This Can’t Actually Be the Official Logo, Right?! A Designer’s Guide to Political Convention Design.
Hey! Tag Savage here, Tumblr election correspondent and graphic designer by trade. I spent the last two weeks researching the visual and logistic aspects of the conventions, interviewing design consultants, chatting with locals, taking it all in. Here now: a guide to the logos, scenes, and set designs of both the DNC and RNC — and my grades for how the respective parties stack up.
The logo for the Democratic National Convention is flawed in frank and obvious ways. At even a small distance its figures blur into a jammy smudge.
These figures, these silhouettes, why are they so precisely drawn? You can make out the thick-rimmed glasses on figure number two, you can see the flyaway hairs on number five. Number one looks to be Bill Nye, whose appearance here lends scientific credibility to the Obama campaign.
I suppose the idea is that the Democratic coalition is a diverse one, and this loopy level of detail makes that diversity fairly apparent without having to actually spell it out, or to reduce it to potentially offensive stereotypes. So, on a certain strategic level, it “works.” Also, the circle is kinda pretty.
But still: there’s no getting around the smudge. Nor the Pepsi-ness. Walking around the arena halls one couldn’t help but suspect that Pepsi sponsored this whole affair. Pepsi did not.
Logo Grade: B–
This can’t actually be the official logo, right? It is certainly a bit of fan art created by a well-meaning retiree. This retiree is familiar with Pagemaker, Wordperfect, knows that Times is the font you use for newspapers, likes their stars italicized. Wishes they had more elephant clip art, but this one will do just fine.
But no, it is the official logo. It’s actually the second go at an official logo. It replaced a significantly stronger effort that had the poor judgement to include a bit of the Tampa skyline (specifically the Moorish-Revival-styled Tampa Bay Hotel) that looked like a minaret:
Far better type treatment, far more interesting notion of how to draw waves. But a minaret-looking thing is too Islam-y for the modern Republican party, so: into the trash.
The final, official logo is so howlingly inept that it’s skips over “ugly” and lands squarely in “pitiable.” The Republicans are the drunk-dad party you watch through embarrassed fingers.
Still, allow them to explain themselves, will you?
The elephant—the proud and strong symbol of the Republican Party—with his trunk pointed toward 2012 reflects the spirit, unity and strength of our Party as we plan a successful 2012 Republican National Convention that enables us to march toward victory next November…. The waves beneath Tampa Bay represent our beautiful host city’s location on the shore of the Gulf of Mexico…. The three stars in the flag symbolize equality, justice and opportunity—core principles of our country’s Constitution and the founding tenets of the Republican Party.
Literalism in logo design is the last refuge of scoundrels. We simply cannot let a party that justifies such a mess to be in charge of our national affairs.
Logo Grade: D-
Hard to guess what Charlotte is like during non-convention times. Their downtown is called Uptown, apparently part of a somewhat recent effort to go upmarket. And upmarket restaurant chains do dot most of the blocks along Tryon and College. Your very own Tumblr team enjoyed a commencement dinner at McCormick & Schmick’s, a fine seafood restaurant with 90 locations across North America. The buildings of Charlotte are a medium height and are alternately ’80s-bland and timelessly goofy.
Any sense of cityness peters out pretty quickly, though, as one departs the central blocks. Skyscrapers give way to parking garages, parking garages to featureless surface lots. There are certainly more exciting American cities than Charlotte.
Still, you’d have to be a heartless crank to not be at least a bit delighted by the people of Charlotte. This isn’t really a city and the people of Charlotte aren’t really city people. They are everything you’ve heard about the South: they are slow-moving, their voices are a sticky chirp, they are hopelessly kind and happy to gab.
The people I met were mildly annoyed and terribly giddy to have a convention in town. Of the glut of police, of the periodic protests, of these things they were genial, amused, and happy to snap photos.
The town was un-barricaded save for the couple of blocks around the arena itself (at which point security was as tight as one would expect, with lanyards of many colors and meanings). The Democrats even sponsored an unimpressive (but cheerful) little street fair on the Monday before the convention. There was barbecue and it was fine.
Everyone hates cops and I get why everyone hates cops, but the traffic cops of Charlotte went out of their way to entertain. They danced and chatted and sassed everyone in that pointy Southern way. This should be commended. Commend a cop every now and then, will you?
A lot of the press, I think, were generally not impressed. There is much talk of an enthusiasm gap, about how Republicans hate Obama with an energetic virulence that well-overshadows any Obama goodwill the Democrats might be able to express. But the press sticks to press rooms, and the press is generally “over it” before “it” even begins. Just a supposition, I have no actual idea.
I do know that I sat up with the rabble for Obama’s speech, which by all accounts was mild and unmemorable, but you would never know its mildness among the rabble. They were weeping, hooting, swooning, mmm-hmming purrs of approval. Volunteers were handing out signs that read “FORWARD” on one side and “NOT BACK” on the other. You saw these on television, maybe. The rabble were falling all over themselves for these signs. I was handed one and offered it up to my neighbor, a stranger, who then hugged me tight and placed her head on my shoulder while we listened.
I do know that people who spent time on the streets of both cities have kind things to say about Charlotte, and saw much good cheer among the citizens and the delegates. They do not have kind things to say about Tampa.
The Scene Grade: A-
A “Washington journalist” who attended both conventions, and who wanted to stay off the record, explains that Tampa was a “post apocalyptic wasteland.” The streets were devoid of people, the barriers around the convention area were physically massive and were placed well into the city. The convention and the city did not interact. An airless cordon sanitaire was placed around the delegates, who were shuttle-bussed from their hotels to the city’s stadium, where they then transferred onto a second set of shuttles in order to get to the Tampa Bay Times Forum itself. Such was their contact with the city.
Charlotte’s wee little light rail, on the other hand, was packed with conventioneers on the two mornings I took it. “Y’all are voting for Romney, right?” joked a local wag.
Of the storied strip clubs of Tampa? They were apparently a non-issue, because Tampa was a non-issue. Tampa existed only as a sweaty ground on which to gather. Few Tampans were present.
I don’t know how much or how little these things matter. The convention is a televised event, and it’s through television that the vast majority of observers interact with it. Still, there are two different attitudes on display toward the city and toward the people of the city. The Republicans seem to have no interest in the people of the city, nor in the serendipities of civic interactions. This is a vile attitude for a public institution to take. And, worse than vile, it’s joyless. No dancing cops, no pulled pork sliders. No fun.
With one exception. An editor at Sugar tells me that the delegates of the DNC were far less elaborately clad than their counterparts at the RNC. The Democrats were dressed as people tend to dress—in all kinds of ways, in dowdy shit and sleek shit and in all the cosmopolitan ways that one expects from a cosmopolitan party.
The Republicans, conversely, were dressed in what she describes as “delegate costumes.” As with their logo, they deployed their fashion with literal-mindedness, with decorations that were in parts obvious (red, white, blue), silly (lots of light-up jewelry), and embittered (anti-Obama armbands in classic black). Flagrantly patriotic getups meant for patriotic occasions. A bit dopey, a bit sweet, kind of charming, maybe kind of hateful.
I wasn’t at the Republican National Convention but let’s go ahead and call it a “carnival of hatred,” because that would be delightfully fair.
The Scene Grade: D
A stately set. Everyone upon it had a fat and boring importantness about them. For as surprisingly rowdy as the streets of Charlotte were allowed to be, the stagecraft inside the arena exhibited exactly the sort of mannered pomp we expect from this kind of thing. Staid and portentous and really, basically, just fine.
Peter Cortez, who worked on a few different aspects of Obama’s 2008 campaign, defended the unadventurous approach thusly: “Obama is not about flash.” Obama’s branding, while on the subtle side, pervades all of the campaign collateral. Romney, on the other hand, shot his wad on an intensely memorable set because he’s an intensely unmemorable candidate who produces otherwise unmemorable campaign products. See the section on logo design if you doubt this contention.
Obama’s 2008 campaign was something of an outsider campaign, waged by small, passionate, fast-moving teams. A guerrilla campaign, if you will. Cortez contends that one simply cannot execute such a campaign when one has the sway and baggage of the presidency behind them. So: staidness, seriousness, bigness. A president being presidential.
Overall: handsome but dull. It had much gravity but little verve. Maybe for the right reasons, but correctness and dullness are natural kin.
Set Design Grade: B-
The set of the Republican National Convention was the work of an old hand in the television set-design business. You have admired his work on the Colbert Report, the Daily Show, and really the sets of most daytime and evening news programs. Also the designs of the individual convention booths of said programs. Jim Fenhagen has his thumbs in many pies, and these pies are situated very close to one another. This is his first national convention.
His approach to the Romney set was that of a designer to a client: listen to the goals, accentuate the positives, mitigate the negatives. Romney, as his handlers saw it, did well in town-hall meetings, and needed the humanizing effect of ordinary trappings. Hence, the now-well-documented “living room” set of the RNC.
The centerpiece of this effort was a series of intersecting LCD displays, suspended in air, coming together at futzy angles. They were framed not in HDTV onyx but in ersatz mahogany and cherry. Frankly, it worked. Sometimes the screens operated in pieces, each displaying its own thematic fragment of a larger theme. A key moments the screens would then work together to compose a single massive image, the individuals suddenly a whole.
Cheesy to admit, but it was a vexingly spot-on manifestation of e pluribus unum, of that hoary old trope at this specific technological crux.
The downside of this highly motive approach is that sometimes a kind of swimmy seasickness results. Just watch the undulating grossness behind Rick Santorum.
On the other hand, watch that watery headache disappear behind Jeb Bush to be replaced by a pretty yellow legal pad. The transition happens at the word “education,” and the effect is that a heap of education just dropped onto the stage. The set, itself, becomes a speaker.
The flexibility and histrionics of this approach are startling. The set does overshadow its occupants, it’s true, but so what? It’s a wonderful set, a real bit of American ingenuity. It’s better than them who stand upon it. With impossible reluctance: “Bravo.”
Set Design Grade: A
47 Notes/ Hide
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