Democracy, designers and Obama


If the American election were held today and an east-coast cabal of American graphic designers had their way, Barack Obama would be in by a landslide. For months now, cyber-space has been groaning under an avalanche of carefully crafted democratic devotion.

If you’ve noticed Shepard Fairey’s striking pro-Obama posters, you’ve only scratched the surface – there’s now a flickr page devoted entirely to digital remixes of it. Here’s the original…


now here are the parodies.


Just a casual interrogation of flickr reveals a series of poignant uses of Fairey’s image, such as this interesting piece of flyposting…


…or this version transferred onto brick and shot with, er, a jumping friend. As I write there are at least 155,000 images tagged ‘˜Obama’ on flickr alone.


Obviously, there’s quite a difference in tone in the candidate’s campaigns, but dig deeper and you’ll find detailed discussions of virtually everything; each candidate’s chosen typeface (true); the layout of their websites (true); the brand attributes of Obama’s approach versus McCain’s (true); whether Obama has managed to make the letter ‘˜O’ his or not (also true, but does it still belong to Oprah?). Have I read that Obama = Mac and McCain = PC? I can’t actually remember, but it sounds plausible, doesn’t it?

Writing from this side of the Atlantic, this degree of obsessive, forensic analysis seems a little over the top. UK politicians understand the principles of ‘˜appeal’ and ‘˜image’ but their visual communications are often lacklustre (apart from a few last minute 48 sheet advertising posters). New Labour’s red square logo ran in parallel with Old Labour’s red rose for more than a decade – whilst their co-existence was odd, and rarely peaceful, it didn’t stop Blair winning 3 elections.


Dave’s Cameroonies revealed their squiggly green tree replacement for the torch recently, to almost universal shrugs of disinterest in their newly ‘˜green’ credentials.


But maybe, just maybe, design and mass communication could be making a difference this time. Obama, hailed as the most media-savvy democratic candidate since Kennedy, is running the ‘˜first real transmedia campaign of the 21st century’ according to designer Brian Collins (when interviewed by Steven Heller for the New York Times). ‘˜His people not only understand how media has splintered, but how audiences have splintered, too. Cell phones, mobile devices, websites, e-mail, social networks, iPods, laptops, billboards, print ads and campaign events are now just as important as television. I’ve worked with giant, global corporations who don’t do it this well’.

This is a view echoed by others. Sean Adams (of Adams Morioka) feels that unlike previous democratic campaigns, ‘˜Obama seems to have learned from past mistakes and has maintained a remarkably well designed visual, verbal, and written message that does not lurch from idea to idea’.

The candidates’ typographic choices are telling to designers such as Paula Scher: ‘˜McCain’s logotype was Optima. Obama’s was Gotham. It spoke volumes about their campaigns. Ordinary people didn’t understand what that meant, but every designer did. The ordinary folk simply grasped it intuitively. It was just the difference of old and new’. Stephen Doyle asks ‘˜would you put your money on the font derived from thriving America in its heyday of capitalism (sigh) or the one drawn from the graves of Italians (mama-mia!) who finished thriving five centuries ago?’ Indeed.

When asked by Heller, typographer Cyrus Highsmith pointed out that ‘˜for some reason, almost every dentist and orthodontist seems to use Optima for their letterhead. Therefore, while Optima is a great typeface I tend to associate with getting teeth drilled’.


Speak Up’s Armin Vit feels that ‘˜Obama has really inspired graphic designers, and it all started because of his campaign’s commitment to powerful visual communication, which I think signals a sort of coming out party for the profession’. And the ‘˜coming out’ which Vit refers to is dramatic – amongst the pro-Obama initiatives there’s even a ‘˜designers for Obama’ website where every day until November 4th designers add new poster designs in support (from which we’ve borrowed Ron English’s phenomenal ‘˜Obama as Lincoln’, used at the top of this post). In this new, electronic form, the political poster is reborn.

Here’s illustrator Felix Sockwell’s contribution to the visual debate.


Meanwhile McCain’s graphic supporters are almost invisible. Even a simple photo-shoot for The Atlantic magazine went disastrously wrong when the chosen photographer, Jill Greenberg (known to be left of centre), intentionally made McCain look as pasty as possible and left his eyes red and bloodshot. Whoops.


Then she used the out-takes to create her own, viciously anti-McCain posters. Double-whoops.



(Apologies for anyone offended, but apparently he did call his wife that once, in front of the media).

Luckily Air Bed & Breakfast decided to make cereal for both candidates, but it’s not clear whether sales have been entirely equal. (The running vote on their website leans heavily in Obama’s favour).


Sarah Palin’s whimsy, winks, warmongering and wardrobe have been ridiculed worldwide and have made a global star of Tina Fey in the process. But as Stephen Doyle points out, ‘˜before her puck was dropped, there was nothing remotely entertaining about this election. Now we are all glued to her appearances just so we get the jokes when they come around on Saturday night’.’s hilarious debate flow chart that lampooned Palin’s thought processes was so successful (and so bookmarked) they were selling t-shirts of it within weeks.


But, the question remains, can design influence the outcome of an election? The painful memory of Florida 2000′s ‘˜pregnant chads’ debacle, (when a poorly designed ballot paper almost certainly turned the result to George Bush) still endures. Perhaps it’s stirred the US design community into action and they’re determined not to get the blame again.


In the nineties, Blair embraced the UK creative industries after his landslide victory; in Obama’s case the American creative industries have adopted him before the event, in anticipation of an equally historic return to the left.

Whilst many fear the ‘˜Bradley effect‘ (named after the tendency for US voters to poll one way but turn into the KKK once cocooned in a polling booth), many more fear what another term of Republicanism could do to the USA, and the world. No wonder they’re designing pro-Obama posters. Wouldn’t you?

This is an adaptation of an article by Michael Johnson running in this week’s Design Week magazine. Attempts have been made to link to original images and acknowledge image sources where possible.