Successful Political Design

These are highlights from a paper I wrote for my freshman art history class. The main thesis is that successful political design matches the metaphorical model used by the politicians political party. And no, Obama is not secretly a facist, even if that was the design he had used in his 2008 campaign.

If that sounds interesting, check out the PDF, Scribd version or even the BY-SA licensed InDesign originals.

This is heavily based off of Lakoff’s Moral Politics and Steven Heller’s Iron Fists: Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State.

Design is not a tangible state asset such as money, guns, or foot soldiers; nor is it among the intangible assets normally prescribed to powerful politicians such as great speeches and a likeable character.

However, some of the most important political machines in recent history were also the best equipped artistically. While the design motifs adapted to their time period, the design of current day political campaigns have a direct lineage to Hitler, Lenin, Mao, Napoleon, and others.

While this is not a psychology paper, I must detour to the unconscious to explain part of my thesis. Americans conceptualize government as a family model with the president as head of the family. In short, Americans understand the role of government through one of the “Nation as a Family” metaphors -generally either a “Nurturant Parenting” or a “Strict-Father” nuclear family model. Each dictate how one understands the dynamics of politics and is the basis for their judgment of politicians.

For example, popular Republicans tend to be the aggressors, like Reagan and Nixon. The nation as a family model also explains why George H. W. Bush didn’t win any brownie points for getting out of Iraq quickly or being fiscally responsible and breaking his promise not to raise taxes- he wasn’t being the strong father figure conservatives wanted.

So here lies our compass for successful political design: matching the visual look with the core principals of the unconscious family model and politics of the day.

John McCain didn’t fit either metaphor: he was neither a strict nor a nurturant leader. The McCain campaign tried to concurrently project the image of both a strong leader and a rebellious maverick. This strategy made McCain an unconvincing strong father, as a conservative “swing” democrat prone to the nuclear-family view of foreign policy would want. Whereas a republican with nurturant-parent views of foreign policy would require someone able to work with others- not a maverick whom is unable to work with his own party. Of McCain’s choice for a campaign font Art Chantry opined in a New York Times piece,

“Optima is the ultimate noncommittal typeface. It’s a sans-serif typeface with the suggestion of false serifs. It’s also a serif typeface without serifs. Either way, it’s a half-truth. Optima is the best typeface for appeal to all viewers and projecting sophistication without really having sophistication.”

How much of this statement was just unconscious reprocessing of the author’s political views in the form of a design critique is debatable. However, the parallels are striking: the McCain campaign chose a font trying to be both strong and sophisticated while McCain was rushing to embrace the evangelical right-wing while simultaneously trying to both co-opt Obama’s change message and adopt a feminist advocacy angle.

McCain’s typographic logo juxtaposed with McCann Motors sign, Fife WA.

McCain’s typographic logo juxtaposed with McCann Motors sign, Fife WA.

A Boston Globe article compared McCain’s campaign logo to that of a car salesman,

“Everything about this logo says you can buy a car from this man.”

-Barlow & Highsmith, Boston Globe

None-the-less, McCain’s logo was the best of the Republican primary candidates, and the authors picked McCain and Obama as the eventual electoral winners, with Obama having the edge.

Such a bet was against the odds at the time; one poll showed Clinton with a 15% lead over Obama for the nomination and a hypothetical two-way poll showed Obama losing to McCain by 6%.

Second page spread

“We will glorify war -the world’s only hygiene- militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for…”
-from the Futurist Manifest

“We have a war to win, & the world is counting on us to lead the cause of freedom & peace.”
-George W. Bush

Screenshot of Obama's campaign website

Just as Napoleon and other leaders used the “high art” of oil paintings for propaganda purposes, so too has Obama used the arts to communicate his message. The only difference is that the gallery was BarackObama.com. Whatever your opinion of the artistic merit of computer design, there is no denying that Obama’s brand image has deep roots in art history.

Take, for instance, Obama’s pose on the home page. It is not the aggressive pose of Lenin sweeping into power -but one of lightness….The level of detail associated with the Baroque period is here as well; individual spikes of light radiate from the center column, stray fibers wave around, and a lens flare all subtly blend into a cloud of light.

This was at the beginning of Obama = Hitler fad, I shamelessly tried to capitalize on that.

The iconic Hope poster by Shepard Fairey is an odd pairing; Fairey’s art mimics of the communist propaganda of Soviet Russia and China, yet some of his methods and styles were handed down by Andy Warhol and popularized by consumerist embracing Pop-Art movement:

“What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coca Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca Cola, too.”-Andy Warhol

Enabled by the low cost of screen printing and instant delivery mechanism of the internet, the Obama Hope poster was distributed by Fairey in the hundreds of thousands and printed by anyone who wanted. The ultimate dream of the pop-art movement came true: you could not only buy a little piece of Obama’s Hope, you could make it at home as well.