Hilvetica and Marshall McLuhan


Hillary Clinton’s campaign knows how to play it cool.

The Media Ecology Association (MEA) is a group comprised of folks who know something of the work of Marshall McLuhan.

(Not everyone will get that oblique reference. It hints at a scene in Woody Allen’s film, Annie Hall, where McLuhan plays himself in a cameo role, and puts down a pontificator with the line “You know nothing of my work.” Explaining the joke is a pedantic exercise, but the name dropping provides tasty bait for Google’s web crawler bots, thus raising the chances of this post being listed by their search engine someday. So, to my human readers, thank you for your patience. Let’s carry on.)

Soon after Hillary Clinton’s highly anticipated announcement video was released, an MEA member, Paul Levinson (Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University), gushed about the video’s “masterful” technique, which he described as particularly “cool” from a “McLuhanesque” perspective. One of his main points is that Clinton’s late (and very brief) appearance in the video invites viewers to want to know more about her.

Levinson’s observation kicked off a long back and forth on the MEA list about whether our pervasive environment of media addiction has trumped all concern for substantive political discourse.

I chimed in, pointing out that Clinton had also just changed her Twitter avatar. Just prior to the announcment she was using a well-known black and white photo in which she was wearing sunglasses and reading a message on her smartphone (it was about the death of Muammar Khadafi, as I recall). That’s McLuhanesque cool, if anything is. Nearly all the other candidates have been using much hotter smiling color headshots, facing directly into the camera.


Clinton’s Twitter avatar when her job status was “TBD”

Now Clinton’s avatar is also her campaign logo… a sharp-edged Blue H, with a red-accented arrow, created for her by the design firm Pentagram  For McLuhan acolytes, text is considered “hot.” But McLuhan also describes certain effects by which a medium can “overheat” and undergo a reversal.

Arguably, we’re seeing that happen with Clinton’s new logo. It inspired graphic designer Rick Wolff to build a typeface called variously “Hilvetica,” “Hillary Bold,” or “Hilvetica Bold.” Now a webpage, hosted by the Washington Post, lets anyone make a slogan in Hilvetica. It’s an invitation for audience participation. Hot has exploded into cool before our eyes

This post says nothing about the actual issues of the campaign, of course. So McLuhan’s suggestion for a better way to conduct a Presidential debate is worth mentioning. It would involve shorter conversations with the candidates sitting together at a table rather than each standing separately at a podium. We’ve seen this approach tried a few times since he proposed it in 1976.

The long-term goal of AimsPoll is to facilitate an updated version of that better conception of debate, leveraging the opportunities of the Web to “get the audience into the act.” But there’s not much demand for that yet. Today’s fashion demands dressing in Hilvetica.


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