Politics Meets Brand Design: The Story of Obama's Campaign Logo

The Obama campaign logo represents a break from the conventional notions of political logos and candidate branding. Many would argue that it is one of the most innovative political logos of all time.
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Historically, political campaign logos have been rather simple, typically consisting of the candidate's name and some splashy colors. Perhaps a wavy line has augmented the candidate's name and a variety of fonts have been used as differentiators. The Obama campaign logo represents a break from the conventional notions of political logos and candidate branding. Many would argue that the Obama logo is amongst the most innovative political logos of all time and that its effectiveness matches that of the most recognizable corporate logos.

The Obama logo works on several levels. The design is aesthetically captivating and the logo conveys messages consistent with the key themes of the campaign. From an artistic perspective, the Obama logo also resonates with many voters on an emotional and, perhaps, subconscious level.

I sought to better understand the effectiveness of the Obama logo on a deeper level. From a brand marketing perspective, what key elements of successful logo design are represented in the Obama logo? Why have these elements historically been more typical of effective corporate logo designs rather than political logo designs? Also, are there ways in which the Obama logo acts upon the psyche of voters so that it strikes a chord with these people on a subconscious, emotional level?

In order to guide my quest for answers to these questions, I spoke with various experts in their respective fields. Bobby Calder is a Professor of Marketing at the Kellogg School of Management. He provides a marketing perspective on logo and brand design. Carol Cox is a professor of art therapy at George Washington University and Pratt Institute who serves as a spokesperson for noted art therapist Joan Kellogg's life cycle theory based on archetypes. Ms. Cox offers workshops on color, imagery, and symbolism as reflected by different states of consciousness across the life span and has chaired a national conference on this subject.

Following my conversations with Mr. Calder and Ms. Cox, I sought to understand if any of these perspectives were contemplated by the design team during the logo creation process. Did they consciously consider key brand marketing elements of design or was the design team more focused on artistic design fundamentals? Was the design team thinking about the ways in which their design could connect artistically on a subconscious level or is that interpretation of the logo design purely accidental? I spoke with the lead designer of the logo, Sol Sender, to learn more about the thought process involved with the creation of the Obama logo. When the logo was created, Sol Sender was owner of Sender, LLC, a small, Chicago-based design firm. In August 2008, the firm joined VSA Partners in Chicago.

Below Mr. Calder deconstructs the Obama logo and describes the key marketing elements represented in the logo that helped make it so effective, from his perspective:

"Speaking specifically about the design itself, there are some basic perceptions you want to get across that are almost obligatory with political campaign logos -- themes such as patriotism. Obviously that's where the red, white and blue is coming from and the red stripes. That's just what people expect of a candidate. So that's there with a vengeance and done well from an artistic point of view.

An interesting thing beyond that, and this would be my analysis not knowing what the designer might have been told, is that the Obama candidacy was, as many people have commented on, very much about the man -- being different and rising to the occasion. So it's very interesting that the symbol is a symbol, yes, but it's also the 'O' in Obama. Even phonetically, the way the name is pronounced is very distinctive so the 'O' stands out. To bring that over and reinforce the verbal side of it with the visual picture is quite clever from a marketing point of view.

So you have the basic 'O' which I take to be the foundation of the design. And then what you wanted to do from a marketing point of view is to make sure that you give it two things. One is, in contrast with McCain [and Hillary Clinton] being older and more traditional, you wanted to make Obama look modern and even perhaps somewhat of the future. That's where I think the red stripes at the bottom come in. The way they're done, they're not smooth from a design point of view. They almost violate the 'O.' They sort of speak to this notion of looking different and they have some kinetic energy to them which gets at the theme of change. So right there you have the basic design that says this is a person that's different, of the future, modern and about change. Which is basically what you wanted from a marketing point of view.

My hypothesis is that there is another thing going on with the design. Go back to the 'O' being more personal because it comes out of the name. I think the whole look of this design reinforces that. It has a sort of superhero look to it. You can imagine somebody wearing something like that on their chest in a Superman kind of movie. So it has that sort of larger than life, superhero dimension even beyond just the name. This fits the notion that this is the candidacy of a strong person."

Above is an interpretation of the Obama logo viewed through the lens of a brand marketing expert with particular emphasis placed on the way the logo helps develop brand awareness. I would add to Mr. Calder's analysis that, in my opinion, the red stripes flowing the way they do and the white circle in the middle of the logo represent a sun rising over the hillside or over the horizon, signifying a new day. This is particularly interesting in that it mirrors the themes of Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign in 1984 in which one of his central campaign messages was "Morning in America." For the Obama candidacy, this image of a sunrise symbolizes the themes of Hope and Change -- a brand new day.

So we've examined the Obama campaign logo through the lens of brand marketing. But what about the actual artistic design? Is there a psychological interpretation of the logo design that helps us understand how the logo interacts with the psyche of many voters? Ms. Cox provides a fascinating interpretation:

"The circular shape of the Obama logo is a mandala, a word derived from ancient Sanskrit that is composed of two root words meaning essence and container. A symbolic form used by all cultures in one manner or another for a variety of purposes, both sacred and secular, the mandala has come to represent wholeness or completion of a cycle. Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung considered the mandala to be an archetypal symbol residing in the collective unconscious that is accessed by people during times of transition.

A circular form has the potential of being just about anything. It can be empty or full of color; it can contain a representational image or it can be abstract. It can be composed of lots of floating images or it can be one perfectly symmetric design. It might have within it a square or perhaps a spiral. There are many possibilities.

Art therapist Joan Kellogg became interested in drawn mandalas and began to collect them from her patients and colleagues. In 1977, after spending eight years collecting, observing, and classifying thousands of mandala drawings, Kellogg developed a system based on form, symbol, movement, and color for understanding patterns and shapes in a circular design. Drawing from her vast knowledge of psychology, mythology, anthropology, religion, and cross-cultural studies, she organized into a circular format 13 constructs that symbolize the basic stages of the life cycle -- stage 0 being in the center surrounded by 12 other stages on the circumference. She called this model the "Archetypal Stages of the Great Round of Mandala."

Her theoretical construct provides a symbolic way to map stages of psychological growth represented by different states of consciousness from before birth to after death. It incorporates psychosocial, physiological, and spiritual aspects of human development. Kellogg's life cycle theory can be applied to enhance the understanding of just about anything, from the development of an idea, to the stages of a relationship, to the evolution of man.

The Obama logo is a clear stage 6 in Kellogg's model. Stage 6, symbolized by a circle that has been split into two halves, is an archetypal state of consciousness that has to do with the beginning of the hero's journey. It is a time when tension is felt between two opposing forces; the idea behind this is to confront opposites, to do battle with the shadow forces, and to strive for something better. The colors that are frequently seen in the depiction of stage 6 are red and blue.

In this logo, we see a red and white striped area in the lower half of the circle. A striped mandala is the design for stage 5 that reflects a static place where structure and hierarchies are of utmost importance. The repeated bands of red and white reinforce predictability and the comforting thing is that this provides protection; however, in this stage one can get too stuck in the old ways of doing things. The designer of the Obama logo used a very subtle perspective technique to make the bands resemble a landscape or hill that the viewer can imagine ascending.

When the viewer's eyes reach the horizon line, there is a white mandala against a blue background reminiscent of a rising sun. This particular rendering of a stage 6 design represents the beginning of the resolution of conflict. It speaks of idealism and change and heralds the new. The rising white center that appears to glow can be likened to stage 12, which on the great round is directly opposite from stage 6 creating an axis with separation and unity at either end. One of the designs for stage 12 is an image rising from the center of the mandala that reflects hope and transformation. Stage 12 is considered the completion of the hero's journey. In this interpretation, Barack Obama is the hero.

I believe this logo is brilliant because it has the potential to affect us all on a deeply unconscious level to believe there is a way to solve the polarized red and blue world we are each experiencing on so many levels. There is hope on the horizon. And that hope is Obama."

I found this to be a fascinating interpretation of the Obama logo -- certainly one I had not contemplated. I wondered if Mr. Sender's design team considered any of the notions described by Ms. Cox during the logo creation process. My assumption was that, while they more than likely considered several of the marketing elements described by Mr. Calder, notions of mandalas, archetypes and cycles of life probably were not consciously reflected upon. I figured there was one person who knew best, so I emailed the lead designer, Sol Sender, and interviewed him:

Ben Arnon (Arnon): How many people were involved with the creation of the Obama logo?

Sol Sender (Sender): At Sender LLC, we started with a team of six, but as we whittled down our options, we ended up with a core team of three. MODE, a company that had brought us in to work on the identity (they are a wonderful motion design firm and have done some great animations of the logo among other things), had two core people working on project management -- facilitating the relationship between our work and the campaign team.

We handed off the logo early in the campaign. The campaign team ultimately included a wonderful team of designers and web developers. They did some fantastic adaptations of the logo and made some typographic tweaks as the campaign progressed.

Arnon: Was every decision a group decision or did certain people design certain parts of the logo and then you meshed it all together?

Sender: It was, to a large degree, a group process. The approach for the identity was developed and agreed upon by all of us. From that point, one designer was more responsible for the icon, another for the typography, etc. Though there was some trading off. The client (Obama campaign team) and MODE were also a core part of the team -- to the degree that they set a benchmark of something different and something special. We felt strongly that it was the right logo for the campaign to choose and we recommended it above our others (we initially presented seven or so). It told the strongest story. It was patriotic. It was new. It said hope and change... clearly.

[To view some of the initial designs that were not ultimately chosen as the logo, scroll to the bottom of this blog post and view the videos]

Arnon: How long did the logo creation process take?

Sender: We developed the logo options and final logo in under two weeks.

Arnon: What types of thoughts crossed your minds as you sought to create a logo that connects on an emotional level with voters?

Sender: The candidate's message. We wanted a logo that supported his message of hope and optimism. We wanted a logo that could stand for what he represented and represents -- the dawning of a new day in American politics. We knew that the 'O' could play a very strong part. The core idea -- of using it as a rising sun came later. We wanted the logo to tell a story that everyone would understand.

Arnon: In your minds, what are the fundamental strengths of the logo?

Sender: The simultaneous representation of the rising sun and the 'O.' The use of American colors and flag-type symbolism while creating something new; it is traditional and it is new. The fact that it tells a clear story. This is perhaps the most powerful aspect of the logo. Also, the fact that it can stand alone (without typography) and represent the campaign and its essence is powerful.

Additionally, that so many people could take it, use it, reproduce it in ways that were meaningful to them is a great strength. They could adapt and use it to personalize their support for the candidate and their belief in his message. It became theirs. It reminds me of President-Elect Obama always reminding us "it's about you." It became everyone's logo in a way.

Arnon: I shared with you [Mr. Sender] the art psychology interpretation of the Obama logo as described by Ms. Cox. Was anyone on the team aware of that interpretation during the design creation process?

Sender: Not on a theoretical level, but I think we know some of the things discussed on a gut level. Anyone who designs draws on their design education, obviously, but also on a lifetime of influences -- pop culture, religion, demographics, relationships, travel, the speed of their own synapses and so on. So as objective and "literal" as a logo may have been intended to be, or may appear to audiences, it certainly contains other, more subjective meanings for both the designer and the viewer. Put simply, a lot of meaning is in the eye of the beholder. Often, the best logos and visual identities are designs that offer a depth of meaning and opportunity for interpretation. I think the Obama logo offers that multiplicity of meanings, both rational interpretations and emotional reactions.

The interpretation regarding Sanskrit symbology was not a design consideration for the campaign logo. Interestingly, however, mandalas as a symbol have been a conscious choice in the past by designers at VSA Partners. For instance, mandala sand paintings inspired a series of promotions and posters that VSA created to raise visibility for a visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Chicago in 2007. The poster design was based on the form of the Mandala, which is a traditional form in Buddhism used for guidance along the path to enlightenment.

Obviously, we intended the rising sun as evocative of transformation, renewal, warmth and hope, though we were not aware of types of psychological theories such as Kellogg's. I do think that a sunrise is an archetypal image of a hero's journey and perhaps the most fundamental representation of a split circle. That may have been something we "knew" in our gut. More intentionally, the "split" in the circle was less about a heroic narrative and more about the unification of land and sky, and the joining of "red" and "blue." We did intend the landscape/hill form, though not consciously the "transcending" movement in the viewer's eye (though I like that interpretation)."

Logos have the potential to be powerful marketing tools as well as impactful pieces of artistic design. The Obama campaign logo succeeded at delivering an effective marketing message to voters. Simultaneously, it served as a piece of artwork that drew an emotional response from many supporters. The Obama campaign logo changed the future landscape of political logo design.

Following my interview with Mr. Sender, VSA Partners released the following video interview with Sol Sender on their website. In this video, Mr. Sender provides more details about the conception and birth of the Obama '08 campaign logo. Of particular interest, he reveals some of the other designs contemplated by his design team during the conception phase of the Obama campaign logo.

Please leave comments sharing your interpretation of the Obama logo design.

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