Did Good Design Create a Candidate?

Bad design and layout may have cost Al Gore an election, and positive branding may have put Barack Obama into contention


Obama's LogoOn the one hand, there’s an image of a sunrise over a field that also happens to represent the letter O in a manner reminiscent of an illuminated manuscript’s initial letterform; on the other, there’s the name Hillary emblazoned above bunting in the American flag motif. For Obama, there are the chants: “Together We Can” and “Change We Can Believe In”; for Clinton, there are — well, there were — a bunch of ’em.

As an example of the power of branding, marketing and staying on message, the Obama campaign has used design and messaging very effectively, carrying its design motifs throughout its print, Web and broadcast products. The contrast between his logo and Clinton’s essentially uninspiring graphics is similar to the charismatic distinction between the two candidates.

One can argue that the decision to stay away from her last name was a bold attempt to both distance herself from her husband’s clangorous political past and melt a little of her ice-queen image, but Hillary’s choice to go on a first-name basis with the American public may have sounded a too-informal note to the already anti-feminine biases of many voters. We’ve become much less formal about many things over the last decade, but Americans still like their presidents to be addressed by their last names.

Using the first-name-only tactic sent a message, and ultimately not a positive one. At the same time, Barack Obama established messaging that was clear, consistent and compatible with his strengths. His brand identity in word and image created a mythic, albeit cliché, metaphor for his campaign.

The distinctive logo was created by Sanders LLC, a Chicago-area brand consistency and design firm. Sol Sender and five others in his firm created the logo. “We were looking at the “o” of his name and had the idea of a rising sun and a new day,” Sender said. “The sun rising over the horizon evoked a new sense of hope.”

More importantly, the logo is specific, yet flexible enough to apply variation as needed. A browse through the Obama website shows many alterations in the logo elements to fit various uses, yet all retain a recognizability to the initial design.

Armin Vit, writing in his design blog, “Under Consideration,” comments that he began receiving inquiries about the logo from other designers almost at the launch of the campaign. There’s a rarity in the political campaign world — campaign graphics interesting enough to attract the attention of the design community.

The branding lessons here actually apply to publications. First, editorial tone is an important component of a brand. Friendliness, credibility, hipness and other critical attractions for readers are communicated at the design level.

Second, a visual system of design depends on versatility, extensibility and the ability to keep the original elements of a design reflected in all of the variations. That pretty much defines a positive navigation experience in a magazine.

Lastly, design can augment substance, but it isn’t a replacement for real content. The consistency of Obama’s messaging helped him push through the remaining primaries and influence superdelegates sufficiently to put his nomination over the top, but it was close. Who knows what might have happened if Hillary had had a better agency working for her campaign?

This article originally ran in the Summer, 2008 issue of FPO.