Obama's Designers Speak!
Candidate Barack Obama was reportedly made "a little uncomfortable" by the famous "O" logo (pictured above) created for him by Sol Sender, a Chicago-based graphic designer. That was just one of the interesting election tidbits disclosed at "Designing Obama," an event at NYC's Art Directors Club sponsored by Sappi Fine Papers. In addition to Sender, the discussion included Obama '08's head designer Scott Thomas and Steven Heller, who served as moderator.
Sender was unable to say exactly what about the logo made the President-elect uncomfortable in late 2006, during the infancy of the Obama campaign. (Moderator Heller never clearly established whether Sender and Obama have ever actually met.) Sender's opinion is that chief strategist David Axelrod chose the logo on Obama's behalf. News of the candidate's minor dissatisfaction with the logo eventually reached Sender, but Obama's reaction, whatever it may have been in reality, was far less important than the enthusiastic reception of the campaign's design strategy by Obama '08 supporters.
Scott Thomas compared his experience working on Barackobama.com to "building an airplane in mid-flight." The frenzied pace of the campaign left little time for research and testing. He approached the task with a set of core principles: Pull from images from the past (to combat detractors' claims that Obama lacked the experience necessary to be president); Make it about 'We' instead of 'He'; and Dismantle the notion of 'aloof.'.
Political considerations drove crucial design decisions, including the campaign's famous choice of Gotham as the official Obama '08 typeface. Sender's initial logo used Gill Sans, but Gotham became the favored font partly because of the unsavory activities typographer Eric Gill wrote about in his personal diaries, such as child molestation (involving Gill's own children), incest, and bestiality.
When Heller asked Thomas to name the most heated design battle he had to fight during the campaign, Thomas brought up the infamous "presidential seal" debacle from June 2008, in which Obama (who was then not even the Democratic nominee for president) was criticized for using a seal that closely resembled that of the nation's chief executive. According to Thomas, an overzealous campaign worker on Obama's advance team ordered the seal to be created despite the warnings of the designers, but Thomas's team ended up in the hot seat. "My ear was buzzing for two days," Thomas said. Sender then provocatively suggested that although the "presidential seal" was used by the campaign only briefly, seeing Obama-the-candidate standing behind that familiar regal eagle had a lingering effect in the minds of voters. "There's a power in that image," said Sender.
Obama himself wasn't among those who chastised Thomas after the seal backlash, as you may have guessed. The candidate seldom had occasion to visit HQ, but Thomas spoke about a funny encounter he had with Obama: During one of his rare walk-throughs, Obama asked Thomas what he was up to, and the designer responded, "Making you look good. That's what we do all day: Photoshop your face."
All that Photoshopping paid off, as we now know. Obama's historic win must be at least partly attributed to the savvy and skills of the professionals responsible for his messaging. Though the campaign is over, the work of Thomas's team is memorialized in one final seal that is still around, at least for the time being: the seal of the office of the President-elect, which the triumphant Obama '08 designers whipped up the day after the election as a last hurrah.
Who, though, owns this work, including the world-renowned "O"? After Steven Heller asked that question, there was a short, confused silence, after which Thomas replied: "I think the best answer would be the American people."
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