Unfinished Business: Design and New Media in the Obama campaign

Last night’s Unfinished Business lecture was about design and new media in the Obama campaign, with insights from Scott Thomas (a designer) and Rahaf Harfoush (a social media strategist). The event was held in the auditorium of the Ontario College of Art and Design, and roughly 300 people attended.

My key take-away from the talk was that a strong and persistent design team, backed by analytics to support decision-making, can make such a difference in the overall experience.

Scott showed us what the campaign webpage looked like before he came on board. It was not a horribly designed webpage (no blinking text, no marquees), but there were numerous typefaces and colors, and every department in the campaign office seemed to want a presence on the first screen of the page.

With some strong-arming, they settled on one palette and focused on the user experience, streamlining it to make it easier for people to get to where they want to go. That meant moving links down or into the site. It wasn’t easy for people to accept the necessary changes. Many groups were worried that if their advertisement or link wasn’t “above the fold”–visible in the first screen without scrolling–then their content might not get viewed. By testing different versions of the site with randomly-selected users (A/B testing), the design team got the hard numbers they needed to make these changes.

The different themes they used in their campaign were also interesting. Scott showed examples of the campaign theme, the “instant vintage” theme, the timeless theme, and the supporters, and each set had a visually distinguishable character. The campaign theme used a blue gradients extensively, and Scott explained the reasoning behind some of the design choices. The “instant vintage” theme drew inspiration from classic photos and posters in order to give people the feeling of being part of something historical, larger than life. The timeless theme drew from classic typesetting and ornamentation (very elegant!), but was dropped because of the backlash about the official-looking campaign seal. The supporters were very creative in coming up with all sorts of designs for campaign posters, too, giving the campaign a vibrant community feel.

Some of the details Scott shared with us were about specific design decisions made during the campaign. For example, the campaign placards used to read “HOPE”. Scott showed this great photo of a bunch of campaign signs that read “HOPE” with a real rainbow in the background. He told us that hope is an emotive word that you can communicate through images, while change is more abstract and more difficult to show visually. That’s one of the reasons why they changed the campaign signs to read “CHANGE” instead.

I was also fascinated by the evolution of the campaign logo through different typefaces, from mixed-case to small-caps, and from a linear layout to a triangular one. Seeing the different logos together, I found it easier to understand the different reactions I had to each of them, and from there, learn a little bit more about design.

Rahaf Harfoush’s talk was on social media. It was similar to the last talk I’d heard her give. I think she felt nervous about fitting it into a shorter timeslot, and it felt a lot more rushed than last time. She did tell a couple of new stories, though.

One story was about a man who had expressed incredible anger on the forums–because the presidential candidate had been televised walking down stairs with his hands in his pockets, and this man was not about to invest all of those hours in calling people and knocking on doors and attending or organizing events just so that his candidate could fall and hurt himself. What a great example of getting people personally invested.

Another story was about a campaign supporter who wanted to show his support through action instead of words. He and a group of other supporters dressed up in lots of Obama gear and went out to quietly perform civic actions, like helping elderly people cross the street. They didn’t talk about politics; they just acted according to what they believed in. I thought that was pretty cool.

The questions from the audience were also insightful and thought-provoking.

One person asked about whether the speakers could see this kind of energy and change happen in Canadian politics. Rahaf answered that one of the energizing things about the Obama campaign was that the candidate was not someone you’d typically see running for office. She found it difficult to imagine any of the prominent Canadian politicians engaging and exciting people like that, but she was open to the possibility of someone new coming along and surprising people.

Another person asked how the speakers convinced the campaign that they were the right people for the job. Scott shared that he’s never really been good at marketing himself, but that his passion for his work helps people decide whether or not he’s the right fit for the job. He said that people can tell by how wide his eyes get when he talks about his work that he’s really passionate about it. He got applause for that one.

Many people were concerned about the potential nefarious use of what we’ve learned about social media. Scott was of the opinion that the genuine enthusiasm expressed by the campaign supporters couldn’t be manipulated or created. Stephen Perelgut (one of my mentors) told me that he still remained skeptical, though, as many horrible things have been perpetrated by equally enthusiastic people. (Nazi Germany comes to mind.)

I learned a lot during the lecture and in the question-and-answer portion. The next Unfinished Business lecture is on February 11 (same day as Techsoup). From their e-mail notice:

… on 11 Feb we will host Larry Keeley, President of Doblin in Chicago, who will talk about open innovation, platform innovation and what it means to work from a disciplined approach to innovation.

Unfinished Business, Torch Partnership

Good stuff. It’ll probably sell out as quickly as this one did. Thanks to Jeff Muzzerall and Stephen Perelgut for making sure I heard about this!

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  • http://www.RohanJayasekera.com/ Rohan Jayasekera

    Indeed, enthusiasm can be used for evil, not just for good. I divide the effects of the work discussed in the lecture into two categories: (1) better organizing of followers of a cause, which could be good or evil, and (2) increased openness/transparency/inclusiveness, which I think (as did Scott Thomas) favours the good by reducing the ability of one group to commandeer an entire population, as was done by the Nazis in Germany. To prevent the forces of evil from using (1) to their advantage, I think we must push (2) to the best of our ability.

  • http://www.countablyinfinite.ca Karen Quinn Fung

    Sacha,

    Stephen’s comment reminds me of the recent news about China’s 50 cent army (http://itmanagement.earthweb.com/columns/article.php/3795091/How+Chinas+50+Cent+Army+Could+Wreck+Web+2.0.htm) – people who are hired and paid per piece of artificial content submitted to appear “user-generated.”

    Riffing off Rohan’s comment, the increased openness, I think, also needs to go hand-in-hand with arming individuals with critical thinking skills and making sure they are either not following a herd, or have the ability to tell if they are following the “right” one, so to speak.

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  • http://prototype.thmvmnt.com Pat

    Great notes, I really like “a strong and persistent design team, backed by analytics to support decision-making, can make such a difference in the overall experience”

    Combine design and analytic inquiry, how can we know if we’re doing well if we don’t measure. How can we do well if we don’t design.

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