A history of presidential campaign graphics before they got Obamafied

Shepard Fairey for Obama

I remember the first time I really saw the Obama campaign graphics out in the wild, at a rally in Hollywood on January 31, 2008. It was just before the Democratic debates at the Kodak Theater and, as you can see, just after the first Shepard Fairey images had started to appear in official posters. I remember coming home and telling my friend: “Dude, if people actually cared about design, Hillary is totally gonna lose.”


As Obama’s momentum grew and I realized people might actually care about design (or design might make people care about him), I started getting really curious about how campaigns had been designed in the past. I’d always been fascinated by the beautiful old campaign buttons, which I guess was kind of like updating your Facebook status back in the day. But even though they’re fascinating, you can see there’s not a whole lot of difference between the candidates or even the parties from year to year.


In fact, if you check out the Democratic party campaigns eight years in a row, they’re pretty much exactly the same. I don’t know if these are all the same guy or what, but he sure did have a good run. And by the way, all these images come from the fascinating site 4President.org


I don’t know if it was the drugs or what but in 72 we start to see some real innovation. Jackson has some funky typography, Mills gets kinda groovy. Hartke even uses this lovely heart-key visual mnemonic device. There’s Hughes, who I believe was sponsored by Aquafresh. MUSKIE! in eye-catching purple and orange. And Ashbrook, who I call the Zoolander president because he can’t turn left.


But whatever creative momentum we had going in the 70s, by 1980 we were back to boooo-ring. Unimaginative serif type and no fun graphics whatsoever. Carter-Mondale were so bored they introduced the color green just to spice things up.


We didn’t see the next wave of innovation until 1996, a year that was notable for me because it was the first election I voted in. But it was also the first election where the candidates had websites. Which is obvious from this screengrab of Bob Dole’s splash page proclaiming the “official world wide web internet site.”


You can see the addition of the “Dole Interactive” department, where you can play Dole trivia and download posters that you can print out on your black and white inkjet printer line…by line…by line.


Over on the other side, we have Clinton-Gore’s web logo, slightly better but still kinda disappointing when you consider it was the campaign of the inventor of the internet.


I love this site because it includes that red rotary “3am emergency phone” that Hillary later used in her ads, as well as a modem. So I guess you no longer have to call at 3am when you have an emergency, you can just send an email…as long as the modem is plugged in.


That same year brought us the stunning gradients of Alan Keyes and the horrifically amateur site from a man who was not only one of the richest men in America, he was also the editor-in-chief of a major and well-designed business magazine. And of course, the unfortunately named Dick Lugar, Everything a President Should Be.


I loved Lamar Alexander’s graphics that same year. The Tennesee senator had a nice folksy “Come on along” tagline, the first-name recognition Lamar! and a beautiful lumberjack-looking pattern on the website. I think this guy ran for president about 20 times.


The next election year, it only got worse for the web. The punny www.georgew. McCain’s first interactive appearance with that lovely illustrated mouse. Lamar Alexander went slick and high-tech with a new signature. And Steve Forbes finally scraped together enough money to hire a graphic designer. What do you think a “full-scale internet campaign” consists of?


But in the 2004 election, everything changed again. After 9/11, the candidates really needed to show their patriotism. And how do you do that? Flags. Rippling, stars-and-stripes-forever flags. I’m a little concerned about the flag in John Edwards’ logo, which looks like it’s flying upside-down and backwards. Even Al Sharpton had a flag. He’s out there fighting for Fundamental Human Rights, but he still looks so pissed off.


So if 2004 was the year of the flag, 2008 was the year of the star. I compiled this helpful way of tracking the Star Power of the candidates’ identities. Fred Thompson, being a TV star, easily tops the star chart.


So as you can see, the Obama design teams lead by Sol Sender and Scott Thomas really did change the face of advertising for presidential campaigns.


And maybe even the face of advertising itself?

Based on a presentation I gave before moderating the event Designing Obama on February 19, 2009 in San Francisco. Thanks to Sappi Fine Paper, xpedx and the Academy of Art for hosting this incredible and historic event.

This entry was posted in advertising, crafting, creating, designing, speaking. Bookmark the permalink.
  • http://communicatrix.com the communicatrix

    Girl, I wish I’d been there to see that preso–how fantasmic! Whadda premise! Whadda story arc!

    You’re a communications machine. I bow to you, low-like.

  • Alissa

    Thank you so much! I was so inspired—and a little daunted—to deliver this presentation, I hope everyone liked it. And really, who can’t go for a little Lamar! or Muskie! these days?

  • http://www.sknitter.com Terry Lee Stone

    Nice one Alissa!

    I’ve seen that Pepsi stuff up all over town and it really dominates the landscape. They are using a variety of words, and it took me a few times before I got that it was for Pepsi. I definitely thought I was looking at political messaging. (Which didn’t make sense since in LA, the only voting coming up is for the mayor’s inevitable re-election.)

  • Alissa

    Totally! It’s Pepsi propaganda…the choice of a new generation?

  • Amy

    Great post. Check this out:

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  • http://www.williamsandhouse.com Pam

    Hey Alissa,
    Sorry I wasn’t there to hear your talk-before-the-talk. The next day, I did make it into SF and heard reports from about 100 (!!) of the 800+ people who were there — they said your history of campaign graphics was great: warm, funny, insightful. I was so disappointed I had missed it. So happy you have a recap here. Good, good stuff. Thanks for sharing.

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  • Lisa A

    Hi Alissa,

    Gelatobaby is great fun. I love gelato, but I also love granita and want to try to make some. Do you have any suggestions for websites for granita recipes? I found one basic recipe, but I can always experiment on my own. Wondering about doing a granita with courvoisier or maybe a fruit-based liqueur, but that might change the freezing point. Suggestions welcome.

    Also, is there any chance that there might be a Designing Obama presentation in Los Angeles anytime soon? I would like to attend if possible. I work at a college campus in L.A. and can assist with making connections for you if that would help out.


    Lisa A.

  • http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=12030425 Lisa A

    Granita update. Just found some good granita recipes on npr website. Link below:


    Glad to assist with “Designing Obama” somewhere in L.A.

    Cheers to a relaxing and creative Thanksgiving holiday,

    Lisa A.

  • Alissa

    Hey Lisa, I’ve actually only made granita once, but it’s so easy and it looks like you’ve found a great resource. We have talked about bringing Designing Obama to LA for sure, I will definitely post here if we make it happen! Thanks so much for your kind words.

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