The perils of persuasive design.

****The practice of graphic design is and always has been, inexplicably tied to the practice of persuasion. Selling a message, whether it be of an aryan nation or a thirst quenching lemon drink, is a process of pulling strings; people who have a message or doctrine (will be) prepared to use the most attractive ways in the control of thought to bring that message to life.’ This means the construct of responsibility becomes incredibly complex and convoluted, especially in the post modern universe where anything goes, and where brands infiltrate every living space in our cities. Myths’, and constructed meaning are the modern day propaganda, that in some way or another, a designer, copywriter or art-director has sketched up.****

In terms of propaganda, design as a skill set can be devastatingly effective at achieving a set cause. One of the most famous examples of this would be the infamous team of Adolph Hitler and Joseph Goebbels and the propaganda they created for the Nazi Party. Paul Rand once said that a corporate logo was no better or worse than the business it represents. The simple fact that the swastika still elicits such a strong emotional response…is a sinister testament to the power of the Nazi brand.’ The fonts Hitler chose, the unique visual schemes’, the identity systems and the ancient mythology he dug up, were all methods of visual communication. These techniques used to inculcate doctrine’ were fundamentally similar to the methods that modern brands use to guarantee consumption’ today. It’s interchangeable; loyalty to a brand can be measured by sales, or votes. 

If Hitler was 99.9% pure evil, 0.1% would be left over to share the role of a graphic designer, ad-man and semiotician. He understood colours; using a semioticians logic he rejected any weak’ colour combinations and pure white altogether, simply because it was too insignificant’. He wanted a brand that was high contrast, clearly visible and that exerted power’, really no different than a designer mocking up an ad for Volkswagen. According to the man himself, the real inspiration for the colour red came from the Bolshevik flag; his hate towards the Russians subsided for a second as he admired the psychological importance of such a symbol.’ The Nazi brand was patched together over time, with Hitler borrowing style and imagery from many separate (and often opposing) sources. The red from the Bolsheviks, the Swastika an age-old symbol of harmony and a dumpster load of crazy mythical imagery from German occultists. This included the age-old Aryan legend of the eagle’s capacity for self-immolation by fire.’ Red eagles, arrows, lightning bolts, spears and daggers (to name a few) were all used in propaganda material. Put simply, by manipulating hidden forces (signals and coded representations), he indued the German masses to buy themselves a Fuhrer, an insane philosophy and the second world war.’-aldous

Typography was employed as another propagandist technique in Hitler’s arsenal of persuasive weapons. The use of spiky Blackletter type evoked the glorified past that Hitler alluded to so often, similar to the use of nostalgia to sell products in advertising today, (eg. the recent 70’s tinged Big M campaign). Ignoring the rise of modernism in design at the time, historical germaniscism quickly became the country’s official style, with design schools like the Bauhaus rejected as left wing jewish sympathisers.’ In terms of architecture, gothic dominated and modern sans-serif typefaces like Futura were banned from use. The Nazis were dragging design kicking and screaming back to the middle ages, because it suited their newly imposed set of cultural values. It was just-add water’ for their dusty mythical German heritage to be re-installed. Sadly, graphic design played a huge part in this process. 

Were the designers to blame? Sure, but no more than a freelancer commissioned by an ad-agency today. They’re payed a generous wage, told not to break any rules in the brand guidelines’ and to stick closely to the brief. By the time the final design is sifted through various clients (or bureaucrats) and squeezed through Goebbels media cat-flap, the finished product is a shining reflection of the (insert name) brand. A lot of designers at the time knew this to be the case, and boycotted the Nazi Party, refusing to work under their noxious political ideology.’ Paul Renner, designer of the quintessentially modern typeface Futura, even wrote a book Kulturbolschewismus?’ that attacked Nazi anti-semitism and medievalism in art. Under the Nazi regime artists were allowed to depict the nude, yet were forbidden to show any bodily imperfections’. Everything was doctored to fit a utopian ideal; photoshop before photoshop. With art comes copy, just like in advertising today. It was a mind infiltrating branding campaign; catchy slogans like Ja!’ and Strength through Joy’ were coupled with Nazi approved art to create posters that demanded your gaze. The whole country has to pay attention.’ 

Although the blame and responsibility was resting on a huge array of artists who were operating under the swastika, there was one artist that became the lone face of Nazi art; Leni Riefenstahl. Goebbels placed high importance on film as a persuasive device’, and the epic films’ created by Leni were paradigms of heroic branding propaganda.’ In post-war interviews Leni has denied her close relationship with Hitler and even insists that Goebbels hated her, yet her involvement as a visual artist, in the manipulation of the masses, undoubtably played a huge role in visualising and propaganding the evil rhetoric of the Nazi party. She was obsessed with presenting myth not history’, and glorifying the abstract ideals of power, speed and beauty in films like Olympia, dubbed a feature length kinetic poster’. In her most famous documentary, Triumph of the Will, the viewer is swamped by surreal vistas of swastikas.’ After just a few minutes you can begin to comprehend the effect this film may of had in the relaxing 1930’s cinematic environment; where relaxation meant (the cinema) was therefore all the more dangerous.’

The propagandist techniques employed by the Nazi party are a crystal clear example of how powerful design, in the right context, can be, as a political weapon of persuasion. In fact, the impact of the Nazi’s distinct visual language combined with a unique public relations rhetoric comes close to exemplifying how contemporary branding strategies operate.’ The identity system, the colours, the fonts and especially the logo. The Nazi’s propaganda was no different than a huge cross-media campaign executed by the brands of today.

After the war, propaganda as a word didn’t taste too good’, and if the whole point of consumer capitalism is to manufacture consent, it probably needed a new name, branding. So if brands utilise propaganda, are we no better than Goebbels by designing for them? The role of brands is often to symbolise social ideas and emotions’ and great brands, or brands that have good ad-agencies working for them, resonate, they crackle with associations.’ In the implicit universe of the brand (eg. Nutra Grain) meaning is created by its advertising and made resonant by its traditions.’ In other words it is brought to life, it becomes a reality. As consumers we understand that the television spot is a re-construction of reality, but subconsciously we decode the meaning, the true persuasive nature of the brand. Looking after your mum, feeling part of your community and growing up to be a strong, healthy role-model. All this out of a bowl of cereal! Advertising does not try to destroy values, it attempt to conscript them’, and sometimes (like with the Nazis) creates new ones. In our post modernist universe we have inspired propaganda and explained it’ at the same time, since propaganda is a creative process that focuses on the confectionary of image and symbol.’ Quite simply, propaganda thrives in modern culture. Over time this magic system has become involved with the teaching of social and personal values’ and has intertwined itself so tightly with culture that we could not think and function without it. In a way advertising helps us choose capitalism’ and designers help us choose advertising. Images conjure desire, glamour and the ideal of cool, as we reach out and try and grab hold of the pure product that we consume’; identity. The desert and freedom that Flavour country represents, not the actual product, the Marlboro cigarette. How can designers be held responsible for these techniques of persuasion when they’ve become so ingrained in culture that they aren’t simply persuading, but they’re communicating?Advertising has become not just a way of selling goods but an inescapable mode of everyday communication.’ Graphic design is inexplicably tied to the notion of persuasion, and today the language of symbols’ that it employs is arguably more significant than language itself.’ Responsibility is absolved in a paradigm of thought and understanding where image becomes the only basis of differentiation’.

However this train of thought seems defeatist. Why not revolt? Why not flip the table on all the briefs you’ve been given? All the times you’ve been asked by brands to refresh their image, instead throw a cream pie at their face? Designers hold the most tools and knowledge to do so; so why not turn the system against itself? Culture-jamming aggressively rejects the idea that marketing…must be passively accepted as a one-way information flow.’ Over time this process of rejection and pastiche has gotten easier. Improvements in technology have meant activists can match colours, fonts and materials precisely.’ These days, every switched on 15 year old kid has hacked themselves a copy of Photoshop, downloaded an image of the infamous slogan Just do it’, added a few letters and proudly shown their mates a (lame and un-original) culture jam, but a culture jam none the less. On the surface it seems to be the natural contrast, a healthy alternative to designing new logos and generally propagandising the hell out of your fellow species. Ad-man one minute, ad-buster the next. Designers all have the resources at their fingertips to sabotage the latest KFC campaign, even more so if they hold that brand as a client. Like a suicide bomber or a confidential informant, exploit your enemy from the inside out. Boom! 

But how often does this happen, and how truly effective is it? Sure, we live in a democratic society, and a jam here or there should be seen as wholesome dialogue, but who’s really listening? To put it simply, there’s a high chance that the kid who mucks around with the Nike logo, owns a pair of Nike kicks. Maybe even two. We live in an age where viral videos are created in minutes and memes are devised by captioning the screen-grabs of recent films before they even hit the shelves of Blockbuster. The messages and ideas that the internet is churning out lack the original meaning of the avant-garde art movements of the past, like Dada or the D.I.Y aesthetic of 70’s punk. These kids are merry pranksters of the 00’s looking for a cheap laugh and something to talk abut, not young revolutionists in the making, plotting to sabotage our branded planet. A planet apparently riddled with mental pollutants, information viruses and psychic shocks.’ Not quite the case. You only need to flick through the latest copy of Adbusters to see that the self proclaimed manual of design anarchy’ is simply another advertisement, just with a different set of values in place; an advertisement for anti-advertisement.’ Through their website you can buy culture-jammer tool-boxes, calendars and t-shirts that ironically coincide with Buy Nothing Day.’ Many argue that ad-busting and culture-jamming are just slogans for a different brand’, another (albeit more radical) style choice. In this post-modern age of advertising, where agencies such as Weiden+Kennedy can use the Beatles anthem Revolution’ in one Nike spot and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road as the voice-over text for a Subura commercial’, you’ve got to admit that there is no end point in this style cycle’, and that for designers to rebel against their clients is not an answer or really even an valid option.

Designers have played a large part in the global village that we see brands flourish in today, starting wars and selling cars. But to say that designers are at fault for the branded, consumer culture we see today would be largely reductive. Consumers choose advertising, consumers choose capitalism. And until they choose something else, designers will always be a silent partner to a necessary evil.

April 13, 2011