The (Literal) Ugliness of the 2012 Campaign

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In 2008, the Obama team dazzled with design. This year, not so much.

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Obama for America / Romney for President

It's been an ugly year for politics.

Well, if not ugly, then optically boring. With 47 days to go, what's visually striking about this presidential race is how visually unmemorable the whole affair has been. I asked a man who's a bit of a legend in the visual arts world, graphic designer Michael Bierut, to ruminate on why. A partner at Pentagram, he's the author of Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design and co-founding editor of the Design Observer blog. If you're the sort who watches documentaries on fonts, you might remember his star turn in Helvetica: "'It's the real thing.' PERIOD. 'Coke.' PERIOD. In Helvetica. PERIOD. Any questions? Of course not." Bierut's an Obama partisan, no doubt. But he says that, "from a design point of view, I can definitely admire things that are done well, regardless of who's doing it."

So, Mr. Bierut, why hasn't 2012 produced the sort of indelible visual imagery that 2008 did? This year it seems like everyone in politics has achieved a similar level of bland design competence.

His answer:

In 2008, Obama was just so startlingly far ahead of everyone else with his whole communications program, both in the way it was conceived and the way it was implemented: all the innovation he had in social networking, using without any embarrassment the trappings of consumer marketing and consumer branding. It was such a nice fit between what his message was that year and the package it came in that I think it just added up to a real success.

Certainly, it was an imitate-able success. Almost everyone now, no matter who you are, can find some good designers and smart people. You understand that you're supposed to be doing these things, whether or not you have real heart or an aptitude for it, whether it comes naturally or it's just clumsy for you. Now, it's another arena for people to prove whether they're good at it. Everyone feels that they have to play in that arena. So there's much less distinction between Obama and Romney this year.

Their differences have little do with the way they're deploying their graphics -- although, as a designer, I assure you that Obama's graphics are better than Romney's. But they're not as startlingly different in their very nature as they seemed to be four years ago.

One thing that's different now compared to four years ago is that social networks like Twitter are, to a certain degree, design-neutral. They are more about language, or catchphrases, or hashtags. 2008 had a whole series of graphic expressions of that political moment that you'd put in a time capsule. You'd pull out the Shepard Fairey "Hope" poster, or the Obama "O" logo, and that would really seem to be a better way to symbolize that moment in time than anything else, perhaps. Now, I think, it's going to be words in quotes, whether it's "47%" or "Occupy Wall Street" or whatever it is. It's things like that that seem to be defining, and those things exist almost independently of the channels that they're being transmitted in.

And his take on why Obama hasn't seemed eager to try to re-raise the bar this time around:

It was a new product introduction in 2008, and it was really cleverly done. Everything about it had a kind of ingenuity to it. As I understand it, Plouffe and Axelrod had to really talk him into that branding approach, and Obama resisted it, because he thought it looked too slick and corporate. And I don't know the line of argument they use, but the argument that I would have made to him is that, if you're slick and corporate, you don't need to put yourself in a slick and corporate package. But if you're relatively untested, your background is in community organizing and stuff like that, if you emphasize that and make yourself look like a street-wise activist in all your graphics, you're just confirming in a way what people fear about you. By making the graphics smooth and confident-looking, it took what a lot of people -- look, the candidate himself was a powerful product but bad naming decision [laughter]; Barack Obama? That isn't the name you give someone if the idea is for them to become president -- they took what they had and tried to normalize it, in a way, as opposed to emphasize the riskiness of it.

Now, of course, you don't have that blank slate. It's not a new product launch. And to their credit, they're not even really doing it as kind of a reboot. They're sort of sticking with exactly the same tone of voice and language and visual presentation, evolved slightly from the visual presentation that they've used all the way along.

So should Romney have gone with a grunge font, then? Maybe added in some weathering, and not antialiased quite so crisply? This got a laugh from Bierut:

Romney's got a lot of problems, and his font ain't one of them.

It would have been a tough job to take on. When I'm working as a graphic designer and I'm asked to design a logo for someone, the best person you can work with is someone who actually has a really clear point of view and is willing to exclude things, willing to include things, willing to de-emphasize things, and then willing to stick to it. They give you that kind of brief. It's a bad thing if they say, "well, I told you that I want to be strong but I also want to be approachable, I want to be feminine but I also need to be really masculine." This eagerness to change the message depending on the direction of today's breeze or the audience at which the message is being directed? That's just really a tough client to represent. Regardless of Governor Romney's other strengths and virtues, that sort of constancy doesn't appear, for whatever reason, to be one of them.

I circled back to this line, "I assure you that Obama's graphics are better than Romney," telling Bierut that to my eye, Romney's design work seems competent enough. Bierut pointed to the Romney red-white-and-blue logo seen above:

This is like a mortal sin to do. It's one of the things I just won't do on principle, and I say it's just sort of against the law for professional graphics designers. If you try to figure out what part of the flag it is and where it's waving and why it's waving, it's actually hard to figure out. But that's supposed to be an "R," right? So next to that is in, I believe, a font called Trajan -- a favorite font of disaster movies, actually, oddly enough -- he's got "OMNEY" written next to it. The problem is that you're counting on people reading through from this abstracted "R" to the regular letterforms you've put next to it, so the chance is that it reads as something-OMNEY. Even if you assume that the people coming to the site know the name of the candidate, it's still dumb.

Although Obama's famous "O" is really simpler and clearer, he almost never writes "O" and then "BAMA." He's never counted on that "O" being an "o." It's always been that symbol, and then he writes "Obama" below it or above it or on the side of it. That's classic modern corporate identity. You have an abstract symbol and then you have a lockup with the wordmark.

One of the tweaks Obama did make in 2012 was to his font choice, a subtle adjustment to make it sort of the "I'm the president" of fonts:

He did something thrilling to designers. He went back to the guys who designed the font that he made famous, Gotham, and he had Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones do a custom version of it that had what we call slab serifs, which means it has feet on it. Serif type faces are considered largely more traditional than sans-serif type faces. So he was unabashedly representing change with a clean sans-serif type face against McCain's use of Optima, the same type face on the Vietnam Veterans memorial. They claim not to have known that when they did it, and I'm inclined to believe them. I don't think they're that clever.

But Obama for 2012 redrew the typeface so now it has serifs on it. And not just any serif, but a kind of serifs called slab serifs, the kind of serifs that are different than the serifs that "OMNEY" has next to his "R." The Obama letters are really big and robust, and they're familiar to most people because that's exactly how a lot of sports uniforms look. The University of Michigan -- that "M" is drawn just like the "M" in Obama. So it's meant to be kind of forceful and brawny and athletic and strong-looking. It's a big slab of a serif. It looks a little more traditional on one hand but also looks really kind of strong and confident on the other hand. You can't see either of those things were true about the typeface he was using in 2008. It was decisively meant to look modern. This is meant to look like something that's been around for a little longer and has a lot of durability and robustness to it.

Bierut brought up another change from 2008 -- the flourishing of infographics produced by the campaigns and commentariat alike:

What's happened in the last four years is this real rise in information visualization, let's say, [like] the way that Obama chooses to visualize job loss versus job creation: the stroke of the "V" that leads up to his election and then the upward sloping side of the "V" that comes after it. Charts like that stand more chance of making a point than a lot of other things. There are tons of infographics trying to prove all sorts of things. Things like the 99% or the 47% get translated into pie charts real fast. Who are those 47%? I've seen that pie chart already in ten different ways since last week. I think it's actually probably for good. I'd rather see an interesting, telling, relevant piece of information visualization than a great logo. Well, I like seeing a great logo, but...

Finally, I asked Bierut for this professional opinion of the "Our Stripes" image that provoked outrage on conservative sites this week, the one with Obama's logo in place of the America flag's stars:

This isn't a particularly great piece of graphic design, but it's someone trying to be artful. [Of the criticisms,] that just seems to be grasping.

Bierut's alive to the idea that you can overindulge in this sort of analysis. Our conversation went far beyond the level of detail that "normal people" pay any attention to when they're contemplating candidates, he said. Fair enough. But there's also a reason why people in all walks of modern American life spend a fortune on branding.

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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