Is Shepard Fairey a deserved Design of the Year winner?

Few would have predicted that an artwork inspired by Russian communist propaganda would help to elect a US president. But that is exactly what happened when street artist Shepard Fairey’s series of Hope and Progress posters became synonymous with Barack Obama’s election campaign.

Last week, the design community gave Fairey’s series of bold red, white and blue images of Obama its official seal of approval, voting it Design of the Year at the Brit Insurance Design Awards held at the Design Museum on Wednesday.

‘The imagery Fairey makes tends to have a Russian Constructivist look, which poses questions of power, democracy and propaganda,’ says Fuseproject founder Yves Béhar, a judge for this year’s awards, whose One Laptop Per Child project won the 2008 Design of the Year award. ‘By playing on those contradictory notions the poster became strong, both endorsing and questioning at the same time. This is the intelligence of the art,’ he says.

Whether the irony Béhar sees in Fairey’s work was picked up on by Obama’s supporters is uncertain, however. Tim Brown, San Francisco-based chief executive of global consultancy Ideo, recalls the popularity of the images with young Americans, who ardently desired regime change after eight years of George W Bush. Brown goes so far as to call the posters the ‘graphics equivalent’ of Apple computers. ‘When television or film directors need to show a computer, they usually choose Apple Macs. In the same way, TV news directors would use the Fairey posters to represent Obama’s election campaign.’ The posters’ street-style photogenic cool appealed to mass media image-makers, guaranteeing their ubiquity.

But not everyone is a fan. Jonathan Ellery of Browns Design finds it ‘ridiculous’ that the posters won last week’s design accolade.

While praising the awards exhibition currently on show at the Design Museum, Ellery says, ‘If you know your points of visual and cultural reference, then the poster is merely stereotypical political ephemera, unworthy of such a prestigious award.’ He attributes the poster’s success at the Brit Insurance Design Awards to Obama’s Midas touch.

‘If you subtract the glorious politics, you are left with a very average piece of work that has been carried along on a pro-Obama wave of euphoria,’ Ellery adds.

Accusations of unoriginality have even run to a legal case against Fairey. The Associated Press is claiming compensation for the use of one of its photographs to create Fairey’s Hope and Progress images.

Béhar has no patience with AP’s standpoint, referencing Andy Warhol’s screen-printed images of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, and Peter Blake’s album cover for The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, as venerable examples of art and design works that took others’ photographic images.

‘Fairey completely transformed the original image,’ says Béhar. ‘We would live in a strange place if every piece of interpretative graphic design was completely constrained by copyright.’

Add to AP and Ellery’s voices all those who voted for a different winner on the awards’ blog and you have a veritable stampede of dissent. The winner of this public poll, which attracted 7312 votes, was Singgih Kartono’s sustainable wooden radio. This entry certainly more closely resembles last year’s winner, Béhar’s $100 (£69) laptop for children in developing countries.

But Béhar stands by Fairey’s selection, insisting that the simple piece of graphic work has had a similarly profound effect on the world as his own winning innovation did in 2008.

‘This was clearly the design that had the biggest impact last year,’ he says. ‘It symbolises how the design community showed huge initiative, contributing very early and without reciprocity to the Obama campaign.’

He also points out the surprising fact of a poster, ‘an old-fashioned medium’, being capable of becoming so high-profile. Even Ellery, while slamming Fairey’s working methods, is delighted that a piece of graphic design was capable of triumphing at the awards.

Ideo’s Brown believes that Ellery’s accusation of unoriginality is a moot point.

‘The role of communications is not to be original, it is to be effective. The simple fact that the poster successfully captured Obama at an important moment in history means that it has served its purpose.’

Mike Dempsey, founder of Studio Dempsey, says, ‘It is the equivalent of Banksy having done Blair in 1997.’ Politics and graphics go back a long way, he points out.

‘World War I’s Your Country Needs You poster, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament logo – these graphic designs stir the public imagination on a very basic emotional level, and in times of trouble, graphic design comes into its own.’

A Fairey tale

• Shepard Fairey is renowned for his prolific fly-posting of propaganda-style artwork, but his Barack Obama posters have brought him international fame

• Fairey was commissioned by the initiative Artists for Obama and the Inaugural Committee to create a limited-edition work for sale to raise money for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign

• Working on his own initiative, Fairey used the resulting Hope and Progress images as part of an unofficial viral awareness-raising campaign

• Based on a photographic image taken by Mannie Garcia, the artworks raised $400 000 (£275 000) for the election campaign

• The photograph’s copyright owner, The Associated Press, is now claiming compensation for Fairey’s use of the image

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