In this episode, the guys get back to their regularly scheduled programming. Nico takes us back to a time when typefaces were a symbol of nationalism, and Chad talks about why its a good idea not to run a scam related to the CIA.

Credit: Central Intelligence Agency

Typefaces aren’t just related to art and advertising, they also have a long history with politics.  Think of Fraktur. Fraktur is a gothic font. It’s also calligraphic meaning that rather than just being gothic it has a handwritten quality to it that makes it somehow both curvy and pointy at the same time. Fraktur arose in the 16th century and remained popular until the 18th century, at which point many European countries moved away from Fraktur in favor of the much easier to read Antiqua typeface (for example Times New Roman is technically Antiqua in style).

Germany viewed Antiqua as a symbol of the classicist age and emerging cosmopolitanism in most of the European countries that had previously used Fraktur.  The Antiqua-Fraktur Dispute was such a big deal that two centuries later, it has its own Wikipedia page. 

The Fraktur typefaces remained in use in Nazi Germany, and was represented as “true German script.” In fact, during World War II, German presses were “urged” to only use “German script,” meaning Fraktur. “Urged” because the Fraktur font was heavily associated with Nazi Germany. This association was partly, if not largely, because of the Bauhaus. 

The Bauhaus is a German art school founded by German architect Walter Gropius after World War I in 1919. Bauhaus was founded on principles of how design could be used to serve people and transform society. The Bauhaus School led to the first concrete foundations of modern design. Additionally, its influence was not only limited to Germany.

The revolutionary art movement not only helped create what is now known as modern design but shaped cityscapes and entire urban centers elsewhere in the world.

The nationalist movement that soon developed into Nazi ideology in Germany considered Bauhaus to be a rejection of traditional German values.  On January 3, 1941, the Nazi Party ended this controversy by declaring Fraktur to be Judenlettern (Jewish letters) before prohibiting it and switching to Antiqua.  German historian Albert Kapr has speculated that the regime viewed the hard-to-look-at-let-alone-read Fraktur as inhibiting communication in the occupied territories during World War II.  War took precedence over having a “German” font.

What’s Up With The Art History Lesson? 

Today, when we see illegible fonts in advertisements, it’s considered a marketing fail.  Which is essentially what happened with Germany. By insisting on using Fraktur for – give or take –  four hundred years, as a metaphor you could say Germany turned themselves into a bad billboard.  Whether you’re a company or a country, the lesson here is to embrace art, marketing, and the place where those two overlap. 

On January 8th, 2021, the Central Intelligence Agency unveiled a new design for its website, Not a big deal, right? Well… Apparently, it was.Or at least it was a big enough deal that the rebranding made news. Why? Same reason the Bauhaus did 100 years ago. Simply for breaking the status quo. abandoned the formal signifiers of government authority: dense bureaucratic text, link directories, declarative headers, nothing too fancy is now set against a stark black background, offset by dots and lines that form topographical contours. There’s pops of red, bold, white font, and a clear design theme. In other words, the CIA seems to have discovered graphic design and modern art. There are subtle hallmarks of modern web design, like the site’s animated scroll. The crisp lines and muted color palette suggest a minimalist branding strategy. Like with all things political, artistic, or both, the website has received a lot of mixed reactions.

Online, people have noted the website’s visual similarity to electronic music festival fliers and streaming platforms like Boiler Room, marketing materials for brands like Urban Outfitters, and The Intercept, an online publication known for its reporting on the CIA. In an interview with The New York Times, Eric Hu, a freelance creative director who served previously as a design director at Nike Sportswear, said “If I didn’t read the copy, I wouldn’t know if this was for a direct-to-consumer designer toothbrush or an organization that’s been accused of destabilizing governments worldwide.”

The CIA declined to comment on who created the website. However, shortly after it was revealed, the conceptual artist and graphic designer Ryder Ripps claimed credit on an Instagram page he uses as a digital portfolio. Ripps is known for work with brands like Soylent and Pornhub, and musicians including Kanye West, Pop Smoke and Grimes.  But he didn’t actually design the CIA’s new website. 

Citing examples such as the Skynet artificial intelligence from the “Terminator” series and fictional corporations like Weyland-Yutani from the “Alien” films, Hu said, “Underground culture has been grabbing at militaristic, monolithic, dystopian signifiers for the latter half of the decade. Objectively, it’s really funny that the C.I.A. has used a visual language that used to be considered evil and dystopian, and that’s since been kind of pacified. It just seems like this full circle, ouroboros kind of thing, where it’s like, club culture kids took an evil aesthetic and made it cool.”

There are still people – including artists and marketers alike – who, like Ripps and Germany during the 18th, 19th, and 20th century, view certain aspects of design, such as fonts, as having very specific functions. The Germans thought Fraktur was superior when really it was just hard to read. If the CIA rebranding proved anything, it’s the futility (fuu-tility) in trying to use graphic design as a marker of political ideology.

What Can We Learn?

  • Don’t read into everything: That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t double check yourself (like Dove should have with some of their ads that were perceived as racist). You should double check your advertisements but – thanks to the Bauhaus artists – you don’t have to over do it by worrying if consumers will think your font is fascist. 
  • Embrace change and connect with consumers: Embrace change in art, marketing, and the intersection of the two. Whether you’re a country, company, or government agency it’s good to connect with your audience. When it comes to art and design, one of the best ways to connect with your audience is to embrace change. This is because a connection can be easier to form when you establish a common language and for a lot of people, that’s art. 

We speak about:

[06:00] History of politics of typefaces
[13:05] What’s Up With The Art History Lesson and CIA rebrand? 
[19:30] Why CIA branding is unique?
[22:35] Reactions to CIA rebrand
[27:50] Tactical use of aesthetics
[35:20] What can we learn?

Other show episodes mentioned: 
EP29: The Promotion That Couldn’t Handle Its Liquor
EP2: The Man Who Bought His Way to the Top

Episode Script Writer: Grace Wall
Research Analyst: Gertruda Gilyte

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