Your Belated Obama Campaign Graphic-Design Postmortem

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If 2012's visuals caught less attention than '08's, there was a reason for that, Obama's design director says.

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Obama for America

Now that election night is fading into memory, and we've heard our share of analyses about voting blocks, swing states, PACs, and attack ads, let's carve out some space to ponder whether the Obama campaign's graphic design—type, image, color—had any influence on the outcome of the presidential election.

In 2008, graphics played a significant role in energizing the base by giving them something literally to hold on to, wear, and display. Virtually every aspect, from the Obama campaign's "O" logo to its blue palette to its sans-serif type (Gotham) was analyzed and critiqued. The design jury's decision: Obama's '08 brand was the most memorable American campaign graphics in 200 years (or thereabouts). Of course that includes the grassroots outpouring of posters and banners, most notably Shepard Fairey's "Hope," which, although it became the focus of a copyright legal dispute, was the best-known, most-copied, and most-parodied election poster of all time.

The key change between 2008 and 2012 was that Obama was the president now. "No matter what was created," Higgins explained, "that was always one of the filters."

The 2012 election appeared less graphically interesting, at least from where I sat. In New York City, I saw few campaign posters, buttons, and bumper stickers. Watching participants at Obama rallies on TV, I developed a sense of placard envy because of all the "Forward" signs waving about. To determine whether there really was a paucity of graphically designed material during this cycle, or whether I was simply experiencing stereotypical New Yorker myopia, I asked Josh Higgins, the design director of the Obama campaign in Chicago, for a reality check.

Having built a team from six designers when he arrived in the Windy City to 21 when fully staffed, he certainly stands as testament to the fact that a lot of energy went into this election season's visuals. He and his workers were responsible for and oversaw all "creative," including "but not limited to print, web, and social media" for Obama's campaign.

"I am not sure why the Obama ephemera was scarce in NYC," he responded. "We had an online store with hundreds of products from t-shirts, to buttons, silk screen posters, yard signs, you name it. As far as I know, there was not any decision to produce less in 2012."

Higgins does say, though, there were significant graphic differences between when Scott Thomas was the '08 design director and the recent race. "The 2012 campaign was quite different than 2008 for a few reasons. One, Barack was the president and that in itself made for some challenges as far as what we could do. Two, I had a different idea for the visual language than my counterpart in 2008." One of those was the new motto/mantra, Forward: "In creating the wordmark, we wanted it to be simple, distinct, strong and representative of the president's message. I believe all these things were achieved."

There was experimentation going on, too. "Many of the projects that we pushed graphically were merchandise on the store and posters for events," he said. "There we could explore a bit more and push typography and layout." But for the website and printed literature, his team focused on cohesion. "With an established brand, where we refreshed the logo, color palette and simplified the visual language for 2012, many of the innovations were in the back end," he said. "For instance, the website was completely responsive from the day it launched. Our development team was second to none. The design team worked hand in hand with them to create the best user experience."

The key change between 2008 and 2012 was that Obama was the president now. The sense of insurgency that characterized last go-round would have rung false. "No matter what was created," Higgins explained, "that was always one of the filters."

That "filter" may have led to the seemingly tamped-down volume of materials and intensity of graphics compared to 2008. There were no iconic grassroots images, like Fairey's "Hope." But Higgins pointed out that "there were hundreds of pieces of art created in support of the president, within HQ and supporters around the country." Those efforts included a poster project called 30 Reasons and an Artists For Obama initiative whose posters sold out in a few days. What I saw in New York didn't speak to that intensity, but then again, given the Romney camp's reported surprise at Obama's margin of victory on election night, I wasn't alone in missing something.

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Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts and co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism program. More

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts and co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism program. He writes the "Visuals" column for The New York Times Book Review, "Graphic Content" for T-Style's "The Moment" blog, and The Daily Heller for Print magazine. He is the author or editor of over 140 books on design and popular visual culture.
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