Obama Hope Poster — Shepard Fairey (2008)

Widely considered to be a pop cultural phenomenon, this iconic portrait of Barack Obama caught the attention of millions during the historic 2008 presidential campaign. The renowned poster was designed by Los Angeles-based, contemporary street artist Shepard Fairey.

Prior to the creation of the poster Fairey was most notable for his distinctive aesthetic, which he describes as a “bold iconic style that is based on stylising and idealising images.” Much of his earlier work is overtly political with many of his images showing criticism — typically through his caricature style.

In late October 2007 Fairey discussed the nascent Obama campaign with publicist and friend Yosi Sergant. Fairey was previously impressed with Obama after encountering one of his speeches on a television broadcast. He respected Obama’s political views and was pleased in early 2007, when Obama announced his presidential candidacy. Fairey wanted to help promote Obama’s candidacy by producing artwork however he feared that his recalcitrant reputation as a street artist could be problematic. Sergant — who was loosely associated with the Obama Campaign — contacted campaign managers to ask whether Fairey’s aid would be appreciated. On January 22, 2008, Fairey was notified by Sergant that permission had been granted and work could be commenced.

During that time, Obama’s candidacy appeared to be taking a turn for the worst, “Super Tuesday” (a day on which several states hold primary elections) was fourteen days away and the polls in several of the democratic states favoured Hilary Clinton. Fairey believed that if he wished to provide Obama with any real assistance, he would have to do so quickly.

As a designer his goal was to design a piece of artwork that would significantly increase the likelihood of Obama winning both the Democratic nomination and the general election.

In his own words he said:

“ I knew my biggest challenge was to portray Obama as both an exciting progressive and a mainstream patriot with vision. I decided to make a portrait of Obama largely because I felt his power and sincerity as a speaker would create a positive association with his likeness. I wanted it to be a portrait that was political in nature and that would de-racialize Mr. Obama by using a red, white, and blue colour palette that was patriotic. I also wanted to capture a pose in Mr. Obama that was a classic political pose, something that would elevate him to iconic status in the vein of people who had preceded him and were held in high regard in politics. I hoped such an image would make him feel immediately established, familiar, American, and presidential.”

On January 22, 2008, Fairey commenced the creation of his poster, the illustration was completed in a single day and sent to production the following day.

The iconic “three-quarters view” (in which the subject is not turned directly toward the viewer’s eyes but is instead gazing upward and to the side) which Fairey used, was inspired by the well-known JFK portrait.

The stylised stencil portrait of Obama was created using an array of both digital and analogue design techniques. Fairey began his diligent work with a suitable reference photo, he improved the image by manipulating it digitally: improving definition, lighting and separating the shadows into four individual layers. He printed out each layer and illustrated them separately through the screen print processes “amberlith” and “rubylith.” Once stylising and idealising each layer, the resulting image was then returned back into the computer and further manipulated digitally. In addition to alluding to american patriotism, Fairey chose to illustrate the poster in only three colours as he believed the high contrast layers would yield a “streamlined, iconic image.” The additional benefit of flat-colour illustration is that reproductions created using screen printing would be easy.

Fairey’s style is said to be mostly influenced by Constructivism and Social Realism. Although it has not been directly stated by Fairey himself, many believe the Hope Poster was inspired by such works of Andy Warhol and Ben Shahn.

Andy Warhol 1972 George McGovern Poster
Ben Shahn’s 1968 Eugene McCarthyPoster.

In the first version of the poster, the word “PROGRESS” was used as the slogan. As a street artist Fairey was already well established as an outspoken artist with progressive political views, much of his existing audience was anti-establishment. He believed that his greatest challenge in gaining their support would be presenting Obama as someone who did not represent the status quo. To achieve their support Fairey exploited his distinctive style. By using the word “PROGRESS” and incorporating blue into his familiar red and cream colour palette, he hoped to appeal to a progressive audience.

Fairey desired to construct more than just a portrait, he wanted his art to convey genuine meaning, to resonate Obama’s idealism. Through his design Fairey wanted to appeal to, and energise, a progressive audience that would be motivated to not only support Obama but to advocate others to do the same.

Fairey began screen-printing posters soon after completing the design and showing it to Yosi Sergant. Originally only 700 posters were produced, 350 of which were sold whilst the remaining were put up in public. Due to the Obama campaign’s concerns about the troublesome connotations of the original wording, Fairey changed the slogan printed under Obama’s image from “PROGRESS” to “HOPE.” Fairey used the proceeds from the initial sales to print 4,000 more posters. These were then distributed to Obama rallies before Super Tuesday. After posting the image to his website and with support from publicist Sergant, the image soon became a viral sensation, spreading spontaneously through social media and word of mouth. The demand for the portrait was so large that over the course of Obama’s campaign a total of 350,000 posters and 500,000 stickers were produced.

Fairey’s first rendition the Obama poster

The portrait gained immense recognition and is considered to be one of — if not — the most widely recognised symbol of Obama’s campaign message.

In Fairey’s words:

“A lot of people were digging Obama, but they didn’t have any way to symbolically show their support. It became very clear quickly that the demand for an image like that had not been supplied and that the Obama supporters were very hungry for it and also very motivated to spread it.”

Of all of Fairey’s work, the Hope Poster has had the most influence, exposure and cultural circulation. By employing his street art style, Fairey created a poster that captured a nation. His poster acquires its power from a combination of traditional and modern elements. The posters success derives from Fairey’s depiction of Obama. The three-quarters pose is a powerful rendering of a potential promising leader and communicates Obama’s sense of leadership, hopefulness and forward-thinking.

Fairey’s choice of colour is a key feature of the design, it provides meaning to the poster and assists in its iconic status. The colour palette used is a salute to the traditional American patriotic colours. The red is slightly more orange, the blue is lighter and grayer in tone and the white resembles more of a cream colour. This colour palette is most commonly associated with Fairey’s style and work. By using “off colours” he is paying homage to the traditional patriotic colour scheme rather than replicating it like almost all mainstream American political campaign images.

The slogan printed under Obama’s image says the word “HOPE” in a bold, modern, san-serif typeface. Fairey’s use of type is another key and crucial element within the design. Through this slogan the reader is encouraged to form a correlation between the three-quarters pose and the implication/concept of hope.

Through his graphic skill, visual vocabulary and personal style, Fairey transformed Obama from a presidential hopeful to a visionary icon. Fairey’s work demonstrates just how impactful graphic design can really be.