Barackists (part 1): Let them eat font

Posted by Rob Walker on April 11, 2008
Posted Under: "Good Design" (Tyranny of),Backlashing,Politics

Generally I don’t say in advance what the topic of a forthcoming Consumed will be. However, the one that’s coming out this Sunday is about Obama as muse. Surely you are already familiar with the many examples of Obama-inspired art and creativity from various sources. The subject was already in the air when I started writing, and since the column has gone to press many more examples have surfaced. Plus, as indicated by the image here by Baxter Orr parodying the now-famous Shepard Fairey Obama print (via the recently revived Animal New York), it’s reached the point that some creative types are, perhaps, starting to question the nature of this particular bandwagon.

Obviously you’ll have wait until Sunday to pass judgment on my take on what this is all about, but in the meantime, I can tell you what my take isn’t: the one offered in this recent Huffington Post item suggesting that “young artists” are inspired by the Obama campaign’s supposedly awesome graphic design. I think this is silly. Or at least I hope that’s at all it is.

The key quote comes from the founder of Notcot, who says:

By placing such an emphasis on building a visually appealing brand, Obama is validating the importance of design in communication. This in turn builds support from the design community, who might feel that a design-conscious candidate best represents their personal beliefs.

Now, I like Notcot. I look at it all the time, and sometimes I even have occasion to link there and am happy to do so. Good site. So nothing personal in what I’m about to say.

But, seriously: What?

Can it really, possibly be true that anybody is supporting Obama because he’s the most “design-conscious candidate”?

I sincerely hope not. And I am tending to give the benefit of the doubt to the various artists and designers supporting Obama that their decisions are not based on campaign aesthetics. (Particularly Fairey, actually; not because I question the other artists, but because he’s the only one among the various pro-bama creators who I’ve met and interviewed and so on.) And for all I know the Notcot person was misquoted or taken out of context.

But I have to admit the glowing critiques of Obama campaign design are seeming little over the top to me. Here, an expert explains how Obama’s typeface is “inspiring, not threatening,” etc. Other design praise here and here. Here, someone offers the inevitable pairing of the designer-beloved (and in my opinion, drastically overrated) Obama logo with the inescapable customization trend, in a “create your own custom Obama logo” tool. And so on.

That’s all fine, and harmless. But what would it say about a theoretical voting bloc that its key “personal beliefs” concern “the importance of design in communication”? On the list of personal beliefs one might hold, I would say that’s a pretty trivial one. And as a practical matter, I’m looking for policy changes under the next president — not better typography.

Moreover, the importance of design in communication is something that’s been routinely embraced by, you know, totalitarian regimes. Thus the history of propaganda is visually thrilling — and ideologically depressing. Pleasing design can be used on behalf of an policy or regime or idea, good or bad. It’s a tool.

There’s nothing wrong with artists supporting whoever they want, and using their creativity to do so. There’s also nothing wrong design experts praising what they see as good design. Still, artists and other creative types who take an interest in politics are often among the most critical observers of how design is used in communication — to distract the herd from matters of substance, for instance. Their most valuable role is often to puncture, or question, or cause us to think twice about the iconography and styling of power-holders and power-seekers — not to praise it. (Speaking of Animal New York: here some backlash uses of the logo customizer.)

Needless to say, I think you should vote for whoever you think the best candidate it is; I’m not making a political argument here at all. Actually, maybe I should disclose that I voted for Obama in the Democratic primary here in Georgia. But when I did that, I was making a decision about who I thought should be president — not who should be creative director.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

I don’t know. I think part of the appeal here is: he gets us. He thinks like us. He understands the importance of design to lift and inspire. And frankly, one of the policy directions that I want our country to go toward is an embrace of the importance of design and the arts. To really put some money and effort into re-asserting the American role as the pinnacle of design and the arts, and this extends beyond the page and the screen into building livable, walkable communities that have a place for design and artist centered businesses. To understand the role that National Healthcare has in supporting independent businesses like designers, architects and artists. And how that encourages their presence in the U.S.

So the aesthetic of Obama suggests that he is more Left Coast than stodgy, boring Right Coast. And yes, that’s important to me. I think I was less than enthused about Kerry/Edwards for many reasons, but some of that has to do with how god awful their logo was. Shallow? Maybe. But it’s part of the brand. And if you don’t get that, than what else aren’t you getting?

Written By Christopher on June 17th, 2008 @ 10:03 am

What I’m not getting right now is the tone of that last sentence. My view is you are totally welcome to your opinion, which if I may say so is basically a restatement of the conventional wisdom. I hope you will also let me have my own opinion. Are you “getting” that? Or is the idea that if I don’t see things your way, then I just don’t “get it”?

Written By Rob Walker on June 17th, 2008 @ 7:50 pm

Do you follow politics?

Campaigns in the U.S. have been about little more than aesthetics for at least the 35 years. Obama just has a fresher look than many recent candidates.

Watch The Candidate and consider the design used for the main character’s campaign. Candidates have been brands for a long time now.

Written By Peter Wiley on August 14th, 2008 @ 5:05 am

Peter — I’m not sure if you’re addressing me here or not. But in any case, I’m not the one declaring Obama’s brand-ness and aesthetics are significant and unprecedented and so on. That’s what everybody else is saying. So, if you are looking to give history lessons, give them to those people.

But then again maybe you’re not addressing me here. I’m thinking anybody who starts out by asking me if I follow politics isn’t actually interested in my opinion.

Written By Rob Walker on August 14th, 2008 @ 6:35 am

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