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Comments (9) Posted 06.04.08 | PERMALINK | PRINT

David Stairs

The Little Logo That Could



With Hillary joining Adlai among the ranks of first name candidates who didn’t quite make it, presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama is settling in for the long haul following his hard-won delegate victory earlier this week — and for the more visually-inclined among us, it’s tempting to linger over the role played by visual imagery in his campaign. Whether you believe the rhetoric about Obama's being “the largest grassroots movement in the history of presidential politics” (or not) probably depends upon the amount of time you spend on the Internet, and relates, too, to your familiarity with American campaign history. In my lifetime, many grassroots campaigns have been waged and won (Truman, Carter) — and lost (Humphrey, McGovern) — so I suspect Obama's experience is not as unique as his campaign might otherwise claim.


By my own accounting, a memorable visual campaign comes along about once every fifty years. In 1912, the Progressive Party fielded one of the most colorful candidates in American politics, former President Theodore Roosevelt. Saying he “felt like a bull moose,” TR deftly created a colorful mascot/name for his party. Unfortunately, he lost to Woodrow Wilson, and by 1915 the Bull Moose Progressives were history.


"How They’re Acting—and How They Feel." Published November 5, 1912, courtesy of The National Archives.

The mid-century elections are salient not only for being the first televised, but for having provided one of the catchiest slogans in American electoral politics — "I like Ike." Fortunately, the Republican candidate had a memorable nickname and, although he didn’t come up with his own party moniker, Ike was bound to be liked in ’52, and liked “even better” in ’56. Nothing in recent election history — not even the famous “Morning in America” theme for Regan’s second term — can compare. The best the ’52 opposition could muster was a forgettable song: “I love the Gov.”

Over fifty years have flown by, and it was past time for another turn of the glyph. In a wonderful post from January of this year, Armin Vit first brought our attention to the manifold variations in Barack Obama’s graphic identity.



If it seems too hyperbolic to suggest that Obama stands as one of the most cleverly branded candidates in our history, look closer. While his website is wrapped in the requisite red, white and blue, the emphasis clearly favors the blue — arguably the most calming and ethereal of these colors. And not only is his marque all inclusive (not unlike the “Googleization” of every special interest group) but people, even designers, seem to really like it. Without a catchy nickname to lean on, we can better appreciate Obama for having the perspicacity to expend real capital in the creation of an effective symbolic legacy.

It’s not easy to brand a phoneme. Other entities, ranging from Oprah Winfrey to the University of Oregon, have attempted to lay claim to the fifteenth letter of the Roman alphabet with mixed success. But to date, no one has been remotely as successful in so short a time as the Obama campaign. Remember the lame attempts to link Dubbya to the 23rd letter four years ago? After all is said and done, who would have ever imagined that visual literacy would go mainstream on the campaign trail? What’s next? Campaign finance reform? No children left behind? A return to print literacy? One can only ’ope.


David Stairs coordinates the graphic design program at Central Michigan University. He is the founding editor of Design-Altruism-Project, and the executive director of Designers Without Borders.
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Comments (9)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT COMMENT >>

for the visually inclined?

from feb 2007:

Oh, and I really do think vowel diversity is gonna swing in full
force this political season, especially in OhiO.

Obama is lucky as he has the O! which is the new i. Vowel
diversity! Well, he has the i, too if he hooks indiana, illinois, and
iowa in a string. Quadruple A one ups triple A in a road trip, and
that's all he is missing is U,U,U. Hey, Blues Brothers, Chicago.
Talk about a lucky letter guy.

OW!

I feel I'm being UsED. The morning sun when it's in my face is
really showing my age.
Nancy
06.05.08 at 05:50

Come November, I don't know if I'll be voting for "Gotham 08" or
Obama.
Brian Lucas
06.05.08 at 05:54

And Hooters did the o thing successfully. We can't forget that.
Nancy
06.05.08 at 09:17

"The star is a symbol of the heavens and the divine goal to which man has aspired from time immemorial; the stripe is symbolic of the rays of light emanating from the sun."
-Published by the House of Representatives

Which Logo do the people want?
STARS = McCain
OR
STRIPES = Oboma
I enjoyed reading this post and also the link to Armin Vit's The Hardest Working Presidential Candidate Logo.

Both Logos are packed with meaning, but in Barack Obama's logo by Sender LLC in partnership with motion design studio mo/de, the stripe is transformed into the road to change and is The Little Logo That Could win against John McCain's Military star logo.
Carl W. Smith
06.06.08 at 01:20

I came here directly after reading an article about why Hillary lost, and it never mentioned the lack of consistency in her message (or for that matter, her abysmal graphic design).

The campaign went something like this:

-------

Hillary: I'm going to win.

Obama: America hasn't lived up to its promise. I can deliver change we can believe in. We should be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in.

Hillary: The other candidates are inexperienced.

Obama: America hasn't lived up to its promise. I can deliver change we can believe in. We should be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in.

Hillary: This past week, I found my voice.

Obama: America hasn't lived up to its promise. I can deliver change we can believe in. We should be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in.

Hillary: My opponent offers speeches, I offer solutions.

Obama: America hasn't lived up to its promise. I can deliver change we can believe in. We should be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in.

Hillary: Barack is not a Muslim... as far as I know.

Obama: America hasn't lived up to its promise. I can deliver change we can believe in. We should be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in.

Hillary: Who do you want to answer the phone at 3 am? John McCain and I have crossed the Commander-in-Chief threshold.

Obama: America hasn't lived up to its promise. I can deliver change we can believe in. We should be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in.

Hillary: Barack should be my vice president.

Obama: America hasn't lived up to its promise. I can deliver change we can believe in. We should be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in.

Hillary: The Bosnia thing was a mis-speak which, you know, proves I'm human. Plus I was tired when I lied about that on those three seperate occasions.

Obama: America hasn't lived up to its promise. I can deliver change we can believe in. We should be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in.

Hillary: I'm a fighter like that Rocky guy from those Rocky movies.

Obama: America hasn't lived up to its promise. I can deliver change we can believe in. We should be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in.

Hillary: I didn't lose, Obama lost.

---

One of the most important things I learned in design school was that when you're trying to brand something just tell people what you do, and why they should care. Nothing more or less. Much more important than his use of blue or Gotham, was Obama's unwavering consistency in verbal and visual messages.

Has his campaign been great from a graphic design standpoint? Maybe. But has it been clear, communicative, and consistent? Absolutely.
Ryan
06.07.08 at 12:30

In whatever font you want to use, his message is the same:

Socialism'08
Elmas
06.11.08 at 09:34

Elmas, it's called Design Observer. Go post on a political
spin blog if that's all you're going to contribute.
Sparks
06.11.08 at 10:03

The Obama logo is brilliant because it SEEMS to mean something. Although exactly what it means is a bit vague, the rising sun promises a new day and the stripes suggest furrows in the agricultural heartland of the beloved country. And the O refers directly to the candidate. The logo therefore says, "President Obama will bring a new day to this country. Help him do that!" The logo adds to the "movement" quality of his campaign. (It's even better animated, where the screen starts out dark and the sun rises and gets brighter and brighter until it illuminates the O and the stripes.) By contrast, most of the other candidates' logos, most of them variations on the red, white, and blue streamer are boring and meaningless, if only because they're all the same. I was struck earlier this year how similar Hillary's and Romney's logos in particular were. Obama's logo is the only one that makes sense all alone, without the candidate's name; and in fact, the campaign has issued buttons with just the logo. Anyone who has been paying even a little attention can recognize it immediately.
Daniel
06.12.08 at 10:33

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pemeLypemaite
11.19.08 at 07:38


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Stairs founded Designers Without Borders in 2001 while on a Fulbright research grant to Uganda. In 2006, he became founding editor of Design Altruism Project, an online experiment dedicated to addressing the shifting character of professional design practice. Stairs’ latest portrait was taken by his son Chris one morning at the City Market in Bangalore where he was a Hindu for three hours. He teaches graphic design and design history at Central Michigan University.
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