Friday, March 07, 2008

Visual * * * Strategies

Above: Obama “installation” by Shepard Fairey

I admit I was a little shocked to hear Shepard Fairey's name on the radio. But I suppose the man is fairly mainstream these days. Still... on a podcast for

Last week, The Economist interviewed Scott Dadich, the art director of Texas Monthly, about visual strategies and the evolution of “political branding.” Dadich's assessment of Barack Obama's bumper sticker logo was especially fascinating. His words cut like a scalpel:
For the first time, we’re seeing the brand obsessed, and now design aware, corporate landscape in a presidential campaign logo. This is a really expertly done, clearly highly crafted piece of typography and graphic design. Designers are always trying to achieve additional, above-and-beyond meaning in their work. This “O” is a clear example of that effort. We have a sun rising over what appears to be a pastoral field. It’s almost reminiscent of the Bank of America logo.
The gist of the argument is that Obama's graphic messages are professional and highly effective. The Obama strategy is, from a design perspective, simply superior to the other candidates', Democrat or Republican.

The interview continued on to analyze the significance of the Obama's stylized "O." Dadich calls it a "peelable" mark. Comparing the "O" to the Nike swoosh or the Apple logo, the design is so distinct that this "O" can be removed and used as a stand-alone symbol for buttons, baseball caps, and merchandise of all varieties.

It only takes a moment to consider the infamous "W" in "George W. Bush" to see the contagious marketing power of a single, "peelable" initial. Dadich discussed the point a little further in his 2004 opinion piece in the New York Times. Although this "O" revelation could form a point of pride for Obama supporters, it still drives home just how intensely commercialized our election system has become.

Dadich also takes up a comparison with a few "less successful" graphic campaigns, including a fairly uncompromising critique of Kerry/Edwards. Some of his criticisms border on minutia - things that only a graphic designer would notice. His complaint about the letter spacing after Kerry's first initial struck me as a little obscure. But when you compare to the boldness and resolve embodied in the Busch/Cheney logo, the contrast of styles becomes crystal clear.

The Economist interviewer then maneuvered Dadich through a number of subjects, including the role of graffiti artist Shepard Fairey and other independent designers. Evidently, Fairey 's larger-than-life Obama (photo above) can be seen all over the West Coast. Dadich cites Fairey's Obama as evidence of a movement - not just one charismatic man.

The discussion even touched on the failed Mondale/Ferraro bid for the White House back in 1984. The redundant typeface failed to distinguish the nominee, Walter Mondale, from his female running mate, Geraldine Ferraro. Ferraro, a savvy New York lawyer, received nearly as much media attention as Mondale.

At one point, Scott Dadich drew attention to the three star motif on the blue Hillary Clinton logo. There are claims that the three stars allude to a third Clinton presidency. I don't give the theory much credit; it sounds a little too convenient and, for that matter, partisan in that predictable, talk radio sort of way. I mean, realistically, three stars could suggest anything: Orion's Belt, a fraternity coat of arms, or the restaurant rating of the Atlanta Fish Market.

My own intuition leans toward a more believable, although ironic, interpretation. Three uniform stars vaguely suggest unity, like that old apocryphal tale of St. Patrick explaining the Trinity by using a three-leaf clover. In Scott Dadich's words, the Clinton logo tries to represent "all things to all people." Maybe Hillary's team intended the stars to suggest a "Third Way," a compromise between the politically divided Left and Right. That was Bill Clinton's platform in 1992, but unfortunately for Hillary, the "unity" candidate this year is not her.

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Fifth said...

A few more of this sort of thing:

littlejoke said...

Not commercialized but psychologized. Presidential campaigns have always played on the emotions and unconscious visual preferences of the electorate. We just know more about what makes voters tick and tick off boxes on paper ballots or touchscreens.

The Obama campaign has shown greater media smarts (both logo-wise and digital-wise) than the other guys, which would give us hope that they might be capable of enlisting similar talent for more consequential issues, but the most recent kerfluffle shows that smart people do very dumb things when they are pressed to their emotional limits or levels of sleep deprivation.

I have the feeling that the triple stars have a much simpler explanation, though I can't quite say what it is. It would require looking at how the stars of the American flag et al have been deployed over the decades (the point of any symbol in politics is to suggest as many contradictory things as possible...let the voter plug in their own unconscious preference, so long as the preference is a feel-good one).

I don't think Ike made any use of his stars as a General of the Army, but I've never looked. Part of the point of his campaign was to downplay his military record...he was running on the promise "to go to Korea" to secure peace, not to keep the war going, but the use of stars as a sign of military rank probably also resonates for some voters for whom such things suggest competency. The star is one of those symbols of patriotism of which the whole point is to make sure it does NOT call up a clear meaning as distinct from a vague emotion.