Michael Bierut | Essays

Designing Obama

Obama sign
Charlotte Vieth, homemade lawn sign, St. Louis, Missouri, October 2008. Photo by Erich Vieth.

I was talking recently with a group of graphic designers. The subject was good work: not doing it, but how to get it accepted. Designers like to complain. We cast ourselves as embattled defenders of good taste and inventive ideas; arrayed against us are armies of insensitive clients, determined to thwart us, whose pigheadedness can only be defeated by dedication, cunning and guile. 

We traded war stories for a while, but one seasoned designer in our midst was silent. We finally asked him what tricks he used to get good work done. “Well, I guess I’m lazy,” he said. “I just make sure all my clients are smart people with unique messages and good products. The rest is easy.”

The rest is easy. Looking back at the design work that led to Barack Obama’s historic victory in November 2008, I wonder if that was the trick. Although much has been made — rightly so — of the ingenious and adaptable “O” logo developed by Sol Sender’s team, Obama himself was his own best logo. Young, African-American, charismatic, change wasn’t just a message, it was the candidate’s very embodiment. When it was all said and done, Barack Obama was a smart guy with a unique message and a good product. And what designer wouldn’t wish for that in a client?

Selling change isn’t easy in a world that tends to prefer the comfort of the familiar. We all know what a revolution looks like: handmade signs, scrawled graffiti, the voice of the people. But Obama’s campaign was the opposite. Reportedly, the candidate resisted at first. “He did not initially like the campaign’s blue and white logo — intended to appear like a horizon, symbolizing hope and opportunity — saying he found it too polished and corporate,” reported the New York Times. But David Axelrod and his team prevailed. They must have known that the revolution, when it finally came, would have to be wrapped up in the most comprehensive corporate identity program the 21st century has yet seen. And it worked, as Designing Obama, the new book from Scott Thomas, Design Director of New Media for Obama for America, reveals.

Like every other graphic designer I know, I watched the live images of campaign rallies from Toledo to Topeka to Tallahassee with a growing feeling of awe. Obama’s oratorical skills were one thing. But the awe-inspiring part was the way all of the signs were faithfully, and beautifully, set in Hoefler and Frere-Jones’s typeface Gotham. “Trust me,” I told Newsweek back in February 2008. “I've done graphics for events — and I know what it takes to have rally after rally without someone saying, ‘Oh, we ran out of signs, let's do a batch in Arial.’” But it isn’t just strict standards and constant police work that keeps an organization on brand. It’s the mutual desire for everyone to have every part of the effort look like The Real Thing. At the height of the campaign, my daughter asked me if I could design a flyer for a friend’s Obama benefit party at a little bar in Hoboken, New Jersey. We took the text and reset it in Gotham, downloaded the O logo, and put it together in minutes. “Wow,” my daughter said. “It looks like Obama’s actually going to be there!” Exactly.

The same thing was happening all over the country. In a world where access to digital media and social networks is becoming increasingly ubiquitous, Obama 08 became the first Open Source political campaign. Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster — an icon that’s destined, if you ask me, to occupy the 2008 slot of any historical timeline drawn up a hundred years from now — sits at the top of an astonishingly vast collection of posters, websites, buttons, You Tube videos, and even pumpkins, some generated by professionals, some by ordinary citizens, all of whom motivated by the urge to create a sense that their candidate was actually going to be there.

Political operatives will study this campaign and its design program for years, trying to unlock its secrets. Many will copy it. But few will capture its magic. It seems so simple, doesn’t it? A good logo, consistent typography, get everyone to join in. They’ll have all the ingredients in place except the hardest one: the client. You need a smart person with a unique message and a good product. Then, like the fellow said, the rest is easy.
This essay has been adapted from the introduction to Designing Obama, a 360-page book by Scott Thomas, which is available for preorder now.

Comments [21]

Very inspired stuff from Sender/ Thomas. Actually, maybe it wasn't as inspired as it was appropriate. They read the brief, put the work in, and got the job done... exceedingly well done.

In other design/ Obama news, Heller and Lee (as in Spike Lee) will be on hand this wednesday Nov 4th 6-8pm at the Taschen Store in SoHo for a signing of yet another book, "Design for Obama".


Hope to see you there.
Felix Sockwell

And of course you get stuff like this too: http://www.zazzle.com:80/nomayo

but it being politics I suppose it can't be helped.
Stephen Macklin

Do you remember The Little Logo That Could post by David Stairs back in June of 1998? It seems like only yesterday that we were analyzing the logo and whether it would make a difference. It turned out to be The Little Logo That Won! Yes. “Barack Obama was a smart guy with a unique message and a good product.” But Barack Obama was not the client; the American people were the clients and the people won.

Great post Michael.
Carl W. Smith

Because I was a Hillary supporter, I celebrated the historic Obama victory with slight guilt over all my comments on various political blog favoring Hillary during the primaries. So may be that's why even after the election was over, I really do not feel anything special towards Obama campaign.

Even the "hope" poster felt like something my friends and I turned in for our color theory class. And the logo I think is more fit for the Church of the Sun cult in True Blood. Again, could have been because of my bias.

But the general strong negative feeling toward the whole thing came when I saw a bunch of bumper stickers design for various minority groups being "for Obama", with the O-logo slightly get modified for each group.

They were all beautifully designed, but the reason I don't like it is because I see the future. I don't want 2010 election to be one corporate identity fighting with another. The person behind the campaign is getting more and more obscure. Of course there are going to be campaign ads, and in theory they should be consistent. But not this much. Wal-Mart is not running for president. Not knowing enough about Obama, people felt we were automatically going to get women's rights, gay rights, health care reform from Obama Co., Ltd.

As we can see today, the man behind the name, is quite different from what we had imagined. He's smart. He's selfless. He got guts. He's also pretty sneaky and has this edge to him that shows he's not going to be controlled or being under anyone's influence like Bush was. And if I had known that's who he really was, which I do not get the impression from the campaign at all, I would have been his supporter since the beginning and not Hillary's. But then may be he wouldn't have won. Who knows.
Panasit Ch

What Change? What Hope? The whole world is laughing at you Americans. You have bought this campaign like a yoghurt.

“Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster — an icon that’s destined, if you ask me, to occupy the 2008 slot of any historical timeline drawn up a hundred years from now”

Like some of the new baseball records, I think the historical record of that iconic poster will have to include an asterisk. Part of that asterisk linked information will need to lead to an amendment of a Picasso quote: "Good artists copy, Great artists steal*"

*without getting caught/busted/sued/etc.


“What Change? What Hope?”

Two major changes come to mind quickly, an acceptance of peace and an acceptance of science.

“What Change? What Hope?”

Change: increased government control and ownership of production and capital, in other words socialism.

Hope: There's still a chance we can stop it and undo the damage already done.
Stephen Macklin

It strikes me as a little bit cynical to suggest that if we only work with "a smart person with a unique message and a good product" -- whatever that means -- that the rest will take care of itself. It seems to suggest that we should only work with people who reinforce our sense of self as designers. The sense that there's an "other" that we should avoid creeps me out. It fosters that "us vs. them" attitude. If we look at the world around us we can see how dangerous that can be.

There's much to learn from the Obama campaign.

When we talk about the logo, yes, Obama was the client, but when the big picture unfolds it shows that Obama was the designer and we were his clients.

Obama sold us his idea of change without showing us any rough sketches. We bought the rhetorical picture of his idea. He never spoke about specifics only hopes. He used everything at his disposal to sell the idea before doing the work. He believed and defended his ideas against all odds. He made people believe that his idea was better than his opponent's. He never cared whether people he was dealing with were smart or not. He made his idea appeal to everyone not just certain groups. He is culturally aware of the world around him and used the internet to its fullest. He kept his integrity and communicated his idea like no one in recent history. He never expected people to just believe him because he was smart and educated. He worked his ass off. In design terms, he fought with the design-by-committee crowds, he fought with tough clients, he persuaded us to buy his solution, not showing several alternatives of the same until the client was happy.

In this sense, he's a brilliant designer. We should learn from this as opposed to expecting our clients to be smart.

I'm not saying we should sell vague concepts and ideas -- after all, we were sold "change" like health claims on processed food items. Just the opposite, but be prepared to fight for our ideas and not just except clients to take our word for it because we're designers or work only with "smart" clients who "understand" us and our ideas.

Of course, we have to deliver better than Obama and not be... well, lazy.

PS: Has anyone, who's painting Obama as a socialist, actually lived under a socialist regime? and under Obama? Please compare for yourself so you can stop making these dubious claims.

Socialism is defined as a political system in which the state owns the means of production and an economic system based on the state ownership of capital.

Anyone who does not see this happening in the United States, is willfully blind.
Stephen Macklin

As a non-resident of the United States, the campaign and it's design captured everyone's imagination on a global scale. Partly due to Obama as a good product, and partly due to the idiot who resided in the white house before. Whether he's effective or not has yet to be seen, but I know who'd I'd rather have incharge....

Kevin Blackburn

To stephen its like in america you need an enemy to survive.First it was the communists,then the terrorists and now you created a new one socialism.Next what will be?the uFOs,the antichrist?

You forgot to mention the Nazis, the Imperial Japanese and of course the original enemy the British Monarchy.

When you stand in defense of individual liberty, you unfortunately never seem to lack for opposition.
Stephen Macklin

I'm sorry if the political discussion is inappropriate (feel free to delete this), but since one brought it up. As with anything in life there is a middle way. I hate socialism with every single fiber of my being. But let's face it, nobody thought capitalism was going to be abused this badly in the last 8 years.

Capitalism is great because of competition. But there is no competition here. It's all monopoly. You think Shell and Exxon Mobil are in some sort of a competition? You are kidding yourself.

I think it's very convenient that any stops being put on the companies who for the sake of profit are ready to run the entire nation into the ground is deemed as a socialist act.

If anything, I have never felt more like I was living in a communist country than when I was living under Bush america. I can't say bad thing about government because of the patriot act. I feel that the oil, the insurance company, tobacco, alcohol, banks, car companies, are all best buddies with the government. Exxon Mobil increase gas price and caused devastation throughout the entire country but then came out at the end of the year and talk proudly about their triple profit. They can do whatever they want without any restriction because they are Bush's buddies. Isn't that like one big giant government control every single aspect of your life? Isn't THAT socialism?

And now, we have farmers laborers and other low income people, people who get skrewed over by big corporate companies, people who get next to nothing from Bush tax cut, but get all the benefit from Obama tax cut , poor people coming out and defend:

insurance companies
weapon companies
tobacco companies
weapon companies
oil companies
car companies

Why? Because Obama will give rights to gays non-Christian and immigrant. If you say anything bad about those poor defenseless oil and insurance companies, wow, you are such a communist. They should be able to screw everybody over without any restriction what so ever.

I have news for you. I can't speak for all liberals, but as far as me and my friends and families are concern, we don't care about tax cut. We can always pay our taxes. There are liberals everywhere but stereotypically speaking most of us are teachers, artists, designers, scholars, Hollywood type, entertainers. Our children don't get drafted into war. We don't need health care plan. We can pay our insurance and fill up our gas fine. When we protest the war, when we protest the tax cut for the rich, when we protest the Patriot Act, when we protest death penalty, when we protect free speech... we liberals really don't need it. People who needs them are the low income, low educated. People who get tricked and believe that Obama was a Kenyan and his health care plan is going to have death panels or whatever. Those people are the ones who don't have health care. Those people are the ones facing foreclosure.

If the stupidity on Fox News isn't so annoying, I don't think anybody would even bother protesting. Most liberals are fine under both types of administration.

Panasit Ch

" Most liberals are fine under both types of administration."

Clearly you haven't been paying attention since at least 1970.
Stephen Macklin

This is exactly why design schools should introduce social sciences into their syllabus.

I never went to design school. But if they couldn't successfully indoctrinate me in journalism school, I don't think there would have been much chance there either.
Stephen Macklin

"Socialism is defined as a political system in which the state owns the means of production and an economic system based on the state ownership of capital."

Actually, Socialism is defined as an economic system, not a political system. The same is true of Capitalism. The political system you are opposed to is "totalitarianism" while your preferance is "democracy".

socialism + totalitarianism = communism
capitalism + totalitarianism = facism

hence, it's impossible to be both a facist and a communist and a nazi all at the same time, despite the claims of some of my fellow countrymen.

Your false assumption is that economic systems are inseperably tied to political systems. The USSR, for example, was economicaly socialist and politically totalitarian (Communist). Sweden, on the other hand is economically socialist and politically democratic. Chile under Pinochet was Capitalist and Totalitarian and every bit as brutal as Stalinist Russia. No economic system is inherently totalitarian or democratic. There have been just as many totalitarian capitalist systems throughout history as totalitarian socialist systems. Luckily there are few fundamentalist economic systems in the world. Almost all economies are mixed.

"PS: Has anyone, who's painting Obama as a socialist, actually lived under a socialist regime? and under Obama?"

I'm not painting him a socialist but yes, I've lived in Sweden. It was nice there. People worked less and were both wealthier and healthier. The average person also had nicer stuff than the average american (clothes, TVs, ect.) And they bought their stuff at real stores like H&M and Ikea, not rationing stations like Walmart.


If Obama's designs didn't work so well, would he have won? I don't know. It was the "perfect storm" of anti-Bush sentiment, with a cast of characters none to appealing. If design (and promises) were his ladder to success, I wish he'd show some true grit and do some of the things he promised in a bold new way. A nation of innovators is waiting for real change.
As for zombie-socialism and cannibal-capitalism, both seemed to have high failure rates. The big Wall Street meltdown of 2008 was a big nail in a big coffin. D.O.A. But socialism? As Norman Mailer said "The function of socialism is to raise suffering to a higher level." And the function of capitalism is to feed the rich and screw the poor.

What's a good alternative to both? Helvetica?
Mark Andresen

I think the problem is fundamentalism regardless of the ideology. It's fine to be pure in one's own convictions but the only way to implement ridgid ideologies on a whole population (be they religous or economic) is through political force. The problem isn't capitalism or socialism but the idea that a pure implementation of either is possible, or that one step in any direction is the first step down a slippry slope. There is only grey and that's the only place we'll ever reside.

The alternative, I think, is humanism. Humans aren't perfect so nothing we create can be either.

"The perfect is the enemy of the good." -Voltaire

Great timing. We just met with some clients the other day. After much discussion about why their corporate identity was sorely lacking, they still didn't see the value we presented.

Sometimes you just have to move on. Great article!

Jerry Suhrstedt

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