By Eric Easter
“If I’m 100 percent honest, I’ve tried hard to make a Hillary poster, but I can’t figure out where to start,” says Los Angeles-based graphic artist Charles White. “There’s no strong word or theme that sparks my imagination.” White is one of many creators who say that the 2016 race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump lacks the inspiration of the artistically rich 2008 campaign.
Astronaut. Warrior. Superman. Savior. If the posters and buttons made for Barack Obama’s historic first run could speak, he was all of those things — and more.
This art, most notably designer Shepard Fairey’s iconic “HOPE” poster, sparked a groundswell of grassroots support among the creative community. This “lightning in a bottle” movement, some say, lifted the excitement factor around the election of America’s first black president.
But this time, observers — including many artists who fueled 2008’s effort — detect a lack of visual energy around both the Clinton and Trump campaigns.
Some ask if this perceived creative listlessness mirrors opinion polls that reflect muted enthusiasm among young women for Hillary Clinton, partly based on the assumption among many of them that glass ceilings no longer impede female achievement.
But Aaron Perry Zucker — director of the Creative Action Network, the art/activism group that sprang from 2008’s endeavor — thinks this is more about changing times than anything else.
“There are so many different forces at play this time. Most of all, expectations,” Perry-Zucker said. “People are always asking, ‘What will the next HOPE poster be?’ But there already was one. Nothing is ever going to be the same as that.
“Also, we are really not interested in doing what we did before,” said Perry-Zucker. “The novelty wore off. It’s not the same kind of campaign, not the same atmosphere.”
Perry-Zucker, a designer in his own right, thinks the source of designs makes all the difference. “2008 was a bottom-up effort that demonstrated the effectiveness of community and fan-led design, rather than top-down execution of a campaign brand identity.”
Campaigns are embracing design with more intent in 2016, according to Zucker.
“The unprecedented excitement of 2008 made campaigns realize that getting the design community excited is a smart thing to do.”
Still, the official logos of both the Trump and Clinton campaigns were panned by professional designers for being “boring” and out of date with current design trends.
In response, Team Clinton recently launched the “45 Pin Project,” an apparent attempt to recapture the spirit of 2008 by enlisting 45 designers to develop buttons for the Democrat’s campaign.
Perry-Zucker appreciates the intent of this initiative. “It’s a topdown approach that attempts to be as bottom-up as possible. Some of the pins are pretty cool.”
Many of the designers who created popular Obama posters simply have moved on to new assignments.
“It took a while to unpack the success of 2008. How do you do that again without the element of a once-in-a-lifetime campaign? Many people have taken that idea and are creating work for other issues and opportunities for activism,” said Perry-Zucker.
However, White — whose interpretations of classic book and album covers sell by the thousands on the Etsy craft website — disputes Perry-Zucker’s assessment.
“I think it has more to do with the personality of the candidates,” said White.
“When Obama was running,” White said, “he was the first serious black candidate. You can’t really be status quo in that role, and creative people fed off that energy.”
Both Perry-Zucker and White noted that, from an artistic perspective, the better art has been focused against both candidates. Said White, “The real energy seems to be in the negative space,” White said. “The candidates don’t inspire, so you focus more on the opponent. As a creative person, that’s more entertaining anyhow.”
Both designers say that 2008’s creative explosion stemmed from Obama being a charismatic person who was, in many ways, a blank slate.
“I don’t think people remember how little we knew about Obama,” White said. “From a design point of view, that meant you could graft any image onto him, and it could fly. With both Trump and Clinton, we’ve known them for too long, their brands are cemented. I’m not so sure that design would be effective as a re-branding tactic for either side.”