Saturday, August 30, 2008

Obamanomics Needs a Hand

Photo Illustration by Victor Schrager for The New York Times; Prop Stylist: Megan Caponetto

Last week's New York Times magazine feature focused on the economic platform of Barack Obama. This piece, by David Leonhardt, does a fine job drawing distinctions between the over-simplified pigeon holes in which candidates find themselves, i.e. tax-and spend liberal, and the actually policy proposals of each candidate.

The main theme of the piece is that Obama's plan observes lessons learned from the Reagan and Clinton administrations and makes a strong push to reverse the tax policies of the second Bush administration, namely those that have cut tax bills for the country's top earning households. Obama, according to Leonhardt, is a hesitant regulator when it comes to the economy and he tempers faith in markets to deliver growth with a strong desire to restore the redistributionist tax policies of the Clinton years. The article frequently points out that the subtleties of Obama's positions are difficult to reconcile with the requirement of any campaigns to produce a sound byte summary of a candidate’s philosophy and policy proposals. This slogan, or logo, or whatever it may be is something that Obama, despite extraordinary rhetorical gifts, is at pains to compose.

Political messages are at times masterworks of design. Think of the successes, though they may be properly described as based in cynicism, of Karl Rove. Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the language of gay marriage referendums, and various character-assassination attempts on Senator McCain in 2000 come to mind. Crafting such a message, be it in emotionally potent over-simplifications, or in the cool, rational tones of an economist, requires many of the same considerations made by a designer. What words conjure images of prosperity (are these colors and fonts appropriate)? What will be the attention span of the audience (can I layer meaning here)? Who should be tapped for the interviews on which the analysts and commentators will base their judgments (which print vendor can pull this off)? Is this message adequately distinct from the competition's?

Politicians would be wise to think more like designers while employing them early and often. Perhaps no other experts are more familiar with navigating the conflicts of form and content under the constraints of scarcity with the goal of effective communication. One of the finest arguments for this was made on the eve of the 2004 presidential election in an Op-Ed contribution to The New York Times by Scott Dadich titled What You See is What You Get. This piece bemoans the weaknesses of the Kerry-Edwards campaign logo and highlights the strengths and effectiveness of the superior Bush-Cheney design. The point is that when you need to convey complex meaning with concision and flair, call a good designer who will find the form most suitable to what you're saying. If the Obama camp can lasso Mick Jagger and Stevie Wonder to open at the Democratic National Convention, surely they should be giving Milton Glaser a call.

To paraphrase one of Bill Clinton's masterful zingers: it's the design, stupid.

To read Dadich's article, click here.