Design as Social Agent at the ICA: The Obama Effect

Image from Wikimedia commons
The Design as Social Agent conference yesterday at the ICA addressed the role of art and design in myriad situations, from Shepard Fairey’s Hope poster to Adolf Hitler’s reappropriation of the once-inspirational swastika for anti-Semitic purposes. The day raised more questions than it answered, but brought up several good points directly related to how design affects our everday lives—for better or for worse.

We started our day by listening to Nicholas Blechman, the art director for the New York Times Book Review, and Pete Favat, CCO at Arnold Worldwide, discuss the “Obama effect.” The talk never quite clarified what exactly the “Obama effect” is, but examined several “guerilla marketing” campaigns that may reflect the widespread success of Fairey’s poster.

The talk began with a discussion of political “graphics” from various eras, beginning with the Roman Empire’s SPQR and laurel leaves and progressing to the swastika, a representation of peace and hope twisted forever by its association with Nazism. Favat mentioned the peace symbol as a simple but effective symbol of a political movement, while Blechman offered up mai 68 as another example of political symbolism in art—as well as perhaps the first instance of modern street art, credited to studios rather than individuals, and created for political reasons.

Image from Wikipedia
These French street artists were associated with the Situationist movement, which strongly believed in the revolutionary potential of art. Favat brought this argument about art’s power to the next level, suggesting out that art can only truly effect change when the social context is ready for it. Obama’s election is a good example. Favat asks, “If we were happy with George Bush, would Shepard Fairey have done this [created the Hope poster]? Would it have made such an impact?” Favat asked audience members to think of iconic images from the 1950s and got little to no response; he argued that we can’t call up many (other than brands) such images due to the peace and prosperity the country enjoyed at the time. Conflict opens the door to important design—it’s up to designers to meet the challenge.

Blechman described a New York Times show of artists’ renderings of Obama, describing a general “need to draw Obama” among artists, motivated by the historical nature of his candidacy and win. Showing a few slides of the drawings from the show, Blechman noted that many artists chose to depict Obama from behind, a choice that—notwithstanding Farat’s suggestion that our president just looks good from behind—may appeal to our need for a leader, someone we can literally “get behind” and follow on a journey into the future.

In regard to using photography in design, Blechman mentioned the New York Times’ creation of a Facebook “gift” that fans of the paper could give one another on inauguration day. The image was designed by Christoph Niemann from an existing photograph. The difference between this situation and Fairey's? The Times actually gets permissions for the photographs it uses.

Blechman also discussed the “Forecast” issue of his magazine Nozone, which predicts an apocalyptic future for our global warming-wracked world, often in designs that parody corporate logos or use an everyday need—water—to represent how our future will change. It may take the revamping of such familiar icons in different contexts to make the future concrete; Blechman suggested that we have been “anesthetized to the future” because of its remote unimaginability. By proffering an image of the future couched in the familiar design alphabets of advertising and the everyday, Nozone’s Forecast succeeds in giving us a clear, if ominous, image of what we might become.

Alberto Korda photograph; image from Wikipedia
Favat and Blechman brought up the now-iconic Che Guevara image, designed from a photograph, as an example of artistic appropriation of photography that preceded Fairey’s use of AP images in his Obama poster. Favat noted that “When you take a photo and design it, it becomes mythic—something bigger.” This has certainly been true of the Che image, as well as the Hope poster. But does this mythical attribute preclude offering credit to the original photographer? And what of Patrick Thomas’ Che, which reworks both the designed image and the original photograph into a satire on branding—including the ubiquitous branding of Che’s face itself as a representation of rebellion? Does Thomas need to give credit to anyone for inspiring his work, or is it just “obvious” to “everyone” what his image is derived from? And if it’s not obvious, has Thomas failed to attribute, or has the viewer failed to recognize?

At the end of the talk, Favat reiterated the need for positioning artistic movements in the appropriate context: “Symbols will mean nothing unless the desire for change is inherent in the social context.” This brought home the main point of the talk: that Fairey’s poster would be irrelevant without the social response it received, which in turn would have been impossible without the correct social climate. The success of design, then, has nearly as much to do with its context as its content.

Tomorrow, we discuss Iron Fists: Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State, and Something Borrowed, Something True, in a further attempt to understand Shepard Fairey's borrowing practices.

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Comments (1) [rss]

I've never thought about it that much, but design definitely plays a huge role in political campaigns. I studied psychology in college and I'm sure you could design some pretty interesting psychological studies to prove this point.

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