Senator Barack Obama speaks at a town hall meeting in Greensboro, North Carolina, on March 26. (Ellen Ozier/Reuters)

Brand Obama, a leader in the image war

NEW YORK: It doesn't matter where you stand politically, or what you think of them personally. Whether you prefer Barack Obama's policies to Hillary Clinton's. What you think of her electioneering tactics, or his pastor. Or if you'd dump them both for John McCain. When it comes to choosing the best-designed U.S. presidential candidate, there's only one contender -  Obama.

Every element of his visual identity has been masterfully conceived and executed to depict Obama as perfect presidential material. "It really is a treat to see graphic design applied so well," said the typography designer, Jonathan Hoefler. "Visually he is on message at every turn. I can't think of many corporations that use design so intelligently."

How has Obama done it? Managing a visual identity is a formidable challenge for any organization, but especially so for one that is as big as his and deploys so many volunteers in a fiercely competitive, constantly changing arena. No wonder most politicians play safe when it comes to design.

Take Obama's rivals. Their visual identities are in the conservative style that would-be presidents have used for decades. Hillary is playing super-safe with a "Hillary for president" logo in red, white and blue (obviously) and one of those old-fashioned serif typefaces with squiggles at the ends of the letters that signify gravitas and tradition. (What is she suggesting?) The only noteworthy aspect of McCain's identity is his choice of black, white and yellow rather than red, white and blue with a military-style star (lest voters forget his bravery during the Vietnam War). The effect is powerful, imposing and unapologetically macho; at least it would be if it didn't also look like an uptight version of the logo of McCain, the Canadian frozen French fries manufacturer.

Back to Obama, and his impeccably designed candidacy. His team, led by David Axelrod, the Chicago-based political consultant, has rejected political design convention. Starting from scratch, they have invented a new type of presidential identity, intended to optimize their candidate's appeal to an increasingly fragmented electorate in the media frenzy of the Web 2.0 era. Like all visual identities, its power is suggestive. Obama's team is gambling that the components - colors, symbols and lettering - will trigger favorable associations for voters whenever they see them on banners, print or the Web.

Let's start with the colors. They're the one conventional choice: red, white and blue. The dominant shade is the most conservative one - blue - presumably in the hope of persuading voters to shelve their doubts about Obama's relative lack of experience.

Now the symbol. It's a sunrise, with the red stripes of the U.S. flag at the base. "David Axelrod wanted an iconic mark that communicated hope, change and the dawn of a new era of political leadership," explained Steve Juras, creative director of mo/de, which developed the original identity with the fellow Chicago design consultancy Sender LLC before handing it over to Obama's internal design team. The sun rising at the start of a new day was an obvious choice for a candidate campaigning for "Change We Can Believe In." There is also a nod to the "O" in Obama, and to the sunrise motif of an earlier campaign that Axelrod had worked on - Harold Washington's successful 1983 bid to become the first African-American mayor of Chicago.

Then the lettering. Obama's identity contrasts a Hillaryesque serif typeface with a squiggle-free sans-serif presumably to imply that he combines gravitas with youthful vigor. Originally the letters were upper and lower case, which designers generally deploy to convey friendliness. As the campaign progressed, they have switched to all-upper case, which looks more authoritative, just what Obama wants. The sans-serif font changed, too: from Gill Sans, created by the British designer Eric Gill in the early 1900s, to a contemporary American one, Gotham.

Great choice. No typeface could seem better suited to a dynamic, yet conscientious, American public servant. Inspired by the handmade signs of 1940s New York, Gotham was designed in 2000 by Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones, originally for GQ magazine. It has since appeared on everything from organic food packaging, to the Freedom Tower cornerstone at the World Trade Center site in New York. You don't have to be a typographic historian to get the message. A glance at the lettering on the "Change" banners at Obama's rallies conveys a potent, if unspoken, combination of contemporary sophistication (a nod to his suits) with nostalgia for America's past and a sense of duty.

The next coup was to customize Obama's identity to appeal to different voters. Hillary and McCain have stuck to traditional design-thinking by adopting identities that look more or less the same everywhere on the assumption that this makes them more memorable. Axelrod has planned Obama's campaign on the Web 2.0 principle that we live in such a frenzied media landscape that old-fashioned static symbols blend into the background, and we only respond to imagery that seems to be directed at us personally.

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