Fonts, “Forward,” and Shepard Fairey: Obama’s Design Director Discusses the Evolution of the Presidential Campaign

Do typefaces and the right shades of blue influence the outcome of presidential elections? Besides the brief period this summer when the Internet was abuzz with conspiracist musings about whether Barack Obama‘s re-election campaign was subliminally feeding us communist propaganda through its font choice, for the most part, “I don’t think that there’s any direct way to measure that,” says Josh Higgins, the official design director of Obama’s 2012 campaign. So many other factors play a role — campaign strategy, the quality of the candidate himself — but the design aspect is still essential.

That was categorically true during the 2008 elections, when the desire for change was high, the red-white-and-blue “O” first emerged (and I often confused it with Pepsi), and a Shepard Fairey poster was able to instill optimism in scores of voters. But what about four years later, now that morale has significantly dropped? In an interview with British online magazine Design Week, Higgins discusses the evolution of our political climate from those glory days, and his wise choice not to force those sentiments back into existence. Going with his gut (no research, no focus groups) he looked instead to the present: Obama’s role as president and a proponent of progress. The slogan evolved from “Hope” to “Forward,” retaining those notably brighter shades than those of the opposition party (who opted for designs made in-house rather than by professionals). “Some of the things that you could do in 2008 when he was running you couldn’t do now,” he says. “There is always a very fine line between pushing the visual language of the campaign and also being able to represent the president in a sophisticated way.” While our optimism has waned over the past four years, that “O” and that poster still endure. When done right, a visual language will always speak the same message.

— Janelle Zara