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Obama recovery plan's logo gets a critique

Graphic artists Shepard Fairey and Armin Vit break down its elements and decide if it gets the message across.

March 22, 2009|Adam Tschorn

President Obama's latest weapon in the battle to jump-start the economy? A round logo with splashes of red and blue and a scattering of stars. The Obama "O" logo helped brand the then-senator on the campaign trail, and now Mode Project, the same Chicago firm that had a hand in that design, has returned to help him brand the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The program's logo is a circle with three elements: The top half is a field of blue with eight white stars lined up on the left hand side and the Web address "RECOVERY.GOV" on the right. The lower half of the circle is divided between two gears on a field of red on the right, and a three-leafed seedling on a green background on the left. The first impression is of something closer to a Boy Scout merit badge than a government logo.

Obama unveiled the logo, along with the one for the Department of Transportation's Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, program, at a news conference March 3. (That same day, the Boy Scouts of America visited the Oval Office to present Obama with that organization's annual Report to the Nation. Coincidence? You decide.)

"When you see them on projects that your tax dollars made possible, let it be a reminder that our government, your government is doing its part to put the economy back on the road of recovery," Obama said.

OK, so we know what it symbolizes -- but what does it mean? (For now we'll just let the TIGER logo lie, it looks like it belongs on a box of Frosted Flakes, saying something like: "This economic recovery plan is grrrrrrrreat!")

Since the folks at Mode declined to help us decode the logo (citing the firm's client confidentiality policy even though, technically, we the people are footing the bill), we collared a couple of experts to help us parse the pieces: Armin Vit, a New York-based graphic designer who specializes in corporate rebranding, and L.A.-based artist Shepard Fairey, who's learned a thing or two about the power of iconic imagery, first with his "Obey Giant" logo and more recently with the Obama "Hope" poster (for which he is embroiled in a copyright infringement case with the Associated Press).

First impressions

Vit: "My first response was 'Wow, is this really a government logo?' Most government logos don't make any sense, and this one looks really competent, very clean and straightforward."

Fairey: "It would have been hard to miss the message since the text 'recovery.gov' is right there in the logo, but even if I'd just seen it without the type, it would immediately have given this sense of being patriotic and about the necessity of harmony between nature and industry."

The circle game

Fairey: "Circle logos tend to feel friendly; the leaves on the plant are rounded, the gears are round, all of the elements -- the pieces of the pie -- are all rounded at the edges. It's subtle but it makes it feel a little softer and friendlier, and psychologically these things make a difference."

Shout out for the sprout

Vit: "The leaves can mean either agriculture, or environment or caring for the Earth. But it's the kind that you have to care for and nurture, and take care to make sure you don't accidentally step on it."

Written in the stars

Vit: "If I were to take a guess, it might be one star for every year Obama will be in power -- but maybe that's just being optimistic."

True colors

Fairey: "The thing about the colors is that they aren't just the default red, white and blue colors that feel so forced upon you during an election cycle -- what I consider the redneck nationalist's version of patriotism -- it looks a little more hip. The choice of red looks better with the green, and the green gives a more nature/earthy feel."

Getting in gear

Vit: "Right away you understand it's about gears, it's about industry, it's about setting things in motion."

Fairey: "The Red Cross-like cross inside the gear is a very clever device. It gives you the idea that 'industry' and 'rescue' are the same thing. I don't know from a legal standpoint if that's something they can do because the Red Cross is very sensitive about [its] logo, but from a communications standpoint it's a smart move. Maybe the fact that the red is more of a brick red and not as saturated a red as the Red Cross logo means it's something they can get away with."

Location, location

Vit and Fairey point out that though the logo gets the point across, and symbolizes a new approach, its effectiveness as a branding tool is yet to be tested. "Right now we're only seeing the logos," Vit said. "But they rarely act in isolation. It will be a few months before we see them in action and see how they will be used." Vit said that a conversation he'd had with graphic designer Chris Glass (who is credited with the design along with Aaron Draplin) led him to believe there was more in the pipeline. "We don't know what supporting visual elements will go with [the logo]."

Merit badges, anyone?

--

adam.tschorn@latimes.com

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