Monthly Archives: February 2011

Since the 2008 presidential election, I have become aware of design in politics and how the quality and effectiveness of the design effects particular candidates.

As designers, we have a lot of responsibility to design for the greater good and not put forth an image (both meanings of the word) that is misleading, untrue or inciting of any negative action. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have a responsibility to not oversell something or someone, if we want a clear conscience.

Below I’ve outlined a few examples of design that has a played a role in our perception of a the candidate.

A few examples, off the top of my head:

Yes we can… make you think I’m God-incarnate

Overtly and overly optimistic political campaign website for Barack Obama. Did we all really think he was going to be ‘God-incarnate’ and a perfect president (note the glowing blue sky/cloud feel)?

The problem with this website design, as I’m starting to see, is that if I were to design a website for ‘God’ – it would probably look pretty close to this. Same colors. Similar logo. Similar quote in the header (at least the ‘I’m asking you to believe’). This is a problem, because he’s not God, but was pretty much marketed as such.

As I wrote about on this blog in the past – this was a great website design, logo and branding. The best that national politics had ever seen. But my question is: Was it over-selling Obama? Just a bit.

Did we think he would be anything more than a politician with skin on? If we bought into the design/marketing – maybe.

There’s an Alaska-shaped lake in the US, don’tchaknow?

To all you middle school kids who have taken geography, you know this map is NOT accurate. It is outrageously false. I know that Palin’s goal was to express that she was the governor of a state that is very large in comparison to the continental United States. Do you want to highlight something in your career that you only put half your effort toward (Palin resigned before finishing her first term)? Why create something that is false, misleading and very untrue? Clever, maybe – but I don’t see it winning any design awards. This logo opens up the floodgates for more people to question the intelligence of Sarah Palin. Why open that door?

LBJ mushroom cloud commercial

Misleading. Fear-Mongering.

It’s not a direct ‘design’ piece but is marketing and political in nature. The commercial worked and drew on the emotions of the American people. Drawing out the fear of a nuclear war and pointing a finger at Barry Goldwater was the goal of this commercial. It worked, and as Milton Glaser is quoted in this article saying, “And even though you knew it was bullshit, your heart swelled anyway.”

You betcha they’re surveying symbols!

Most recently, this graphic has been the center of debate. I don’t subscribe to the idea that Palin is responsible for the recent Arizona shooting. However, her advertisements and words and those of other talking heads need to be scrutinized when violence against politicians arises. Taking responsibility for your words and actions is a necessity. That means acknowledging when something you say or do is in bad taste, as this graphic was. We learned this as a child – why is it that politicians forget this fundamental rule of responsibility? (Another example is when Sharon Angle’s was quoted about using¬† ‘second amendment remedies’. That is an incitement of violence and nothing less.)

One explanation of this graphic was that it was simply using ‘surveying symbols’.¬† Maybe that was the intention, but how many American’s are surveyors and would get this reference? It’s more likely that it would be interpreted as a gun sight. You can’t tell me that the Palin folks didn’t know this is how it would be inferred? After all, it’s the perfect graphical symbol to appeal to hunters and gun rights activists around the country. If it should have been a surveying symbol, shame on the designer for not correctly ‘visually communicating’ a surveying symbol. My guess is that the designer was directed to use a gun cross hair – and they did that effectively. Palin and others needs to be more careful about the graphics they present and the words they use.

Wrapping up

We have all seen political ads, designs and words that over-reach their boundary. The question becomes – how do we know how over-reaching it is? How do we know how much violence something or someone may incite with their words or ads? The answer is: We don’t. This is why politicians and the designers that work for them need to be held to a very high standard. They need to realize how much sway they have with their ‘supporters’ – especially their fringe supporters.

What political ads, designs and words have you heard or seen recently that were inciting violence or simply overselling something?

What do designers do? Make things ‘pretty’ and ‘put a new coat of paint on something’, right?

Wrong.

A designer is someone who communicates visually through various mediums. This could be through print design, web design, and especially wayfinding design (the design of directional signs in our environment).

The end result is hopefully something that is visually appealing or ‘pretty’. Pretty should not be the goal, though. It is simply the natural byproduct of a designer who has taken the target audience into account while crafting a readable and functional piece of design (whether it’s a business card or a full-on website). What most people see as ‘pretty’ are simply visual symbols that resonate with a particular target audience and communicate a particular message in an exemplary way.

Some examples

Let’s take wayfinding. Directional sign on the interstate communicate visually. They tell what city you are approaching, which way to turn and so on. They aren’t simply pretty or pleasing on the eyes. They communicate visually. Interstate signs may also look pretty if the text wasn’t white, but instead were a slightly lighter green from the green background color of the sign. Decisions were made by designers about the readability and functionality of the sign, therefore stark white and dark green was the outcome. Design decisions are made in terms of functionality, readability without much focus on ‘pretty’ – because if it communicates visually, ‘pretty’ will hopefully be the natural byproduct.

The same argument can be made for web design. A website should be functional first and foremost. If I don’t know what a link is or what page I’m on, the web designer has failed already. A website can be ugly and functional – think Google search results. A website can be pretty and not functional – some graphic designer’s flash only websites. The best option is for the website to be both functional and beautiful.

On the flip side

Of course a designer should create things that are ‘pretty’ – but this should not be the end goal. Isn’t that what fine artists are for? (EDIT: I mean that fine artist don’t usually have to reach a target audience and therefore don’t need to worry about communicating the same message to everyone) As I often say, there should be balance between form and function. For argument’s sake, form = pretty and function = successfully reaching the target audience.

Form and function work together to create a successful design – but reaching the target audience is the goal, while ‘pretty’ is the byproduct of reaching that goal.

Now it’s your turn! What do you think of the balance between form and function? For designers, is ‘pretty’ the end goal or not?

I have to admit – I had a lot of fun creating this image. It started out in the studio with fellow designer, Jamie Carroll – using his new grid and seamless background to create the nice vignette and shaped light on the background. Then I tweaked it a bit in RAW and dropped it in Photoshop. From there, I grabbed a few of the smoke photos I took previously and screened them back and masked them to fit the image perfectly. Now if only I could get rid of those 4 awful sensor spots that I have to keep cloning out in all my images. (don’t mind the watermarks – just a preventative measure after some images were used without permission in the past)