What can the US election teach the design world? Answer/ the need for both style and substance. Barack Obama has a lot of the former. His admirers know this. His adversaries know it and try to exploit it. By concentrating on his style they hope to suggest he lacks substance (ie experience).
With the tenacious attack hound Sarah Palin joining the fray, style becomes code for underachievement. What is style against the macho credentials of her senior partner? And with her fulsome advocacy there is less need for the diffident John McCain to proclaim his own achievements.
Obama has fewer achievements to proclaim and has been advised by one of his supporters, Joe Klein, author of Primary Colors, to go easy on proclamation. Nor, Klein warns, should Obama merely say what he feels: he needs to prove it. Klein reminds him of his predecessor as Democratic candidate, John Kerry, who in the 2004 election ‘kept repeating the word “strength”, rather than demonstrating it’.
On the evidence of her feisty appearance at the Republican convention, Palin has learned that lesson already. She looks to me like an accomplished mistress of ‘show and tell’, the weekly opportunity afforded US kids to bring something from home to tell the class about – an early indoctrination in the art of presentation.
Palin won’t need prompting. Obama might. Style may not suffice, especially if he gets it wrong. The faux Grecian columns of the set for his acceptance speech in Denver can’t have helped him. Contrast that with the panoramic video of Mount Rushmore’s presidential sculptures that accompanied Palin. Obvious, perhaps, but deeply relevant to the audience. Whereas, I would bet, many of Obama’s supporters were ill at ease with those styrofoam columns.
Style may not be as tangible as substance, but it is nevertheless potent. It can establish contact with one audience while excluding another. In a recent issue of Time magazine, Mike Murphy, a Republican consultant, writes of Obama’s ‘hip style of designer politics’ which attracts ‘young liberals and well-off independents’, whereas his ‘academic style [reminds] white, economically downscale, voters of the Ivy League whizz-kids they’ve dealt with at work during the latest downsizing’.
Style. Substance. Only if the two act symbiotically will a party’s image hold. Obama has had longer to achieve this fusion, but may not have done so. Palin’s late entry has re-energised the Republicans. Her presentation was simple, simplistic even, but it has indirectly switched the focus on to Obama’s inexperience. Obama, on the other hand, has yet to focus, ‘failing’, in Klein’s words, ‘in all but the most amorphous ways, to define himself’. We hope, for his sake, that those Greek columns don’t do it for him.
McCain’s worthy acceptance speech was introduced with a rising sun morphing into the US flag. The stage had a catwalk projecting into the audience. Obama had said that the election ‘isn’t about me – it’s about you’. McCain didn’t need to say that. He walked the (cat)walk. On the other hand, the ‘you’ with whom he mingled were the paid-up converted. Whereas the ‘you’ at Obama’s address at the Ivesco stadium were those who chose to attend, some 50 000 of them.
Who knows whether the key messages from the conventions were said, not by the candidates, but by their respective stage sets?