Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Design and Politics: Steven Heller's NY Times Article

As the Rockwell and Thoughts on Democracy posters illustrate, design can influence politics (and politics can influence design). Steven Heller, one of the co-curators of the Thoughts on Democracy exhibit, addresses this relationship in the context of the current presidential campaign in his recent NY Times article, "From Mousepads to Piggybanks".

From Mousepads to Piggy Banks (NY Times; May 4, 2008)

This primary season campaign souvenirs are cropping up like kudzu. Retail stores on each of the candidates’ official Web sites offer copious merchandise from lapel pins and mousepads to hoodies and onesies alongside the requisite buttons and bumper stickers. Given the ease with which a logo or slogan can be stamped on any product, the sheer quantity of retail campaign stuff is possibly greater than at any other time in history, albeit a lot less campy than during other elections.

What a particular campaign chooses to sell may not reveal anything momentous about a candidate who has little to say about the inventory (unless, of course, they have relatives in the novelty or dry goods businesses), but the products do say something about how strategists use consumer culture to propagate the candidates’ images (and get free advertising).

So I asked four design critics to examine the quality of the candidates’ online stores, and to go a little below the surface to extract some deeper meaning from the merchandise being sold.

John McCain comes out ahead in the retail offerings with the broadest inventory (from wall clocks to water bottles), notes Julie Lasky, editor of ID magazine. Hillary Clinton comes in a close second (including coffee mugs and plastic piggy banks) and Barack Obama a more focused third.

But the difference is not just quantity. “McCain is the only candidate to offer leisure-class items like polo shirts (including stylishly hued pink ones for men) and sailing jackets before getting down to the nitty-gritty of hoodies,” Ms. Lasky reports. “Clinton and Obama are all about working-class apparel: T-shirts, hoodies and fleece jackets.”

Karrie Jacobs, a contributing editor to Metropolis, concurs that Senator Obama’s merchandise reflects the grassroots insurgent culture of his campaign. She notes that Senator Clinton’s paraphernalia is “conspicuously ugly,” and questions the taste of whoever is in charge of her campaign’s merchandise.

“Where the real editorial opportunity lies,” adds Allan Chochinov, co-founder of Core77.com, an industrial design website and blog, “is in the accessories section, and though the easy targets are Clinton’s ironic ‘ruler’ ($3.50; volume pricing available) and McCain’s more oblique ‘ice scraper’ ($10.00), it’s Obama’s ‘hope bracelet’ that is sure to move the merchandise — 4 bucks each and available in both black and white.”

In a race where the issue of race and ethnicity has reared its predictable head, it is also interesting to see that Senators McCain and Obama especially reach out to their Irish constituencies and their female supporters. Senator Clinton sells her “Hillary for Women” paraphernalia lumped in with narrowly focused buttons for Asian-American and Pacific Islanders, African-Americans, gays, educators, nurses, Jews and veterans — but no mention of the Irish.

Julie Lasky also observes that Senators Clinton and Obama both freely borrow the “Got Milk?” slogan (Obama: “Got Hope?”; Hillary: “Got Experience?”), which is less indicative of their unoriginality than of the ubiquity of the milk campaign.

Alissa Walker, a design blogger, says John McCain’s merchandise works well because it clearly projects the image of a “super-serious” candidate “in shades of black, navy blue and gold.” She points out that his nautical lapel pins and polo shirts emphasize his military experience.

But Ms. Walker was most impressed by his ownership of the four words: leadership, experience, integrity and honor, which emblazon everything from shirts to signs. “Who wouldn’t be proud to borrow a bit from his legacy and stick this leadership sign on their front lawn? Without wearing the standard McCain shirt, you can wear his values with the message of your choice. I really like this option, and the words that he picked. The only bummer here is the women for McCain stuff — truly stereotypical in a sickening shade of Pepto-Bismol pink.”

Senator Obama’s site is the only one to post a disclaimer that some items are back-ordered; whether true or not, it is a brilliant retail tactic.

“But with all the press Obama’s getting for the design of his campaign,” says Alissa Walker, “I was pretty disappointed by his products. There’s really not much that differentiates Obama’s merchandise from Hillary’s: it’s all the same color of blue.”

However, Senator Obama has a unique multimedia section, including a DVD of his speeches. “The Obama-as-cultural-icon angle is absolutely achieved by selling documentary-style videos of him; he’s crossed the line into entertainment,” says Ms. Walker.

She wonders how effective the merchandise on Clinton’s site is since it is “overwhelmingly girly. All the t-shirts look like they’re designed for women or being worn by women. The lapel pins are really matronly, from the Hillary bling pin to her signature pin by Ann Hand, a jewelry artist.” But Ms. Walker loves the “I’m your girl” button with its casual portrait and Senator Clinton’s handwriting. “They should make this image into posters because it gives her campaign a much-needed boost of that evasive personality.”

Julie Lasky observes that in all this, Senator McCain may lose the vote of bargain seekers: at $25, his T-shirts are $4.92 more expensive than similar versions on the Clinton and Obama Web sites.