The Power of Design: Totalitarian Regimes—and Their Brands

A book by Atlantic contributor Steven Heller looks at what images and typography have to do with Hitler, Stalin, and Mao

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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 by Steven Heller, often considered today's most prominent and prolific design critic, of how last century's four most notorious and destructive totalitarian regimes used design and brand strategy to claim, retain, and enforce power. (You may recall Heller's 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 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.

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.


This post also appears on Brain Pickings.
Top image: Wikimedia Commons. Some images courtesy of Project Projects.

Presented by

Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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