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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Shapes for Sounds: A Visual History of the Alphabet

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What the anatomy of your tongue has to do with ship flags and the evolution of human communication.

I’m endlessly fascinated by the intersection of sight and sound and have a well-documented alphabet book fetish. So I absolutely love Shapes for sounds by Timothy Donaldson, exploring one of the most fundamental creations of human communication, the alphabet, through a fascinating journey into “why alphabets look like they do, what has happened to them since printing was invented, why they won’t ever change, and how it might have been.”

While the tome is full of beautiful, lavish illustrations and typography — like 26 gorgeous illustrated charts that trace the evolution of spoken languages into written alphabets — it’s no mere eye candy. Donaldson, a typographer, graphic designer and teacher, digs deep into the cultural anthropology of how letters were crystallized from sounds, scripts invented, words formed, and linguistic conventions indoctrinated.

The alphabet is one of the greatest inventions; it has enabled the preservation and clear understanding of people’s thoughts, and it is simple to learn. It still has great significance; while the advent of type — printed alphabets — has curtailed any real development of the shapes of letters, the alphabet has been more greatly utilised in the last 500 years than ever before. Typography is the engine of graphic design, and writing is the fuel. But more than that, the alphabet has been the enabler of mass communication technologies from Morse code to the internet.” ~ Timothy Davidson

Though the Latin alphabet is the focal point, Donaldson explores an incredible range of related history, from ancient calligraphic traditions to semaphore, to bar codes and binary code, exposing the magnificent cross-pollination of disciplines — design, typography, anatomy, phonetics, sociology, linguistics, psychology and more — that gave birth to one of our civilization’s oldest and most powerful technologies.

I would love to have the experience of having envelopes drop through my door with no address, just a picture of me and my house on the front. I would like to buy a newspaper full of nothing but pictures and graphic devices, and to find my way home using road signs that are just arrows and drawings, but I think these events a re a long way off. To cross national borders still requires a textual document; a passport is not just a picture of your face. The obligator tax-return, a document that, if ignore, will make you a criminal, contains no images. The highway code features many image-based signs, yet must be explained with words. The interent is 95% text.” ~ Timothy Davidson

Shapes for sounds comes as yet another gem from the fine folks at Mark Batty, my favorite indie publisher, who brought us such excellence as Notations 21, Cultural Connectives, Drawing Autism and more.

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5 Fantastic Daily Email Newsletters for a Better Life

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What world peace has to do with dog soap and why everything you knew about baby carrots is wrong.

For all its wonders and curiosities, the web can be an overwhelming place. And, for some of us, so can the inbox. But the fact remains that email is still the most manageable way of consuming information, so the past few years have seen a boon of smart, thoughtfully curated email newsletters that serve the web’s best on a silver platter. (You’re getting the free Brain Pickings weekly newsletter, right? Good.) Here are five fantastic, free daily email newsletters to inject a potent blend of utility, optimism, and curiosity into your information and inspiration diet.

VERY SHORT LIST

Very Short List is easily the granddaddy of the modern curated newsletter, offering one must-see gem a day: a website, a book, a film, a sweet animation, a photoessay — you get the idea, but you can mine the archives for a taste of the goodness. VSL launched shortly after Brain Pickings, with a very similar editorial-curatorial vision, so I have an added layer of affectionate kindred-spirit sentimentality towards it.

The only downside: VSL never give credit for their finds, the kind of failure in attribution of discovery that I’ve been very vocal about and some go as far as saying is killing kittens.

TBD

TBD, named after the idea that our collective future is yet to be decided, goes beyond mere sit-back inspiration to offer one world-changing idea per issue paired with one action you can take about it, right now, to improve the future. From spotlighting smart social enterprises to featuring beautifully designed products with a social good component, TBD may not be daily per se, but when it does come — I’m yet to figure out the pace of their cycle — it’s very much worth it.

You can sample the archives via their Facebook feed.

MILKSHAKE

Milkshake calls itself “a daily edition of good finds that give back” — a discovery engine for causes, people, and companies that have positive impact on the world. (If it sounds a bit like TBD, it should be noted TBD came first by a long stretch.) From handmade dog shampoo bars to cooperative foods produced by Israelis and Arabs, the daily picks are as wonderfully varied as they are uniformly worthwhile.

NETTED

From the good people who bring us the Webbys comes Netted — a daily serving of the best sites, apps and online services that “make life better.” From productivity apps to gadget hacks to eclectic digital delights, the finds blend utility, playfulness and sheer can’t-wait-to-tell-friends-aboutness.

Poke through the archives here.

NOW I KNOW

Every day, Dan Lewis follows his own curiosity is some esoteric direction, from the great baby carrot sham to how Tetris therapy works, and shares his findings with the world in Now I Know — a wonderful daily treat of knowledge you probably don’t need but will feel exceedingly cool having. Bonus points: Dan has the marvelous day job of heading new media communications for Sesame Street, which sort of explains his penchant for all things quirky-cool.

The treasure trove of archives can be found here.

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