The Irony and Disdain of Obama’s ‘Art Works’ Campaign

Art Works poster design

On September 8, 2011, millions tuned in to Obama’s presentation the American Jobs Act. The following month, Obama stated that “without a doubt, the most urgent challenges that we face right now is getting our economy to grow faster and to create more jobs… where [Congress] won’t act, I will.”

So why then, would the Obama re-election campaign call on graphic designers to show their support for the American Jobs Act by soliciting them to work for free? Through a contest titled Art Works, “a poster contest to support American jobs”, designers were asked to submit poster designs promoting the American Jobs Act with one major catch: no compensation for their work.

It’s both ironic and offensive that a campaign for job creation would call on design professionals to work without compensation. This crowdsourcing effort by Obama’s re-election campaign shows a severe misunderstanding of the very real problems design industry professionals face. Employment in the graphic design industry plunged over ten percent between 2008 and 2009, dropped an additional six percent between 2009 and 2010 and at the time of this writing remains well below pre-recession levels.

Both the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) and the Graphic Artists Guild have shown a persistent criticism of the Art Works contest in open letters written to the Obama for America campaign:

“The Obama For America re-election campaign contest, ‘Art Works: A poster contest to support American jobs,’ is shameful. American artists should be outraged that our President does not recognize that we are entitled to be paid for our work, as are all Americans.” (Lisa Shaftel, Graphic Artists Guild).

“The Art Works poster contest asks designers to work speculatively, creating designs without compensation for an activity that has value to a potential client, against established global principles in communication design. And it is particularly contemptuous to ask the creative community to donate their services in support of a jobs program for other American workers.” (Richard Grefé, AIGA)
Maybe the Obama re-election campaign and his administration would benefit from a brief history lesson. During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) employed approximately 500 artists to work on the Federal Art Project (FAP) programs. These artists were charged with raising awareness and promoting a wide range of programs, activities and behaviors that administration believed would improve people’s lives – similar to the goals proposed in the American Jobs Act and by Obama’s re-election campaign. WPA Poster Division artists – all which were given pay and credit for their work – designed more than 35,000 posters and approximately two million were printed.
These artists/designers were all valued for their skills. Why then, has the value of American designers’ work changed for the worse?

Jack Daniels’ Woodcut Poster Campaign

In the digital age, some of the most coveted American brands have discovered that there’s still a lot to be said for that which is tangible and authentic. Lately, many American brands have been exploring these concepts in their advertising campaigns. For Jack Daniels, a letterpress and woodcut poster campaign is the most recent approach.

Arnold Worldwide, working on behalf of Jack Daniels, turned to letterpress printer Yee-Haw Industries of Knoxville, Tennessee to create a series of 10 patriotically themed posters.

“Jack has always been an iconic symbol of the independent spirit. So to reinforce that ideology, we created a campaign that championed the independent spirit of Americans,” (Arnold Worldwide).

From start to finish, each poster in the series took three days to complete. Yee-Haw’s authentic print-making process includes sketching each design, carving individual blocks/plates, setting type and then printing each poster. For added authenticity, a bit of Jack Daniels is inked into each poster in the series. The original letterpress and woodcut artwork was then used as inspiration for large outdoor hand-painted murals found across the nation. Arnold Worldwide documented the print process in a short video (below).

Arnold Worldwide took the campaign one step further by building the “Jack Independence” Facebook app. App users can customize an original poster design and then share their creation. If you’d rather opt for an authentic, limited edition poster, those are available for purchase through Yee-Haw’s Etsy store.

Tires Plus “Anatomy” Ad Campaign Merges Man & Machine

"Over 5 million people a year look to us for new brakes, alignments, oil changes and much more."

"With 11 million tires sold this year alone, nobody knows tires like we know tires."

"We've been keeping the heart of automobiles ticking since 1940."

PyperPaul+Kenney, a Tampa, Florida based agency recently worked with Tires Plus on a poster campaign with the main objective of raising awareness of both the 40-year history of their client and their positioning as a total car care expert with a diverse array of automotive products and services. As their brand name suggests, Tires Plus may be the place to look if you’re in the market for tires, but the message of this new campaign was to communicate the company as a source for much more than that.

The agency’s solution to communicating their client’s diverse set of capabilities and experience in the automotive industry is a series of anatomical images with a twist, merging man and machine in ways that convey the benefits and significance of shopping at Tires Plus. The resulting designs are a series of inspired visuals and corresponding copy that cut through the masses of cluttered, price-driven advertising that seems so inherent to the industry.

The campaign won PyperPaul+Kenney a prestigious Graphis Platinum Award, and to date is considered one of the world’s top 10 advertising campaigns.

Looking at the Glass Half Full – Communicating Optimism through Design

This October, Positive Posters announced the finalists for their 2010 Exhibition. Held annually between July and October, the goal of each annual design competition is to inspire individuals through positive visual messages. Founded in 2009 by graphic designer Nick Hallam, Positive Posters is a non-profit international poster competition run by volunteers based in Melbourne, Australia. This year, designers were asked to work with the theme of “A Glass Half Full”.


"It's a Matter of Perspective" by Hailey McKenzie

“Optimism is a matter of perspective. Perspective gives us a point of view and a choice… a choice to see the world in different ways.” (Hailey McKenzie)


"Us" by Hilary Sloane

“Yes, there are many things wrong in the world, but perhaps we can see it as giving us something to do.” (Hilary Sloane)

"Turn that frown upside-down!" by Jesse Mallon

“By flipping the letters upside down the audience is invited to take a second look at the poster to understand, and be inspired by, its message.” (Jesse Mallon)

The work of this year’s 30 finalists represents a design aesthetic that is as diverse as their creators, which come from all over the world: Australia, England, Hong Kong, Thailand, the United States, South Korea and a host of other nations. These designers each bring their own unique understanding of what optimism means to them.

2009’s competition brought in over 300 entries from 53 countries. Peter Chmela’s winning entry, Smile, traveled as far as North Pole, where it was photographed.

2009's winning entry at the North Pole.