Team Obama invents the future of political branding.
The Obama campaign was a design triumph. Bringing a Silicon Valley startup sensibility to politics, it created a consistent look and feel across digital and print, and constantly honed its user experience. Political campaigns had never been so design-focused, and this one's success will have lasting impact, having redefined the way politicians think about their visual presentations. Obama's 2008 design director, Scott Thomas, considers the legacy:
"We've become accustomed to how corporations brand products. That lives in our minds and psyche—and when they're doing something slightly different, we don't pledge our loyalty to it as easily. That's one of the reasons political branding is so important. It's more than just a logo mark or a typeface; it's a holistic idea that people recognize. And I think that level of consistency in political language is fundamental to our loyalty and understanding.
It continues after the campaign too. Design helps maintain that connection. Obama's community-organizing not-for-profit, Organizing for Action, still sends out fundraising emails reminiscent of what people saw during the campaign—so much so that people are like, 'Why is Obama still running for president?' But there's loyalty there too. We'll tune in a little more if that logo is on top of the email.
I think you'll see a lot more political branding in the U.S. Every campaign, to some degree, will be using the web and thinking about its typography and colors. In Chicago, for certain political action signs, I saw a lot of Gotham being used recently. Gotham is increasingly being used as a typeface in American politics; it's this quintessentially American typeface. There's going to be a lot more to come, for sure."
A "biomimicry" movement had been growing for years, as designers took lessons from nature's eons of natural selection. In 2008, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps's sharkskin-inspired swimsuit drew wide attention to the idea. That same year, the not-for-profit Biomimicry 3.8 Institute launched a tool, AskNature.org, as a clearinghouse of ideas to inspire inventors. Samples from the site:
Ability: The bug's larvae spin silk underwater to build tubes for shelter. The silk is sticky when wet—a rare quality for adhesives.
Potential: The silk could help guide the creation of new medical adhesives, able to stick to wet tissue or even glue together broken bones.
Ability: Its nest is a strong bowl of mud, fortified by sticks and fur. The bird vibrates the mud as it dries, helping it cling to the materials.
Potential: A similar vibration process could be used to enhance quick-set concrete or other construction and housing products.
Ability: If it explores an area with no food, it leaves a pheromone that announces "no entry," so other ants don't repeat the search.
Potential: Rather than put poison on crops, a healthier pest-control strategy could be simply to steer pests away from the food entirely.
Airbnb is among a growing number of companies created by designers. Three believers on why more should do the same:
They attract money
"In 2008, our team was considered a liability. But investors have since been educated in the value of design. There's been an almost 180-degree shift in perspective, and even more role models are out there today than five years ago." —Joe Gebbia, cofounder, Airbnb
They attract talent
"User expectations are higher. You have all these companies saying, 'I need a designer.' Well, look at your founding team. Designer-founders attract employees who help build a culture that values design. It has become a differentiator." —Enrique Allen, codirector, Designer Fund
They attract users
"Technology alone is not enough. As we build apps that make your social life or daily productivity better, there's a much greater focus now on the interface between technology and people." —Dave Morin, cofounder and CEO, Path
COLOR OF THE YEAR*:
*According to expert color forecasters at Pantone.
Beats by Dre turns headphones into designer wear.
The Wachowski Brothers’ visually ambitious Speed Racer flops at the box office.
CAR OF THE YEAR:
Audi R8: Debut of LED headlights.
THE YEAR IN SPACE:
Spaceshiptwo Virgin Galactic makes the first craft for routine commercial space travel.
- 2004: Ambitions Rise in the East, Project Runway vs. The Industry
- 2005: Rethink Dinner, A Better Drug Bottle, Inside a Designers Mind
- 2006: PG&G Best-Kept Secret, Man with the Golden Touch
- 2007: Know your Type, The iPhone... Stinks?, The iTunes Effect, Can Design Change the World?
- 2008: All Politics is Visual, Nature as a Teacher, The Rise of Designer Founders
- 2009: Track and Fields, The Crowd Takes Over, Don Draper Hits the Mall
- 2010: Hands Off that Logo!, Innovation's Perfect Storm, Close your Eyes, See Everything
- 2011: Why People Love an Infographic, A Long-Awaited Vision, Reviewed by All, When Design is Also Art
- 2012: London Plays for Keeps, Instagram, Pinterest, and the Next Big Thing
- 2013: Talent War, Young Guns, The Future of Transit?
[Illustration by Ray Smith; Scott Thomas (Obama campaign)]
A version of this article appeared in the October 2013 issue of Fast Company magazine.