Brain Pickings

Iron Fists: A Design History of Totalitarian Regimes

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What Mao’s poetry and Mussolini’s pulp fiction have to do with crimes against humanity.

The role of design in political communication is something I’ve always been fascinated by. Hardly does the power of design spring to life more vividly than in iconic images that rally the masses around an ideology, from the prolific design output of the Works Progress Administration in the U.S. to the vintage Soviet propaganda of the mid-20th-century to Shepard Fairey’s now-iconic Obama posters. Today, we turn to Iron Fists: Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State — a fascinating account of how last century’s four most notorious and destructive totalitarian regimes used design and brand strategy to claim, retain and enforce power by Steven Heller, often considered today’s most prominent and prolific design critic. (You may recall his Graphic project, a peek inside great designers’ sketchbooks, from earlier this week.)

The book looks at Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin, and China under Chairman Mao, exploring in 240 pages of stunning vintage artwork the role that visual language, typography and color palette played in hijacking the minds of millions. Heller looks closely at a wide range of logos, symbols, monuments, postage stamps and other relics of those regimes to expose the striking similarities between such political propaganda and the advertising strategies of today’s consumer culture.

The design and marketing methods used to inculcate doctrine and guarantee consumption are fundamentally similar.” ~ Steven Heller

What’s perhaps most striking is that almost all of the dictators Heller examines considered themselves artists and took active control of marketing their respective brands. Mussolini wrote pulp fiction in which he portrayed himself as a male sex symbol, Chairman Mao took pride in his poetry and calligraphy, and Hitler was a budding architect and watercolor painter before he became creative director of his own twisted “brand,” keen on controlling everything from the use of the swastika to his own likeness, mustache and all.

Some images courtesy of Project Projects

Equal parts visually stunning, intellectually illuminating and emotionally unsettling, Iron Fists sits at the intersection of political history and graphic design, offering an unprecedented look at the design of politics as we head into another election season.

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