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This is your mind on media.

Musings on the effects of media on cognition.

What the Campaigns Are Showing You

One of the effects of design in media is its ability to underscore or derail a message. And that’s an important fact for a presidential candidate (or their campaign materials designer) to take into consideration. I mean, despite its at-first-glance solidity and structure, you wouldn’t want to end up using a font (Trajan) that for the most part these days, is totally associated with horror movies. Conscious or not, there’s an underlying aesthetic appeal built in the color and font and graphic choices of the candidates. In fact, I personally believe that the savviness of the campaign materials probably says a lot about a candidate’s lack of a tendency to micromanage. Bad design decisions are far more likely the fault of overly-fussy and uninformed clients then they are designers. So, who’s looking savvy for 2008 anyway?

For starters, you might consider the opinion of typographers Hoefler and Frere-Jones Frankly, when it comes to typography, it doesn’t get more expert than that.1 They think that Obama is really the only one not hiding being false imagery with the use of Gotham, but rather embracing the image he has. Considering how little he has deviated from his message of hope and change in the last year, it’s not odd that his aesthetic and message line up nicely. He’s even inspired quite a few artists with his message. It’s instructive to let design critic Steven Heller walk you through an interesting history of campaign art to see what other candidates have inspired artists in the past. And while Heller doesn’t admit to being all that inspired by the poster that Sheppard Fairey created for Obama, I would personally have to disagree. Fairey’s image truly captures, in my mind, the fact that Obama stands for an America that is no longer willing to kowtow to the fear mongers. And another thing that is clear about Obama’s web site design is that designer’s John Slabyk and Scott Thomas didn’t get overrun by their client—their voice and design sensibility is clearly part of the mix. That, I think, is a good sign that Obama isn’t the kind of leader to run roughshod over his own advisor’s advice. Of course, even with a message as clear as hope, not everyone gets it.

McCain’s design isn’t terribly original, but I don’t think it disguises what he wants to portray himself as: a tough straight-shooter. And by shooter, I mean using a gun. You can’t get more obvious than including a military style star in you logo. And you can’t get more morbid that using black in most of your materials, including a desaturated gray American flag on your web site. Actually, the use of black is problematic, not because it’s inherently morbid, but as the absence of color, it often invites the viewer to fill in the blank. Black is just as easily chic as it is morbid. Given the yellow highlight, there’s a hint of hope—or support for the troops. But in a campaign that is seeming to shore up around the dichotomy of “hope” and “stay the course” McCain’s graphic style will re-enforce his message; namely, that this is a dark time for the country with horrible people out to get us. We need to fight!

And as for Hillary, I have to agree with Sam Berlow and Cyrus Highsmith’s article in Boston Globe that her design seems like an afterthought; staid. In a sense, a stereotypical aesthetic does re-enforce her message that she is the candidate with experience2 but she is also saying that experience is dull and uninspired. Unfortunatly, that ignorance of design or lack of excitement about it isn’t all that different from out last commander-in-chief whose flagrant disregard for aesthetics is pretty horrific to the eyes. Oddly, a number of people have raised the question about the three stars in her logo being a subtle hint at the idea of a third term.

In short, Obama inspires, McCain stands firm, and Hillary stands for more of the same. I get a distinct feeling that the final results of this election will likely reflect the same order in terms of success.


  1. I am a total sucker for Hoefler Text—there just is no better serif type for fiction. 

  2. Bunk, I say! 

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