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    Designing the Election: Part I

    Matthew Messner
    Nov 5, '12 9:41 PM EST

    The first of two, this is an essay about the design of the election.  In our Designing Criticism class we have explored what the design of particular aspects of the campaign tell us about our electoral process and our democracy.  

    This first essay, by Adrianne Jørgensen is about the furniture of the debates.  The second essay will be ready for your morning coffee, before you go out to vote.


    This debate comes fully furnished.
    Adrianne Joergensen

    The last thirteen Presidential debates have had one thing in common: they are exclusively a made-for-TV production. And like other television productions, their power dynamics are not ruled by the actors, but by the architecture of the set.

    Television sets have their own archetypes, the most iconic being that of the talk show. Part office, part living room, this is the time and place for serious discussion and emotional outpouring to share equal ground. Furniture is borrowed from real life, but through the medium of television, given a new surreality. Pieces like the the talk show desk and comfy side chair establish a new hierarchy for the actors who occupy them: the host is in control and the guest is along for the ride. 

    It’s fitting that the architecture of the set would play such a significant role in the presidential debates, the televised realization of the political process. As each of the three debates was filtered through different sets, the interactions of the candidates changed. 

    The first debate was a no-brainer: give two guys two equal podiums, scrawl the Declaration of Independence behind them, and instantly, both look Presidential. In the second debate, the town hall, the candidates’ messy confrontations can be attributed to the lack of furniture scripting their movements. When they turned to face one another, the empty space heightened the awkwardness. What is the appropriate standing distance for two men having an argument with microphones, camera angles and political decorum? It made for entertaining television but a sloppy debate. 

    In debate three, the television furniture reasserted its importance, as the candidates were asked to “come to the table” to discuss foreign policy. For the symbolic purposes of equality and negotiation, the table should have been round, but by some strange calculation, became a lopsided pair of half circles. The candidates sat at the larger half, angled indirectly towards each other, while the moderator perched in the center at the smaller half, like a referee in a tennis match. The dimensions of this table must have been calculated to allow a comfortable distance between the candidates but to bring the moderator closer to them. The table surface looked like black Formica, cheap but non-reflective. 

    The table-like qualities stopped at the surface. A glimpse underneath did not reveal table legs, but a massive block in faux woodgrain, with a tacky blue reveal all the way around. This piece of furniture is not a table, and not quite a desk. In the political language of furniture, it is both: a table democratically brings together separate entities; a desk establishes a clear power dynamic of one over another. Its ambiguity may be as intentional as its design, as it left the winner of the debate indeterminate. 

    The use of the different television set formats calls into question the purpose of the debates. Is it to place the candidates in a series of scenarios, to see which one emerges looking the most Presidential? Perhaps the debates should have more television-furniture-derived tests in which the candidates can play Commander in Chief. Clearly, the debate sets have been created with a high level of specificity, and represent an important speculative design opportunity. Rather than the table-desk behemoth, the next foreign policy debate feature a copy of the War Room. Instead of the Declaration backdrop and glaring red carpet, the candidates could try out their Presidential rhetoric in fake Oval Offices. Now that would be politics worth watching.'

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