The "O" in Obama
At the end of 2006, Mode, a motion design studio in Chicago, approached Sol Sender, a graphic designer, to create a logo for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. The resulting “O” became one of the most recognizable political logos in recent history. I spoke with Mr. Sender a few days after the election to discuss the evolution of his design.
Steven Heller: How did you get the job of designing the Obama logo?
Sol Sender: We got the job through Mode. Steve Juras, a classmate of mine from graduate school is the creative director there. They have a long-standing relationship with AKP&D Message and Media, a campaign consulting firm led by David Axelrod and David Plouffe among others.
Q: Have you done other political logos in the past?
A: No, we had not.
Q: I have to ask, since many agencies that do political campaigns are simply “doing a job,” did you have strong feelings one way or the other for the Obama candidacy?
A: We were excited to work on the logo and energized by the prospect of Mr. Obama’s campaign. However, we didn’t pursue or develop the work because we were motivated exclusively by ideology. It was an opportunity to do breakthrough work at the right time in what’s become a predictable graphic landscape.
Q: How many iterations did you go through before deciding on this “O”? Was it your first idea?
A: We actually presented seven or eight options in the first round, and the one that was ultimately chosen was among these. In terms of our internal process, though, I believe the logo — as we now know it — came out of a second round of design explorations. At any rate, it happened quite quickly, all things considered. The entire undertaking took less than two weeks.
Q: How did David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s chief strategist, respond to your initial presentation?
A: Mode handled that. My sense was that there was a lot of enthusiasm about the options we developed. I was part of a presentation with Mode and Mr. Axelrod to evaluate the final two or three options. There was a general sense that they were all good, but we felt strongly that the chosen logo was the most powerful one.
Q: Did Barack Obama have any input into the symbol at all?
A: None that was directly communicated to us. I believe he looked at the final two or three options, but I wouldn’t be able to accurately portray his reaction.
Q: What were you thinking when you conceived this idea?
A: When we received the assignment, we immediately read both of Senator Obama’s books. We were struck by the ideas of hope, change and a new perspective on red and blue (not red and blue states, but one country). There was also a strong sense, from the start, that his campaign represented something entirely new in American politics — “a new day,” so to speak.
Q: Were you responsible or cognizant of how many variations and applications were possible when you first introduced the “O”?
A: Honestly, we initially saw the mark through the lens of our work on more traditional consumer or corporate identity systems, and were concerned about it being misused. In retrospect, I think that was a narrow viewpoint. But this anxiety came before the campaign built such a strong internal design team.
Various vendors needed to reproduce the mark on signs, banners, and they needed some rules. So our initial concern was compliance and consistency. Having said that, we did think it was a strong mark — strong marks have the potential for broad successful application and viral growth — and we were cognizant of its possibilities. We saw (and visualized as part of the creative process) buttons, billboards, ads, Web banners, T-shirts and hats. We did not foresee the scope of the variations and the personal “ownership” that emerged, though.
We handed the logo and design assets off to the campaign in the summer of 2007. From that point on, everything that you’ve seen was done by the campaign, including the “demographic” variations of the logo. They also evolved the typography to uppercase, incorporated Joe Biden’s name and added a white line around the mark.
Q: Did you have any qualms about this symbol? Did you ever think it was too “branded” and “slick”?
A: We didn’t, though there were certainly instances where we sensed a need to be careful about its application. We 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. And to the degree that the campaign spoke to millions of people, it may have become a symbol for something broader — some have termed it a movement, a symbol of hope.
Q: Do you think the “O” had any major contribution in this outcome?
A: The design development was singularly inspired by the candidate’s message. Like any mark, the meaning and impact really come from what people bring to it.
Q: Now that Mr. Obama is President-elect Obama, do you see the “O” as having another or extended life?
A: Well, the “O” was the identity for the Obama ’08 campaign and the campaign is over. That doesn’t mean that the mark will be forgotten; I think the memorabilia from this campaign will have a long shelf life and will stand as a visible symbol of pride for people who supported the candidate and for those who see it as a representation of a watershed moment for our country. As far as having another life, I can’t say. Perhaps the 2012 campaign will hark back to it in some way.