The Pervasive Influence of Graphic Design in Politics



The following is my undergraduate dissertation completed at The University of Huddersfield in 2016.


We interact with graphic design on a daily basis, although for many, perhaps the most significant impact it has on our lives is through its use in campaigns, movements and various activism-based efforts. The significance of a strong, compelling, visual language on a campaign’s success is undeniable. It could be argued whether Barack Obama would have had his eight year long stay in the White House without the iconic ‘Hope’ poster by Shephard Fairey; instilling optimism in the masses and becoming a symbol of progressiveness for an entire generation. Likewise, we might ask if Thatcherism would have gripped the country for decades had Saatchi & Saatchi not created the ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ poster, which contributed to change in the political landscape in this country forever. 

Graphic Design does not only act as a platform for the establishment to influence society, at the other end of the spectrum, it acts as a voice for those who otherwise would not necessarily be heard with several publications celebrating this practice of graphic design such as Design of Dissent and the Graphic Agitation series of books by Liz McQuistion. The work of Craig Oldham also helps to illustrate this. His book ‘In Loving Memory of Work’ examines the impact visual culture had on the efforts of the miners during the miner’s strike in 1984, and how those who would not necessarily embrace the medium of design professionally, used it to further their cause. This is only emphasised in today’s society with the increasingly accessibility of technology which allows for an average citizen to produce graphics to support their own cause. “Computer users were empowered by greater control over the design and production process. Digital technology and advanced software also expanded the creative potential of graphic design by making possible unprecedented manipulation of colour, form, space, and imagery” (Meggs, & Purvis, 2016). Juxtaposing this is the efforts of Hillary Clinton, incorporating the heavy-hitting juggernaut of Pentagram’s Michael Beirut in her presidential campaign to appeal to millions of voters, carefully producing a careful, sensible corporate identity. 

This essay will examine how campaigns from the grassroots, and the unrepresented in society have the effect that they do and what makes them so successful, whilst comparing that to how ‘the establishment’ utilise graphic design to assert their power and whether there are any similarities between the two, both in terms of visual language and rhetoric. In order to achieve this, case studies will be examined with the intention of studying how intricate details of the visual language used by the campaign propels it to the forefront of society, captures the public’s imagination and furthers the campaign considerably. 

Josef Stalin called print the communist party’s “sharpest and most powerful weapon” (Stalin, 1923). It comes as no surprise that in the west, the emergence of graphic design in politics in the twentieth century became a significant factor in sustaining control of the people, and influencing them to further politician’s agendas. 

Perhaps some of the early instances of this practice, was by the western powers during World War I & II. J. M. Flagg’s rousing Uncle Sam poster is an iconic example that went on to inspiring many American men to join the war effort. The poster, inspired by a similar styled British recruitment poster featuring Lord Kitchener, was incredibly successful with over four million posters printed with the purpose of recruiting Americans for its war efforts during world war one. In the wake of its success, the poster was even brought back into use for the second world war.

With the role of graphic design in military propaganda being realised, we will later see how graphic design would go on to serve both sides of the political spectrum for United States throughout the remainder of the twentieth century with the likes of Barack Obama’s campaign team and supporters harnessing design to propel their candidate to victory in 2008. 

Parallel to the establishment utilisation of graphic design, was the role graphic design played in championing the voices of countercultures throughout the twentieth century. An increasingly disillusioned electorate and youth across America saw examples of anti-war counter propaganda surge in response to the Vietnam War in the 1960s with works such as ‘and babies’ by members of the Art Workers Coalition highlighting the approach that anti-war counter propaganda had to promoting their cause by reusing shocking imagery to further their cause.

It was not only in the United States that change could have been realised through the counterculture’s use of graphic design. In France during May of 1968 the role of Parisian students silkscreening in the Ecole des Beaux Arts helped spark mass protests. You could begin to identify the 1960s as the real beginning of the countercultures’ and grassroots use of the poster as a platform for protest. 

It’s no secret that there is a firm relationship between the arts and those that are critical of society, so to examine the constant struggle for supremacy between countercultures and establishment, both harnessing graphic design to further their causes is fascinating. There is a realisation to be had, when looking at the two, whereby one must ask are establishment campaigns made in the image of counterculture campaigns or vice versa?

The increasingly complex relationship between graphic design in establishment and grassroots political campaigns is an interesting subject, which is constantly in flux and affected by a variety of circumstances; resulting in the publics ever-changing perception on issues within our society.

In 2008, a vibrant and inspiring political campaign from Barack Obama captured the American people. A visually sound array of posters, logos and promotional material were all heavily influential in Obama’s success. The rise of Obama’s popularity during the primaries was unprecedented, with this essay studying both aspects of Obama’s grassroots support, as well as his campaign’s forming of a corporate identity to represent the then-Illinois senator. Hillary Clinton’s campaign would later draw on the magic of Barack Obama’s campaign - featuring a logo designed by Michael Beirut, and its own commissioned typeface, Unity, yet this visual language was now seen as the face of the establishment. The fluid relationship between graphic design and its role in grassroots and establishment political campaigns can now be realised. What was once a symbol of change, forward-thinking and progressiveness was now seen as a symbol of authority, establishment and the out-of-touch political elite.

Perhaps, this newfound establishment association with the previously mentioned visual language which could be found in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign could only be emphasised with the unique approach that Donald Trump’s supporters had when working with graphic language to support their candidate. With the ‘meme-ification’ of their candidate from a large chunk of Trump’s online grassroots supporters on websites such as 4chan and reddit, their response was the harnessing of an illustration by Matt Furie - Pepe the Frog. The illustration’s rise from innocent illustration to a symbol of hate by the anti-defamation league will be later examined. 

In addition to this, a cynical argument could also be made for a more abstract approach Trump and his team had in their utilisation of graphic design. It’s the standard definition for graphic design to be used as a means of communication, like so many of his predecessors before him did as a means of representing their candidate to appear appealing to the electorate, yet Trump, arguably used Graphic Design for distraction. On 15th July, Donald Trump announced his running mate for the 2016 election, Mike Pence - seen by many as a more controversial figure than Trump himself. On the same day, his campaign launched the new logo for his campaign. The logo itself was mocked extensively across the news and on social media for its sexual connotations conveyed in the monogram. The result of this saw much of the reporting on that day focusing on the crudeness of the logo, rather than the discussion of the policies of Indiana Governor Mike Pence. The Guardian’s article about the appointment of Pence received 228 comments and 140 shares on social media (Bixby, 2016), contrasting hugely with the article published on the same day mocking the logo which received 489 comments and a massive 3406 shares on social media. The Metro’s coverage (Nagesh, 2016) of the appointment merged both the stories into one article, although only touched upon the governor’s political background for 3 paragraphs, mocking the logo for the remainder of the article - strongly suggesting the logo is more important than Pence’s appointment and what it would mean for the United States.

Graphic design took on a new, unique form in Trump’s presidential election campaign. We will later see how Trump’s campaign embodied two co-existing, yet drastically different visual languages used by supporters of his campaign and the campaign team itself in the form of Pepe the Frog promoting Trump concurrently with more traditional campaign methods and rhetoric. In addition to this, there is also the purpose of using graphic design as a means of distraction used by Trump rather than the more conventional use of promotion and communication by politicians that preceded him. We’ll also begin to see how Trump and his team used Twitter as a platform to cause misdirection and hysteria amongst the media and the public. 

We’ve seen how the initial clear separation between official and grassroots campaigns has become more complicated in a contemporary context, and how both the Obama and Trump campaign has seemingly adopted a fusion of these strategies. In the case of Obama, we see the coexistence of Obama’s grassroots support helping his campaign, as well his campaign’s use of establishment graphic design principles and in the case of Trump we see how Trump’s internet-based grassroots support’s alternate use of visual language helped his campaign concurrently to the more official, traditional use of graphic design that his campaign team practiced.

Perhaps in an attempt to subvert standard lines of communication and appeal to a broader electorate, the lines between grassroots and establishment political campaigns and the role of how graphic design influences them has become increasingly indistinguishable.

In what follows, we will look at these campaigns and the techniques employed at both grassroots and official agencies, in an attempt to shed further light upon this highly contemporary phenomenon, and what potentially, this means for the future of graphic design when operated in political campaigns.


Perhaps one of the most well-used and significant tools in the activists & grassroots designer’s arsenal is the recycling of existing imagery to create a new visual language, furthering their cause. It allows for the tapping into an audience’s pre-existing understanding of an icon or subject, and informs them through this already-established medium. This is the focal point of the work of Laurie Gries, in which she “examines how contemporary media images experience rhetorical transformation” (Gries, 2015). Enabling this is the impact of digital technology, allowing more and more people to use this platform as a means of self-expression, and the fascinating concept of how this newer medium interacts with ‘older’ means of activism. Gries notes how Semiotics plays a large role in this practice and the interpretation amongst an audience in signs and symbols, and how a designer uses this understanding to create new meaning through existing imagery will also be examined in this case study. 

Some of the most recognisable and successful movements in modern times, at the heart of their ‘brand’, share one thing in common; the recycling of an existing image to be the face of their movement. Feminist movements throughout the twentieth century used the astrological symbol of Venus to be symbol uniting their movements. The Guy Fawkes mask now represents protest, with it being predominantly used by activist group ‘Anonymous’ and in the occupy movements, after its use as a symbol of protest in V for Vendetta - highlighting how grassroots graphic design can build on a pre-existing visual narrative to strengthen its message. It is good design at its most purest form; the hiding of identities whilst illustrating the wearer’s shared ideologies in a visual symbol. The iconic symbols behind many activist grassroots movements are all enabled to be understood without any previous interaction with the movement itself. 

Perhaps, the most iconic example of the reuse of an existing image to activate change in a political context, however, is the use of the raised fist. The image is rooted in extensive amounts of grassroots political activism throughout the twentieth century through its use of visualising solidarity. From its use in feminist movements, interacting with the Venus astrological symbol, to its use across many worker’s movements, the raised fist is the defining example of how the reuse of an icon can become synonymous with a group’s message. The icon itself comes without any pre-existing ideologies or tags, other than the pursuit of change and the notion of solidarity. This is the reason how the icon can work in representing black and white power movements, despite both movements having drastically contrasting ideals and messages. It truly is the logo of the grassroots.

Reconstruction is also another powerful weapon that designers utilise in the process of furthering grassroots / activist-based efforts. By reimagining an established graphic that contains a set of understood principles, it can potentially allow for a completely different message to be communicated that can be more potent than if the desired message was communicated in a conventional manner. Take, for example, the Obama Hope poster that has already been discussed extensively throughout this text. Upon conception, the Obama Hope poster stood for hope, whilst positively portraying, and promoting Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Over time, however, the people’s perceptions of Obama had changed, due to a whole array of varying contexts and circumstances. With this, the meaning and rhetoric tied with the poster could be reconstructed. Post 2008, a number of people became discontent with Obama’s presidency, now disillusioned with the poster’s portrayal of hope. In this context, the projection of the Obama Hope poster could now be interpreted as being sarcastic, despite the artwork itself not changing at all; it had taken on new meaning.

The poster itself, later became an entire framework that allowed grassroots designers to recontextualise the original Obama Hope poster to communicate a new message, thus commenting on the shifting attitude towards Obama. Even the posters original designer, Shepherd Fairey, partook in this practice with his poster for the Occupy Movements in 2011. The poster portrayed a protester wearing the Guy Fawkes mask in the same stylised aesthetic from the 2007 poster, with the tagline of ‘HOPE’ being manipulated into ‘Mister President, we hope you’re on our side’, thus reconstructing the poster to be aimed at challenging Obama’s stance on the Occupy movement, instead of promoting Obama.

The reason for the many reproductions of Obama Hope to create new meaning is explored critically in Still Life with Rhetoric. Gries summarises that there are three reasons for this; “the simplicity of Obama Hope’s design makes it easy to manipulate and transfer”, the poster’s tagline enables wordplay that is “fun and easy”, and finally, because the poster can function as a visual ideograph (Gries, 2015). 

The concept of a visual ideograph is an interesting idea that does explain designers’ infatuation with using reproduction of existing imagery to convey new meaning. Edwards and Winkler theorise that visual ideographs have 4 characteristics that can be used to define them - They must have a background in political discourse, they must represent a ‘collective action to a goal’, they must appropriate behaviour and power, and finally, they must be must also be deep-rooted and bounded in culture (Edwards & Winkler, 1997). In this theory about reading and examining images, it is easy to ascertain that the Obama Hope poster is a visual ideograph, like so much of the visual language associated with grassroots movements, such as the raised fist.

The reproduction of existing images to ascertain change or to influence people is not a recent phenomenon as evidenced by the flurry of Obama imagery post-2008. Its roots can be traced back to the practice of photomontage in the early twentieth century. Photomontage was heavily influential in the history of soviet propaganda, with it being an “innovative technique which challenged normative constructions of meanings, and functioning as a symbolic rupture or fragmentation of its sources” (Jobling & Crowley, 1996). With the importance of photomontage realised in the pursuit of activating change or influencing people, the practice evolved over time and became more accessible with the growth of digital technology.

Tate defies photomontage as “A photomontage is a collage constructed from photographs” that “is often used as a means of expressing political dissent” and it originates from the Berlin Dada movement. Early pioneering modernists such as Kurt Schwitters and El Lissitzky used photomontage as a means of reflecting their views on the world, with the soviet political elite harnessing the power of photomontage to glorify the communist regime with Gustav Klucis’ ‘Under the Banner of Lenin for Socialist Construction’ helping to represent this. The poster reinforces Stalin’s role as Lenin’s legitimate successor whilst also recognising the surge in industrialisation that had begun under Stalin’s rule.

Not only did the overt manipulation of images through photomontage achieve new meaning in a political context, a more subtle use of photomontage was practiced by the Soviets as a means of causing deception to the public through the totalitarian practice of doctoring images to control what the public would see. In The Commissar Vanishes by David King, King examines how enemies of the state would be erased from the history books should they not conform to Stalin’s agenda, thus, controlling how the public would perceive Stalin, with the “whole country being subjected to this charade of Stalin worship” (King, 1997). In some senses, the means of using graphic design to deceit and construe meaning rather than the more traditional function of using graphic design to communicate bears some resemblance to Trump’s use of graphic design in the form of smoke and mirrors as mentioned previously. Could it be that graphic design is taking on a new purpose and function in the current political climate?

The impact and prevalence of the photomontage that constructivists and dadaists had championed dwindled throughout the remainder of the twentieth century with Theodore Adorno claiming photomontage ‘had lost its potential to disrupt’ (Jobling & Crowley, 1996). Despite this, its influence can be found in a newer means of activating change in a political context by a rhetorical means of using satire and irony to subvert and juxtapose meaning. An example that helps to reference this is the work of Steve Caplin. Caplin regularly uses photomontage to visually tell a story, especially in a political context that are often surreal in nature. In one illustration, he superimposes Margaret Thatcher’s face on the body of General Pinochet wearing his iconic military uniform - this helps to visually reinforce the relationship between Thatcher and Pinochet. Again, Caplin also illustrated the Milliband brothers in the form of two wrestlers, battling for supremacy over the other.

Another example of using satire and humour is Igor Avzner’s “Make Up, Not War” - a Yugoslavian anti-war advertisement by a cosmetics company showing a female wearing a chain of lipsticks, subverting the form of machine gun bullets. “Conveying its hope for peace” (Glaser, & Ilic, 2005), the sense of using humour - juxtaposing a more traditional sombre tone you would expect to see in anti-war art, is unique; it subverts an audience’s expectations, making the work more striking. 

Satire itself can act as a tool to undermine what we are used to seeing. In particular, the act of ‘subvertising’ can be interpreted as a critical view of establishment communication practices. Adbusters, perhaps, can be viewed as the masters of this practice. Defining themselves as “not-for-profit magazine fighting back against the
hostile takeover of our psychological, physical and cultural environments by commercial forces”, they produce parodies, spoofs and pastiches of advertisements regularly targeting faces of consumer culture such as McDonalds, Coca-Cola and Nike. This reappropriation of consumer culture material in conjunction with satire to create new meaning, symbolises the idea of getting an audience to question what they see through the use of subverting their expectations. There is definitely a clear difference to be established between the obvious manipulation of imagery to make a point and the more overt method of manipulation to secure the status quo.

In a more poignant way of thinking, the practice itself of perpetuating this culture through the practice of graphic design should also be brought into question. All of this can be encapsulated in Adbusters’ ‘First Things First Manifesto 2000’, again, recycling Ken Garland’s ‘First Things First’ from 1964. The manifesto looks at the purpose graphic designers can play in championing social change, instead of reinforcing a “mental environment so saturated with commercial messages that it is changing the very way citizen-consumers speak, think, feel, respond and interact” (Adbusters, 1999) through their work in advertising.

Perhaps, in a political context, this still rings true today. The role of reproduction and recontextualising political discourse enables the accessibility of such material to a broader audience by building on pre-existing cultural foundations is necessary in such an increasingly troubled political climate. It allows a means of self expression, for each and every one of us, especially with the ubiquitousness of digital technology allowing all of us to participate in this practice. 

In the section that follows we will examine in a closer context of how Barack Obama’s grassroots supporter base championed these techniques and practices to further their candidate’s cause and how they co-existed with Obama’s official campaign.



On 4th November 2008, Barack Hussein Obama became the first black president of The United States of America after an unprecedented rise from snatching the democratic nomination from Hillary Clinton, to capturing the hearts and minds of Americans. A campaign built on the foundations of hope, togetherness and unity, Barack Obama spoke directly to the disenchanted of America and those who felt they had never been truly represented by a politician before. Much of the success behind Obama’s campaign can be accredited purely down to its entire design; from its rousing rhetoric, to its intricate understanding of typographic principles. Never before has a presidential campaign embraced design in such a way to engage the people, and to communicate a politician’s vision to the electorate. This chapter will seek to examine why the design behind Barack Obama’s presidential campaign was so successful and will analyse how it incorporated both grassroots political movement and establishment visual languages into its identity, as well as the effect it had on future political campaigns. Could it be that Obama’s campaign which so flawlessly integrated grassroots and establishment graphic design practices to the campaign mark the beginning of a new contemporary political campaign in the future, which fuses both practices succinctly? 

The United States of America was in a difficult position during 2008. Grumblings of a financial crisis were looming, threatening most Americans, with an increasingly grey military campaign in the middle east ingraining an Anti-Bush sentiment throughout the United States with a detachment forming between Washington and the electorate. 

At times of uncertainty, the United States has a knack of coming together in the face of adversity and electing a figure who themselves have overcome hurdles in order to secure the nomination for president. In 1933, despite having suffered from polio and being wheelchair-bound, Franklin D Roosevelt was elected president, overseeing the new deal, economic recovery during the great depression and guiding the United States through World War Two. In 1960, John F. Kennedy was elected president, making him the first Catholic president. Before Obama secured the democratic nomination for president in 2008, no other black American had been on a major party ticket. It goes without saying that America in some areas is still a deeply divided place, and bigoted opposition was not Obama’s only difficulty he had to overcome to reach the White House. As Scott Thomas writes in Designing Obama, “He had a limited public profile, a small campaign treasure chest, and an unconventional political persona. Neither a panderer nor a populist, he was unabashed about his intellect, his multiracial heritage, and the complexity of the problems facing the United States. He was a new kind of candidate, and if he was going to succeed, he needed a new kind of campaign.” (Thomas, 2010).

The Obama Hope poster by Shepherd Fairey is arguably one of the most iconic pieces of visual imagery produced in the last hundred years. Its conception tells the story of how Obama’s campaign mobilised the art community in order to further, and strengthen Obama’s appeal to the electorate. 

In many instances, the art community has had an ‘outside looking in’ approach to political artwork, and Shepherd Fairey is a testament to that - his previous work has often critiqued political figures such as Ronald Reagan and most frequently, George Bush. A 2004 Anti-Bush poster series saw Fairey portray Bush as both a vampire, and Hitler. It speaks volumes for the rhetoric and ideology that Obama conveyed in order to instil such optimism in usually such a cynical artist such as Fairey. 

The inception of the iconic Obama Hope poster was initially born at an Adidas event when publicist Yosi Sergant motivated Fairey to produce a poster for Obama in October of 2007. Fairey, understandably cautious about Obama’s campaign been linked to a controversial street artist who had been arrested several times, sought approval from the Obama campaign itself . On 22nd January 2008, Fairey was given the green-light to produce a poster for the Obama campaign.

What Fairey produced would go on to be symbolic of Obama’s campaign, a poster portraying Obama looking presidential and rousing, stylised by Fairey’s signature aesthetic, as well as the Obey logo as a badge on Obama’s suit with the caption of ‘progress’ underlining the portrait. This was the first iteration of the poster with Obama’s campaign later insisting that semantically, ‘Progress’ could have ‘troublesome connotations’, and thus, ‘Hope’ was used instead. The Obey badge was also removed. 

Born, was the Obama Hope poster, with its distribution across America evident in both physical and digital form - the spread of this image being truly representative of grassroots activist efforts, with 350,000 Hope posters being distributed across the Obama campaign, as well as a black and white PDF available online, enabling supporters to dematerialise the poster. This is discussed further in Still Life with Rhetoric in which a supporter from St Louis, Richard Rodriguez, downloaded the PDF and projected it onto 9 x 6m paint cloths, before painting them onto canvases outside the Royale in St Louis. The spread of this image became a small movement in itself, only strengthened by Fairey’s granting of free licenses to organisations, such as Sticker Robot, to distribute stickers and other editions of the poster. Fairey’s understanding of the viral-like guerrilla street-art distribution methods, only helping Obama’s cause.

As expected with an artefact of such political and societal significance entering mainstream culture, many were quick to analyse the Obama Hope Poster in great detail. Some were opposed to the constructivist stylistic features of the poster and that the socialist undertones could potentially damage Obama’s campaign. Meghan Daum likens it to “a Third World dictator whose rule is enmeshed in a seductive cult of personality” (Daum, 2008)

Acclaimed design writer Steven Heller rejected the notion that the Obama Hope poster was not that unique, citing other examples of political posters that have “broken the mold not only in terms of colour and style but also in message and tone” (Heller, 2008) such as Ben Shahn’s poster for Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and Andy Warhol’s ironic image of Richard Nixon to support George McCovern’s presidential bid in 1972. The reason, he says, for the public’s infatuation with this rejection of conventional political art that so frequently relies on the expected use of reds, whites, blues with iconography consisting of eagles and stars is that it “reject bland tropes while making novel graphic statements that reflect the times in which their candidates are running. Mr. Fairey’s work appeals largely to young audiences, and this poster exudes a youthful cachet.”(Heller, 2008).

With the incredible distribution efforts gone into making the Obama Hope poster an ubiquitous symbol of 2008, as well as its rejection of conventional American political visual language and adopting a more eastern approach, the poster created mass conversation. If people were not aware of Obama and his signalling for change, they were now. The overwhelming impact that the Obama Hope poster had on politics in 2008 and on the role of visual imagery in supporting political campaigns cannot be questioned.

There are those, however, who attribute the Obama Hope poster as appropriating dangerous, propaganda rhetoric that Donald Trump would later emulate in his presidential campaign. Christopher Simmons argues that Fairey “inadvertently made overt propaganda an acceptable tool of mainstream American politics” in which “Trump embraced its principles in both policy and persona” (Simmons, 2017). Despite this, however, it does support the idea we discussed previously about the fluid relationship regarding the establishment drawing from grassroots campaign practices.  

Besides the Obama Hope poster and the man himself, the Obama logo designed by Sol Sender is perhaps the first time the public would engage, and be exposed to Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign. It’s universal knowledge that a logo tells a story of a brand or a movement’s key ideas, so when Sol Sender was briefed with designing the logo for the campaign, he was faced with encapsulating Obama’s message of hope & change in a brand that had to find the happy medium of being not too radical and not too establishment and corporate. 

Initially, Sender explored the possibility of having the 08, and O interact with each other with the possibility of having the iconic colours of both political parties, blue and red blending together, communicating the idea of unity associated with Obama’s campaign. And as is ever the story in graphic design, continued creative process eventually lead Sender and his team to the premise of “a sun rising on the horizon, representing the hope of a new day” after exploring the possibility of using the “O” as a window that served as a porthole, using different photos within it to represent different concepts or demographics” (Thomas, 2010).  

What Sender produced was a logo for the twenty-first century, that still embodied the patriotic undertones that all presidential campaigns have conveyed before. Yet, the Obama Logo was unique in the sense that its foundations provided a structure, in which it could be tweaked in order to carry an entirely different meaning, engaging varying demographics, pulling them into the Obama campaign. Unlike his predecessor’s logo’s that were all analogue and uniform in nature; singular, focusing on the candidate, the Obama logos soon became integrated into his growing demographic. There was an Obama logo for everyone. From ‘Republicans for Obama’, to ‘Turkish Americans for Obama’, from ‘Latinos for Obama’, to ‘Beards for Obama’. The Obama campaign was a campaign for the people, not for the candidate.

It’s only through hindsight that the inevitable success of the Obama Logo can be determined, because, at the time, a political logo without the reinforcement of the candidates name was entirely risky and unheard of. Yet, with what better way to convey Obama’s narrative of change, than completely subverting all his predecessors’ campaigns’ approach to forming an identity for their candidate.

Arguably, this notion of Obama rejecting establishment practices that went before him, could be perceived as being somewhat contradictory. Obama, a candidate that rallied against the so-called “greed and irresponsibility of Wall Street” (New York Times, 2008) would now be cloaked in a succinct corporate identity that wouldn’t go amiss on Wall Street itself. Despite this, when this argument was put to Sender by Steven Heller, Sender argued that he “never saw the candidate as being “branded,” in the sense of having an identity superficially imposed on the campaign. The identity was for the campaign, not just for the candidate” (Heller, 2008). 

It does strike a sense of irony that a grassroots-centred movement, rallying against the establishment, to then be window dressed in such embellishment of capitalist culture. Yet, with the separate, but concurrent coexistence of the Obama hope and Obama logo, all working in tandem to strengthen Obama’s presidential campaign, the unique symbiosis of grassroots and establishment graphic design could be realised.

The Barack Obama presidential campaign was in essence, a well designed campaign that spoke to an America, tapping into their discontent with the political system. It harnessed the visual language and practices of grassroots activist movements, mobilising Americans across the country, whilst simultaneously carrying an identity for the campaign in the style of an establishment branding project -  signposting the significance of utilising graphic design to further a political movement. Following this, future political campaigns would draw on Obama’s campaign, adopting some if its approaches in order to be more successful.

 Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign can be identified as the definite trigger in which the differences between the grassroots and establishment political campaigns and their associated visual languages became so indistinguishable, something which we are seeing currently with the presentation of politicians in the contemporary political sphere. Arguably, Obama’s failure to match the expectations of so many of his voters could be seen as the reason for this rejection amongst the electorate of what they determine as ‘the establishment’, it’s only natural that any future political figure would not want to be identified as the establishment, and perhaps, the harnessing of graphic design to reposition themselves as ‘an outsider’ could only achieve this effect. What followed in the form of future permutations of Obama imagery and reimagining of the practices that made his campaign can all be traced back to this monumental political campaign that changed the function of visual language in the political sphere forever.

As discussed previously, this newfound rejection of what was viewed as the establishment, laid the groundwork for a new sort of grassroots movement. Much like how Obama’s campaign engaged such a diverse demographic through the co-existence of grassroots and establishment practices, Trump’s success could be acclaimed to using varied approaches to engaging his diverse demographic. Trump’s core demographic can be divided into the alt-right and the ‘forgotten’ white-working classes of America with the white-working classes enticed into supporting Trump through established practices such as rallies, speeches and conventional campaigning. Much of their exposure to visual language surrounding Trump’s campaign was in the form of engaging rhetoric printed on posters and merchandise, such as ‘Make America Great Again. We’ve previously discussed how the recycling of material can be important in activating change in a political context, it’s worth noting how this slogan was first used by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Perhaps this signposting of a time that the forgotten white working class could identify with, along with the use of traditional campaign practices engaged them over Clinton who was labelled as being out-of-touch with that particular demographic. 

Reinforcing this, could be how Trump’s campaign’s use of graphic design perfectly reached this part of the electorate. Upon reflection of Hillary Clinton’s loss, supporter of her campaign and designer of her campaign’s logo Michael Bierut discussed how the Clinton’s campaigns harnessing of graphic language contrasted with Trump’s campaign, made up of “Bad typography; amateurish design; haphazard, inconsistent, downright ugly communications” (Bierut, 2017). Citing Michael Moore’s point that those in the rust belt “didn’t care about polling data or carefully calibrated social media campaigns” but liked baseball caps instead, Bierut discusses how he, as a design school graduate, moving from the rust-belt to New York, he now was in a bubble, detached from normal people.  He claims that “Most normal people don’t know or care about custom typography, the fine distinctions between nearly identical colours, or dynamic graphic identity”, and that his profession “would have seemed to my old friends in Ohio like a hopelessly esoteric brand of black magic”. What’s important here is that Bierut is bringing into discussion the idea that as designers, perhaps we over-value it is that we do. As Trump’s campaign and engagement of the rust-belt of America evidences, perhaps some people simply do not care about well-deployed use of graphic language. Despite this, Lindsay Ballant, argues that perhaps Clinton’s campaign was too well-designed, citing how it ultimately it “reinforces the perception of establishment status, which is one of the main criticisms of her as a candidate”, due to its “calculated, expected, and contrived” visual campaign (Ballant, 2016). Although this is somewhat paradoxical by nature – a ‘well designed’ political campaign would entice the electorate into supporting the candidate, yet here we see the campaign’s deployment of ‘good’ design principles ultimately hurt the candidate according to Ballant. Bierut then asks the question - “Had Trump won not in spite of his terrible design work, but because of it?” (Bierut, 2017).

Just as interestingly, however, is how Trump’s internet-based grassroots support was coerced into supporting his campaign. Writer and Artist Dale Beran talks about this phenomenon in great depth in his essay ‘4chan: The Skeleton Key to the Rise of Trump’. Theorising how much of 4chan’s user-base are detached from reality, entirely emasculated, Beran discusses how “Trump’s incompetent, variable, and ridiculous behaviour is the central pillar upon which his younger support rests” and how he can be embodied in the form of Pepe the Frog. Pepe, Beran theorises, “symbolizes embracing your loserdom, owning it” representing their entirely nihilistic, self-effacing existence, in which supporting Trump is their attempt at a “spiteful prank” over the society in which they feel they are detached from (Beran, 2017). This mirroring between an outsider cartoon frog who wallows in patheticness, with the now-president of the United States and 4chan’s infatuation with his incompetence bears some resemblance to the significance of the Obama Hope poster and its subsequent role as a visual ideograph. The relationship between Trump’s grassroots support and Trump which champions their own ‘outside’ status within society is captured perfectly by Pepe the Frog, in the same way of how Obama Hope embodied the collective notion of change and progress in the same way Obama himself presented himself to the electorate with his rousing speeches and presidential personality.

Notoriously, another accredited reason for Trump’s success is his use of Twitter. Pre and post election Trump infamously used Twitter to attack political opponents and rally his supporters. In the digital era, Twitter is significantly more effective at reaching the masses than more conventional means of communication that his predecessors used such as TV interviews, speeches and campaign advertisements. It allows a single tweet to be shared and spread around the internet by millions of users, with screenshots of the tweet being re-used on news articles, and beamed across the news on television. In some ways, the tweet is an instance of graphic design in itself; it’s pure typography with nothing to obscure meaning and with a tweets existence being impossible to censor, or remove from cyberspace, Trump still used the platform to spread mistruths and misdirect the public. 

Perhaps this more outlandish way of using Twitter instead of hiring PR firms to manage it for him gave him a further sense of being anti-establishment, as we witness a more direct insight into Trump’s mind, uncensored by spin, aides and advisors. In some senses, you could liken the format of a tweet to a newspaper headline stand posters. In The Visual Event, Eva Weinmayr deconstructs the headline posters, claiming they “exude a sense of poetry” and are “Carefully and ambiguously worded, they are pushing for drama and a raised level of adrenaline” (Weinmayr, 2014). Taking this into consideration, we can begin to see the similarity between Trump’s tweets and these headline posters, which is somewhat ironic given Trump’s stance on ‘Fake News’. In addition to this, Weinmayr discusses how the handwriting behind the posters “suggests the directness and immediacy making us speculate that there is no time between the news happening and the news being reported” (Weinmayr, 2014). In the age of smartphones and social media, perhaps this is somewhat the case in regards to using Trump using twitter to convey his immediate thoughts. Weinmayr concludes that in this case, the event of seeing a news headline poster is not the news itself, the actual event is “triggered by a strategically worded and placed three-line banner raising interest, curiosity and adrenaline and eventually generating a return for the newspaper publisher” (Weinmayr, 2014). In some senses, this relates to the previously discussed concept of Trump using visual communications as a means of distraction from other political issues that could be damaging for his reputation. Trump’s tweets often cause a sense of hysteria given his unpresidential means of referring to potential terrorists as “bad dudes” and signing of tweets off with the occasional “sad!” which subsequently causes furore amongst his opposition, and has even spawned parody accounts of Trump in which his unique semantics are imitated for comedic effect. Obviously all the fixation on Trump’s tweets can be argued to distract from the issues in which Trump refers to in his tweets. 

Building on this, we can now begin to preposition the format of a tweet as a surface. Fluidly defined, a surface is “connected to its material as a border with a potential of relations with the surroundings, when simultaneously it’s a place to show information” (Rullerova, 2015). This surface, allows for it to become recontextualised. As we discussed idea, the practice of recontextualising existing imagery to create new meaning is not a new phenomenom. In this instance, we later see Bernie Sanders reusing a Trump tweet to further his own agenda, acting as a backdrop to support speech at the Senate in January 2017.  Much like the tweet can act as a surface to perpetuate the concept of the post-truth society, the tweet can also be repurposed to act as a weapon against post-truth. 

Over the course of this chapter, we have seen how Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and his use of visual language to further his cause reinvented the wheel in sorts as it fused establishment and grassroots activist campaigning practices. We have also seen the subsequent demolishing of this new practice from the fallout of Obama’s failure to accomplish everything he set out to do in the form of Trump and the alt-right’s new methods of engaging the disenfranchised through disinformation and mistruths. In what follows, we will discuss what the future holds for the role of graphic design in the political campaign.


In Graphic Agitation, Liz McQuiston identifies the breakup of the Soviet Union as being a triggering point in which it ushered in a new political era of inequality allowing the capitalist establishment to become unchecked. We have seen how this was foreshadowed by the depoliticisation of Russian modernism as it spread west before being amplified in a commercial context which is discussed in great depths in ‘Graphic Design: Reproduction and Representation since 1800”’In this, we see how practices aligned with “utopian and avant-garde culture” such as photomontage and photograms began to be used in advertising (Jobling & Crowley, 1996). The subsequent impact the breakup of the Soviet Union had on graphic design is that commercialism and consumerism became the focal point of graphic design as a practice, both in reactive and proactive forms of work. Branding, marketing and advertising became even more ubiquitous in our society in which political candidates were ‘sold’ to the electorate, and as we have previously seen, a substantial amount of grassroots and counterculture work was focused on using recycling and subversion as a means of critiquing capitalism and consumerism.

Taking this into account, we could begin to hypothesise the concept that a significant historical, societal and political event can become a catalyst that repositions the role graphic design has in our society. Take, for example, the notion that post-world war two, designers were “committed to design as an agent of social planning, and to the humanization of the working and living environment” (Poynor, 2013) as a direct response to the war. Building on this idea, we could determine Barack Obama’s synthesis of establishment and grassroots practices in his campaigns, and his subsequent failure to live up to the electorate’s expectations which then saw the complete rejection of the establishment by the masses ushering in a new role that visual language plays in our society. 

As the muddying of the waters between the grassroots and establishment makes it increasingly difficult to determine whether the things that are presented to us are as they seem, graphic designers must ask themselves an important question; what role are they going to play in this new, blurred realm of misdirection by both sides of the political spectrum? This is perhaps amplified with the Orwellian concept that we now live in a post-truth society, which disengages the role journalists have in reporting mistruths by politicians. This is discussed in Hypernormalisation by Adam Curtis who claims that “Trump defeated journalism - because the journalists’ central belief was that their job was to expose lies and assert the truth. With Trump, this became irrelevant” (Curtis, 2016). Taking this into account, could designers now be faced with the inability to communicate to the public in the midst of the post-truth society?

In light of this, we’ve seen previously how Stalin authorised the doctoring of images to support his own agenda, as well as the idea of how Trump’s team could have used graphic design to misdirect hysteria surrounding his vice president choice. Are we beginning to see the re-emergence of graphic design being used as a weapon by the political establishment to misdirect the public?

In another instance, could graphic design be used as a medium to shed light on the newfound ‘fake’ world that we are faced with? Perhaps, more detrimentally, with some citing contemporary political events as the re-emergence of fascism; what does this mean for graphic design as a means of expression and communication? 

What can ultimately be determined, however, is that there is definitely a symbiotic relationship between the graphic and the political. Whilst there is definitely a pervasive influence of graphic design in politics, there is also a pervasive influence of politics in graphic design itself, making it entirely politicised by nature.

Jack Barnes