A word on Sheppard Fairey’s Barack Obama “Hope” poster


Commercialism and Conscience
Idealism is closely connected with commercialism. It is very often hard to see the difference. Is there a difference? In this case, the “Hope” poster was done in a very short time. Maybe the intent was to support the change Obama represented, or it may very well be for a quick buck; find a cause you think many people like, grab a good photo that connects with the cause, vectorize it, clean it up, paste it in into a poster format, use few colors, use expressions from the cause (i.e. hope), add a contemporary font, print and sell.

So, is this a recipe for a good moral sense? The story ended badly for the designer. Charged with copyright infringements and destruction of evidence. So much for a quick buck. “Design With a Conscience” seems a bit hypocritical now doesn’t it?

Being cynical, as I am right now, may raise some questions that can be disturbing for naive individuals. Asking provoking questions may also deviate from the task I was supposed to do in the first place; analyze the poster, its pastiche, typography, style, and efficacy.

A Graphic Designer needs to pay his/her bills. They also need to build up a reputation, a portfolio and create business connections. Shortcuts are always tempting.

That’s what I see here. Was the income donated to the Obama campaign? I don’t know. It never says. If that was the case, I guess we could use the term “Design for good”. That I would appreciate!

Use of colors
Simply a great palette matching the colors of the US flag (although a bit warmer). Easily recognizable for the audience in the US, but also globally.

Use of pastiche
The designer used a photo taken by Mannie Garcia as a guide for resemblance. One could use a caricature, but pastiche is more positively loaded and bring forth the good sides of the person depicted. Obama has a mild expression, a positive outlook. A caricature would enhance the person’s obvious features, whether they are flattering or not. It’s not a portrait either. A portrait would be based on research and interviews and historical drill-down. I guess the designer wouldn’t know Obama that well. Technically it is a pastiche.

Use of typography
It uses display fonts set in uppercase. This will effectively shout the word without exclamation marks. A sans-serif, easily readable and legible. The word is important and underscores the Obama campaign’s brand story.

It has become widely popular. As a part of a winning campaign, it is tempting to say it made a difference. But I really don’t know. This is not exact science. One could try to put two and two together, and end up with many reasonable answers. There are many posters equally good or even much better. The fact that this particular one was picked up by the Obama’s campaign made it rise in importance. Now it is worth something. And, yes, money too. It is monetized in many ways already. So, commercialism? Conscience?

Disclaimer: This article is written in my sleep. Using my left foot.