Michael Johnson surveys US election graphics

Barack Obama is firmly ahead in the opinion polls, a preference mirrored by American graphic designers. With the election endgame in sight, Michael Johnson
surveys their ingenuity and asks if design really can influence the outcome of the ballot

If the US presidential election was held today and an East Coast cabal of American graphic designers had its way, Barack Obama would win by a landslide. For months now, cyberspace has been groaning under an avalanche of carefully crafted democratic devotion.

If you’ve noticed Shepard Fairey’s striking Obama posters, you’ve only scratched the surface – there’s now a Flickr page devoted entirely to digital remixes of it. Yes, there’s a difference in tone in the candidates’ campaigns, but dig deeper and you’ll find detailed discussions of everything: each candidate’s chosen typeface, the layout of their websites, the brand attributes of Obama’s approach versus John McCain’s, and whether Obama has managed to own the letter ‘O’. Have I read that Obama=Mac and McCain=PC? I can’t actually remember, but it sounds plausible, doesn’t it?

Writing from this side of the Atlantic, this degree of obsessive, forensic analysis seems a little over the top. UK politicians understand the principles of appeal and image, but their visual communications are often lacklustre, with political parties concentrating on their 48-sheet poster-site ads rather than the transmedia, multiplatform stuff. New Labour’s red square logo ran in parallel with Old Labour’s red rose for more than a decade – and while their coexistence was odd, and rarely peaceful, it didn’t stop Tony Blair winning three elections. Dave’s Cameroonies revealed their squiggly green tree logo recently to almost universal shrugs of disinterest. But maybe, just maybe, design and mass communication could be making a difference this time.

Obama, hailed as the most media-savvy democratic candidate since John Kennedy, is running the ‘first real transmedia campaign of the 21st century’, according to designer Brian Collins when interviewed by Steven Heller for The New York Times. ‘His people not only understand how media have splintered, but how audiences have splintered, too,’ said Collins. ‘Cell phones, mobile devices, websites, e-mail, social networks, iPods, laptops, billboards, print ads and campaign events are now just as important as television. I’ve worked with giant global corporations which don’t do it this well.’

This is a view echoed by others. Sean Adams of Adams Morioka feels that unlike previous democratic campaigns, ‘Obama seems to have learned from past mistakes and has maintained a remarkably well-designed visual, verbal and written message that does not lurch from idea to idea.’

The candidates’ typographic choices are telling to designers. ‘McCain’s logotype was Optima. Obama’s was Gotham. It spoke volumes about their campaigns,’ says Pentagram partner Paula Scher. ‘Ordinary people didn’t understand what that meant, but every designer did. The ordinary folk simply grasped it intuitively. It was just the difference of old and new.’ Stephen Doyle asks, ‘Would you put your money on the font derived from thriving America in its heyday of capitalism, or the one drawn from the graves of Italians who finished thriving five centuries ago?’ Indeed.

Speak Up’s Armin Vit feels that, ‘Obama has really inspired graphic designers, and it all started because of his campaign’s commitment to powerful visual communication, which I think signals a sort of coming out party for the profession.’ And the ‘coming out’ which Vit refers to is dramatic – among the pro-Obama initiatives, there’s even a ‘Designers for Obama’ website, where every day, until 4 November, designers post new poster designs in support of their favoured candidate.

Meanwhile, McCain’s graphic supporters are almost invisible. Even a simple photoshoot for The Atlantic magazine went disastrously wrong when the chosen photographer, Jill Greenberg, known to be left of centre, made McCain look as pasty as possible and left his eyes red and bloodshot. Whoops. Then she used the out-takes to create her own, viciously anti-McCain posters. Double whoops.

Sarah Palin’s whimsy, winks and warmongering have been ridiculed worldwide and have made a global star of comedian Tina Fey in the process. But, as Doyle points out, ‘Before her puck was dropped, there was nothing remotely entertaining about this election. Now we are all glued to her appearances just so we get the jokes when they come around on Saturday night.’ Adennak.com’s hilarious debate flowchart lampooning Palin’s thought-processes was so successful (and so bookmarked) it was selling T-shirts of it within weeks.

But, the question remains, can design influence the outcome of an election? The painful memory of Florida 2000’s ‘hanging chads’ debacle, where a poorly designed ballot paper almost certainly turned the overall election result in George Bush’s favour, still endures. Perhaps it has stirred the US design community into action and they’re determined not to take the blame again.

While many still fear the ‘Bradley effect’ (the tendency for US voters to behave rationally in opinion polls, but turn into Ku Klux Klan members once cocooned in a polling booth), many more fear what another term of Republican government could do to the US, and the world. No wonder they’re designing pro-Obama posters. Wouldn’t you?

Michael Johnson is design director of Johnson Banks and editor of the www.johnsonbanks.co.uk./thoughtfortheweek website

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