You were the design director of the 2008 Obama campaign. How much of a role do you think design played in building Brand Obama?
I think design plays a pretty important role in building any brand, but I think that brand was much more than just design.
It’s much easier to build a very exciting and powerful brand if you have a really good product to work with and Obama was appealing to many people, which definitely helped our cause.
And then he had written two books that we could look at as reference, and that really got us started on the design process that I think resonated with his message.
So you started with his story and then built the brand around that?
Yeah, exactly. I mean, it wasn’t just his story, and that’s something a lot of people get wrong. When we took on the project, we weren’t just looking at his story, we were looking at our collective story as Americans.
And I think that was a far different take than most campaigns. If you look at today’s campaigns, the Romney/Ryan campaign is not necessarily looking at the American people. This race isn’t about the American people; it’s about these two candidates. That’s far different than what we were doing in 2008.
Was it a challenge to change people’s expectations of what a political campaign is supposed to look like?
We had a little bit of work to do. The only thing we had established at the time was the logo mark. For us it was thinking about, “what is the right American typeface for this candidate?”
We had to change a lot of minds in politics as to what that would be, what that would look like. I think they’re very used to things looking a certain way. We were coming from more of an advertising background, so we needed to try and convince them that this could look like a high-end brand rather than a political campaign. So we had to educate.
You were also involved in the Obama administration redesign of whitehouse.gov. It must have been very different designing for a president rather than a candidate, no?
Yeah, very different. I was working for the transition team and we were working toward a deadline of the inauguration.
The guy who came into office eight years prior to Obama’s inauguration didn’t necessarily think of the web as a medium with which to be transparent or discuss the administration’s agenda.
We wanted to be able to blog, we wanted to be able to build a Twitter feed and we wanted to be able to have a Facebook page. But even at that time there was a lot of work to be done on day one in order to make it all possible.
The Presidential Papers Act actually had to be amended in order to allow for the President to have a Twitter account or to have a YouTube page.
For the most part, we used very much the same process that we used within the campaign, which meant looking at historical cues to sort of guide what we should be doing.
Typographically, we wanted it to be a little less modern and a little more sophisticated. We wanted to make sure that it put on a nice suit; similar to anybody that enters the West Wing. We wanted to make sure that it was well dressed.
You didn’t work on this year’s campaign, but what are your thoughts on how the identity has evolved now that Obama is the incumbent?
I suggested they stick with the Obama logo. It has a lot of equity. And I suggested they stop using Gotham as a typeface because it would appear too much like the last campaign and the President is obviously far more experienced now. So going to a slab serif instead of a geometric modern typeface would be a nice image departure.
Overall, they’ve done a really nice job executing the brand and keeping it fresh, making for a very nice relationship between the last campaign and this campaign.
You co-founded the The Noun Project, which has been described as an effort to “create a social language that unites the world.” That’s a lofty ambition! Do you really think design is a universal language?
Yeah, it has been since the beginning of time. Seventeen thousand years ago humans created pictorial representation. We then began having ideographic languages that evolved out of these pictorial forms, which evolved into Slavic languages, which then evolved into our current phonetic form. So I think this is really a nod to the past.
We’re noticing a very similar problem to what we had thousands of years ago: If two cultures are needing to communicate, the way in which they communicate can’t be through some phonetic language, they need to be able to communicate in another way, and the pictorial representation is the best way to do that.
And that’s why when you land in an airport in Europe or in some country in the Middle East or Asia, the symbols and the way-finding devices that get you from point A to point B are the same, even though the words themselves can be incredibly different.
These are the symbols that transcend cultural barriers and I think that it’s important that the language is organized, collected and shared in a new way, using technology to do that.
The Noun Project relies on crowdsourcing, but you have a business model built in. Icons are available for purchase and you even have T-shirts. Do you think we’ve finally come to the point where open source doesn’t necessarily have to mean free anymore?
Yeah, I definitely think so. When we decided to make icons available for purchase it was because users were requesting it in massive numbers.
We wanted to open up the possibility for individuals that were using them for commercial applications to be able to purchase the icons royalty free and we wanted to create a web share with designers that were uploading the symbols to further the incentive of uploading and contributing to the language.
So now we split whatever revenue we make with the designers 50/50. This is a nice little way for designers to earn a certain amount of side income, which I think is a viable model and one we’re continuing to monetize by developing services and applications around The Noun Project as a language.