designing obama February 28, 2008Posted by KG in 2008 Elections, arts/culture, design, news, politics, style, tech.
Tags: apple, barack obama, branding, consumer, design, font, gotham, graphic design, graphics, marketing, michael bieruit, obama, target, yale
Obama’s success owes a lot, of course, to his message–the promise to pass Democratic policies by rallying a “coalition for change.” But watching Obamamania over the past few weeks, I’ve become convinced that there’s something more subtle at work, too. It’s not just the message and the man and the speeches that are swaying Democratic voters–though they are. It’s the way the campaign has folded the man and the message and the speeches into a systemic branding effort. Reinforced with a coherent, comprehensive program of fonts, logos, slogans and web design, Obama is the first presidential candidate to be marketed like a high-end consumer brand.* And for folks who don’t necessarily need Democratic social programs–upscale voters, young people–I suspect that the novel comfort of that brand affiliation contributes (however subconsciously) to his appeal.
Seeking expert opinion, I tested my hypothesis on leading graphic designer and critic Michael Bieruit, who was kind enough to dissect Obama’s unprecedented branding campaign–and show me how it’s helping his candidacy. Excerpts:
What do you see as the “philosophical implications,” to use a highfalutin phrase, of Obama’s design choices?
There are a couple of levels. There’s the close-in parlor game you can play about what all these typefaces actually mean. Gotham was a typeface designed originally for GQ magazine, so it’s a sleek, purposefully not fancy, very straightforward, plainspoken font, but done with a great deal of elegance and taste–and drawn from very American sources, by the way. Unlike other sans serif typefaces, it’s not German, it’s not French, it’s not Swiss. It’s very American. The serif font that he often uses to write Obama is delicate and nuanced and almost, not feminine exactly, but it’s very literary-looking. It looks very conversational and pleasant, as opposed to strident and yelling. It’s a persuasive-looking font, I would say. But that’s putting these things on couches and pretending they have personalities.
Right. It’s sort of hard to imagine in a voter in Cleveland (or a Newsweek political blogger from New York, for that matter) interacting with Obama’s design on that level. How does it affect those of us who aren’t graphic designers?
Well, I’m teaching this class at the Yale School of Management, and we were just talking about brand management and politics–exactly this thing before we got on the phone. And one of the things that came up in the conversation is, if you think about it, the challenge for someone named Barack Hussein Obama is that he’s such an unprecedented figure in American politics–so much so that everything he’s trying to do is, in a way, trying to make him look smoother and more normal. Someone said, “Well, why shouldn’t he have revolutionary looking graphics–graphics that make him look like grassroots, like an outsider? Things drawn by hand, things that look forceful and avant-garde.” But I think he’s using design in a way to make him look as normal, as comfortable, as inevitable as a brand can look in American life. Those are really deliberate, interesting choices. Whether or not a sans serif font like Gotham looks more “American” than a Swiss font like Helvetica, that’s in our imaginations to a certain degree. I think it’s much more incontrovertible that he’s actually using the seamlessness of this branding to convey a candidacy that’s not a dangerous, revolutionary, risk-everything proposition–but as something that is well-managed and has everything under control.