Given that branding is our true national pastime -- the swoosh, the golden arches and the mermaid in the green circle are now more ubiquitous, and arguably more potent, than the eagle and the flag -- you would think that a candidate's graphic style would be as strategic as every other piece of his or her message. A strong logo or visual identity should be part of any leading candidate's package.
A quick survey of how the remaining presidential contenders present themselves, however, suggests that not all of them think their graphics are particularly important. Or maybe their inability to execute something as straightforward as a visual style is an indication of deeper problems.
Historically, the graphics of presidential campaigns have often been poorly designed, stale and uninteresting. In a culture where most corporations understand that visual zing is their most powerful weapon, political graphics look like the Christmas ornaments that are stored in a box in the basement, dusted off and reused, year after year after year.
Take Hillary Clinton's slice of undulating American flag. It's a somewhat narrower slice of waving flag than Bush-Cheney used in 2000 and 2004, but it's the same tried-and-true approach. Think Memorial Day. Think Fourth of July. Mike Huckabee, too, seems to have dropped his name right on the flag. The John Edwards campaign used a marginally zippier shooting star; it seems original until you look back at the Gore-Lieberman shooting star of 2000.
While candidates' every turn of phrase is fodder for endless analysis, their visual language, seen on endless yard signs and bumper stickers, lapel pins and mailers, and on every TV and computer screen, goes largely unexamined. Only graphic designers, lifelong students of the ubiquitous, obsessive about the nuances of typography, treat campaign iconography with the seriousness it deserves.
Paula Scher, a partner at the New York design firm Pentagram, dissected the Bush-Cheney and Kerry-Edwards logotypes in a 2004 New York Times Op-Ed piece. In Bush-Cheney's graphic identity, with its bold, sans serif capital letters, she read "strength, integrity and steadfastness." In the Kerry-Edwards type, a thinner, fancier serif face, she intuited weakness. The "overall design is tentative," wrote Scher. "It conveys congenial subservience." (Note that Scher is no Republican; upon winning a National Design Award two years later in 2006 she refused to attend a White House awards ceremony, decrying the Bush administration's "assault on meaning.")
Designer Janet Froelich, creative director of the New York Times' stable of Sunday magazines, remembers Bush-Cheney's use of the initial W as a powerful "graphic sound bite." Indeed, the freestanding W was, in its blunt way, an effective symbol. Actually, the Bushies are probably at their most effective when they're doing visual propaganda; they've habitually substituted Orwellian stage sets for policy.
Of the current campaigns, Barack Obama's is the best at getting his message across through graphics -- think of all those "Change we can believe in" signs -- and most careful observers see his as the first sophisticated corporate-style identity to emerge from presidential politics. While the Bush-Cheney W was, in Froelich's words, "cold," Obama's symbol is the opposite, literally and figuratively sunny. While the W was crude, Obama's mark is smooth.
"Obama is marketing like Apple, Nike or Starbucks. He's selling an experience," argues Michael Bierut, one of Scher's colleagues at Pentagram and a founder of the Web site Design Observer. "It is all done with such skill and finesse that as a professional I am in absolute awe."
Obama's signature "O" is the product of Chicago-based branding firm Sender. A true logo, one that is recognizable apart from the candidate's name, it uses the traditional color palette. "You can't walk away from the red, white and blue completely," argues Sol Sender, the company's president, "so what can you do that's new and fresh?" Sender's team came up with a white sunrise against a blue sky, over a landscape implied by red and white stripes. Sender labels it a symbol of "hope." Indeed, it seems to be an allusion to Ronald Reagan's effective 1984 slogan: "It's morning in America." It also recalls the Japanese rising sun and, more interestingly, has a strong graphic kinship with the state flag of Arizona, home state of Republican front-runner John McCain.
McCain's own symbol is less colorful and is not especially well regarded among the graphic design cognoscenti: "McCain is selling like ... what? Lucky Strike in 1942?" snipes Bierut. Well, the Lucky Strike pack with its bull's-eye circle, designed by Raymond Loewy in 1939, isn't a bad model. What, after all, is more redolent of World War II, when we went out into the world and actually won wars?
While McCain's logo, designed by Fredericksburg, Va., firm Spire Communications, isn't beautifully wrought like Obama's, it does make a strong point. With a star -- a naval star according to Ivy Eckerman, Spire's president -- impaled on a gold bar, the logo clearly recalls military insignia. And that, after all, is what McCain is selling: his war hero credentials. Bierut points out that the typeface is Optima, "blunt and ugly," and the same one that's used to spell out the names on the Vietnam Memorial. This clever kinship couldn't be a coincidence, but Spire creative director Steven Pena claims that it is: "We'd like to take credit for this but we can't."
A well-considered logo like Obama's or McCain's is not a piece of voodoo that will ensure a winning delegate count. Rather, it's a signal that the candidate knows exactly who he is and how to differentiate himself from his rivals. When corporate logos succeed, it's because the businesses they represent see themselves clearly enough to distill their values into a jot of visual shorthand, instantly recognizable, no thought required. While McCain's military approach works in this fundamental way, Obama's sunrise goes further, turning up as the "o" in the word "hope" or atop cupcakes baked by supporters. Like any state-of-the-art corporate identity, it's easily recognizable, even out of context.
If Hillary Clinton's bid for the White House fails, it will not be because her logo looks like a thousand other flag-wrapped identities, or because her typeface bears a strong resemblance to Kerry's wimpy serif font. No, it will be because she couldn't quite whittle down her message into a single forceful idea. Obama's sunrise speaks eloquently of "change." McCain's star and bar shout warrior. By contrast, Clinton's stars and stripes are not that different from Mike Huckabee's stars and stripes. Maybe they're intended to speak of her "experience" but they also send an unwanted message: "more of the same."