What Donald Trump Taught Me About the Blind Side of Design

I never saw it coming. The “it” was the tidal wave of popular support for Donald Trump’s appropriated “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan embodied in the poorly designed but now iconic red trucker hat. With one election and an armada of hats, Donald Trump exposed the blind side of design.

Just two years earlier, I worked with a client to redesign their product logo and branding. When I saw their existing logo, my first thought was, “Why is your brand tied so closely to a worn out American flag?” I mean, it’s 2014, not 1950, right? We’re in a global economy. Americans don’t care as much about where it’s made, but how it’s made; how the product will improve their lives, and, of course, how much it costs. So I simplified their logo, removed the in-your-face references to the American flag, and brought the typography and colors line with a design aesthetic that reflected the functional beauty their product could achieve covering ugly wire shelving.

One can argue which logo is better, but both are effective because they communicate a clear set of brand values. The original logo boldly states the brand is all about America. The redesigned logo is America neutral and more product-centric. Yet, this is where every designer has a blind spot. Their own values, experiences, and paradigms shape not only the way a creative idea is executed but also the formation of the idea itself.

First, let me tell you a bit about myself. I am not affiliated with any political party, but as a designer, I am constantly engaged reading articles covering every aspect of national and international life including politics. This is how designers stay creative and connected with the world in which their client’s products, services, and brands live. Yet, no matter how broadly a designer reads and stays engaged with society and culture, they are still going to have whole thought patterns elude them. In my case, it was the idea that America needed to be made great again symbolized in the little red hat.

I was more than aware that many people I rubbed shoulders with on a daily basis in my small rural community in Tennessee were not happy with Washington’s policies. I saw with my own eyes driving through the rural South whole towns left behind economically as American corporations embraced a global economy. I even felt a pinch of frustration as I watched our local high school sports teams struggle to raise money for facilities and uniforms while Washington poured billions of dollars a day into far away countries. But I didn’t put all these pieces together. Trump did, and in doing so showed me what I, and apparently most of the mainstream media and over half of the voting public, could not see.

Professional designers were blind to the idea that America needs to be made great again. Obama’s campaign logo with Shepard Fairey’s fantastically designed “Hope” and “Change” campaign posters had set a new standard for political branding. Hillary Clinton mostly upheld that standard with her campaign’s logo design, while Trump’s campaign was caught with its’ pants down in their first logo design. What Trump’s campaign did have was a creative concept that no professional designer at the time could have come up with—a stolen slogan (thanks, Ronnie!) stitched on a lumpy red hat with a nondescript serif font IN ALL CAPS. This creative idea would never have crossed a professional designer’s mind.

Designers, especially web designers, operate in a global economy, often doing work for clients they won’t physically meet. Designers are more likely than not educated, technology savvy and live in larger cities or suburbs. They are by nature experimental and open to new ideas. If an old idea is appropriated, it is often altered to express a new idea in a fresh way. Trump’s slogan was stolen one, slapped on an ill-fitted hat in such a way that it would make any professional designer cringe. However, it connected with a misunderstood, underrepresented and even outright dismissed part of the American population that the professional design world left behind. That’s a big blind spot.

Moving forward, I know now design has blind spots. And I’ll be checking over my shoulder creatively to identify how they may influence my idea generation, brand guidance, and design execution. And to my client’s credit, they tried using the logo and branding I designed, but eventually went back to making America great again.

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