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The Art of Designing "Obama"

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, September 2 2010

Designing Obama is out, and online. The book chronicles the art and design of the 2008 Obama presidential run, from the perspective of Scott Thomas, the campaign's online creative director, and was notably funded through a Kickstarter campaign.

The remarkable consistency of the Obama campaigns public face, from the Gotham font to the instantaneously recognizable "O" logo to dozens of more minor yet consistent style choices, branded the Obama campaign in the early going as serious, considered business. This wasn't the old way, at least amongst Democrats. This was something different. Something blue. The same precise shade of blue, in fact, from rally sign to website to button. Creative directors make Don Draper-level bucks because their work can convince people of powerful things, and while I sometimes joke that the early success of Obama's long-shot bid came in large part because of his savvy typographical choices, I'm really not kidding.

Legendary design guy Michael Bierut has written the introduction to Designing Obama. In it, talks about how the campaign uniquely empowered quote-unquote outsiders to roll their own campaign by freely providing them with convincing design elements:

It isn't just strict standards and constant police work that keeps an organization on brand. It's the mutual desire for everyone to have every part of the effort look like The Real Thing. At the height of the campaign, my daughter asked me if I could design a flyer for a friend's Obama benefit party at a little bar in Hoboken, New Jersey. We took the text and reset it in Gotham, downloaded the O logo, and put it together in minutes. "Wow," my daughter said. "It looks like Obama's actually going to be there!'" Exactly.

Beirut also writes that while the candidate himself reportedly felt that his own logo was too polished, he was surrounded by political professionals who had other ideas. Speaking of David Axelrod and other top-level campaign officials, Beirut writes, "they must have know that the revolution, when it finally came, would have to be wrapped up in the most comprehensive corporate identity program the twenty-first century has yet seen."

(Today's 'dragging out Nancy's old political memories' day, but I do recall being asked to whip together a design identity for a very high-level politician at an extremely critical moment just because I'd shown some limited facility with design in the past.)

Whether Obama could have also won with Arial, an ever-shifting slogan, and a color palette that was all over the map, we'll of course never know. But it's a testament to the wide-spread belief that being smart about design helped the Obama campaign that we seem to be seeing more and more candidates paying attention to their branding, online and off. Hey, it's not for nothing that Scott Brown went and bought himself a copy of Gotham.

Designing Obama is available as a free online doc, a $4.99 iPad app, and $79 print edition. (via Jason Kottke)