By now, we all know that the 2008 Obama Presidential campaign was a great leap forward for the aesthetics of US election campaigns. So it should come as no surprise that the director of the Obama campaign, Scott Thomas, decided to publish a book about the innovative Obama design brand and its impact on American pop and design cultures. The resulting book, titled Designing Obama: A Chronicle of Art & Design from the 2008 Presidential Campaign, is an attractive product that includes a short foreword by Pentagram partner Michael Bierut and an introduction by graphic design guru Steven Heller, who cleverly calls the brand “O Design.”
If you can’t afford the $79.99 hardcover book or the $4.99 iPad app (we’re told it’s an introductory price, whatever that means), no fear, you can read the 300+ page volume for free online. Why can Thomas afford to give the book away for free? Probably because the funds required to create the book were raised through a Kickstarter compaign (he raised $84,613 from 1,312 backers, well over his $65,000 goal).
The book tells the story of the development of the Obama graphic brand and offers insights into the thinking that went into the logo, fonts (Gotham, Liberation Serif, Snell, Roundhand), website, and general branding. This volume is sure to be a fascinating read for designers, typographers, design geeks, and pop culture fans, but its tone and ideas makes it equally accessible to the public (hmmm … I wonder if this was a “branding” decision).
Bierut credits the Obama campaign as being the “first open source political campaign,” and how the design made it easy for the public to feel part of something. Heller’s contribution is predominantly in the form of interviews with a branding expert and Sol Sender, the graphic designer responsible for the iconic “O.” Sender makes it clear that Obama had no input into the design and that it was “singularly inspired by the candidate’s message. Like any mark, the meaning impact really come from what people bring to it.”
Chapter 7 tackles a topic of great interest to the art world, “Artists for Obama.” While Thomas acknowledges that the Obama campaign wasn’t the first to use design and portraits successfully in a Presidential campaign (the Kennedy and Reagan campaigns did that, too) he says, “never before had a candidate’s physical image become the object of both artistic invention and advocacy.” He is, of course, referring to Shepard Fairey’s iconic Hope/Progress poster. He cites the fact that politician portraits are often used to criticize but because Obama didn’t look like what the American public imagined a conventional politician looked like, it worked.
Chapter 8 focuses on “Art of the Grassroots,” and is dominated by the work of street artists, a type of artist that fed perfectly into Obama’s brand of grassroots populism. This section includes an extensive spread by New York street artist Billi Kid (including his many swipes at Republicans in the form of Sara Palin, John McCain, and George W. Bush images) that cropped up on the streets of New York and elsewhere. There are other notable images, including some by Bay Area artist Eddie, LA-based Mr. Brainwash (of Exit Through the Gift Shop fame), New York-based graffiti writer John Locke, a watercolor by art world bigwig Marlene Dumas, pretty works by Bask in Florida, Ron English’s Abraham Lincoln/Obama hybrid image, Michael Bierut’s cheesy typographic Obamafication of America, and Cheris Trevis’s trippy photo-collaged portraits of Obama.
I know Thomas couldn’t have possibly included everyone in his book but I was confused as to why he chose to give the images two-page spreads rather than use the space to pack in more public murals and other works that felt ubiquitous during the 2008 election season. A simple search on Flickr reveals hundreds of these unique types of public works — many of which are available for publication under a free Creative Commons license. As someone who carefully watched the design and artistic identity of Obama evolve, I don’t recognize some of the images included in the final book and I found some of the inclusions marginal at best, or worse, poorly conceived and executed. I can only assume Thomas had a bigger vision for the volume that forced him to make editorial decisions about what to include and what to omit, which is the nature of branding I guess.
What I’m dying to know is what the 2012 Obama campaign will do next. How do you top — or do you — a Presidential campaign that raised the bar for electoral branding.
For more information on the book or how to order a copy, visit designing-obama.com.
The following is a complete list of the artists included in the book: Justin Hampton, Aaron Allen, Aaron Nagel, Eddie, Sam Brown, AG Ford, Armando Lerma, Amanda Martin, Annie Weatherwax, Billi Kid, Delicious Design League, Brett Yasko, Brian Flynn, Caleb Kozlowski, Catherine Wu, Chad Mize, Christopher Beaumont, Dan Ibarra, Derek Gores, EMEK Studios, Emily Gallardo, Felix Jackson, Frank Chimero, Paula Scher, Gui Borchert, George Vlosich III, Lance Wille, Herb Williams, Jonathan Hoefler, Michael Murphy, Antar Dayal, Martin Schoeller, Carlos Ramirez, Leon Bedore, Jess Weida, Jimm Lasser, John Locke, John Sokol, Jessica Witkin, Larry Roibal, Mr Brainwash, Margaret Coble, Adam S Doyle, Manick Sorcar, Marco Pece, James O’Brien, Michael Jacob, Derek Hess, Oliver Barrett, Rafael Lopez, Ray Noland, Renan Molin, René Garcia, Jr., Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada, Ron English, Steve Deer, Shawn Hazen, James Widener, Sol Sender, Melinda Beck, Scott Hansen, Thomas Brodahl, Charis Tsevis, Wes Winship
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.