visual references that looked young and fresh. The Biden brand was able to reach a diverse coalition of voters because his campaign had an expansive yet coherent visual communications strategy. Trump did that too, with official Trump campaign “sub-brand” logos that used different fonts and colors for different demographic groups. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s logo was intentionally designed to be adapted for various groups and events. But Biden’s visual system included both traditional and trend-setting design. It sold a candidate who simultaneously promised a return to the normalcy of the past but with a bold progressive agenda designed for the future. This is what Build Back Better looks like.
This story is a collaboration between Eye on Design and Yello, a newsletter about visual politics from reporter Hunter Schwarz. Subscribe to Yello here.