Monday, October 6, 2008

Iron Fists: Branding the 20th Century Totalitarian State by Steven Heller

In the summer of 1921, a newly designed flag for the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei appeared, 'its effect at that time was something akin to a blazing torch.' The design featured a brilliant red flag with a shocking white disk and a black swastika sitting in the middle.

Although formerly a sign of good luck and prosperity -- swastikas were found in many cultures including from Troy, in Etruscan craftworks, Corinthian coins, even on the WW I uniforms of the 45th American Infantry among hundreds of other examples -- it would forever be tarnished as a symbol of having anything to do with goodness. Its horrific appropriation by the Nazis would essentially erase and rewrite its former history to all in the Western world.

This attention to symbols and design created the first intense use of image "branding" within a totalitarian state. Germany, under the failed artist Adolph Hitler, was subjected to an overwhelming experiment in using graphic identity techniques -- logos, trademarks, images -- to trigger instant recognition of the ideals being put forth by his leadership. As Aldous Huxley wrote in 1958, "Twenty years before Madison Avenue embarked upon 'Motivational Research,' Hitler was systematically exploring and exploiting the secret fears and hopes, the cravings, anxieties and frustrations of the German masses."

In his new book Iron Fists: Branding the 20th Century Totalitarian State, the extremely prolific writer and graphic designer Steven Heller explores these modern methods of manipulating public opinion through design.

Iron Fists examines four of the most significant experiments in the selling of a totalitarian message; Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Soviet Communists and Communist China. Profusely illustrated it focuses on material found in posters, magazines, books as well as their individual components in the use of typefaces, color, slogans, and logos. For those fascinated with graphic design this book is a must although it may sit uncomfortably on the coffee table next to much less emotionally jarring works.

Of course for me, the Soviet approach and utopian visions of El Lissitzky and Rodchenko are always a fascinating read, but the chapters in Iron Fists on Fascist Italy and the Chinese cultural revolution drew more attention from me this time. Where, however is the chapter on Japan? I'd have thought that would be a given.

Heller is a fine guide through this material and the examples of design he presents are first rate. Some of the most disturbing examples could be found in his inclusion of anti-Semitic children's book illustrations that were designed to shape the most impressionable minds.

The production values of Iron Fists are very high -- the printing is beautiful and the acetate cover is a fine addition to this volume. That said, those qualities make this is a pricey book -- retailing at $90.00. Iron Fists is published by Phaidon.


Anonymous said...

Thank for the review, I hope to take a look at this book soon.
I'm not sure why you would include Japan in the book though. Hirohito was an ruler of "divine right" in line with a century old feudal system. Unlike the elected European dictators and revolutionary China and Russia there were no need to reform the minds of the people. I'd speculate there was no comparable "branding" taking place. Unless you thought of the Meiji restoration but that took place much earlier.

Anonymous said...


What would you say about the typical Japanese War flag. If that's not graphic design to motivate/brainwash people, what is?

Anonymous said...


I was thinking more of the war-time propaganda that was aimed at not rallying support around the leader but for the cause of making Japan the leader of the Asian countries. There was a whole wealth of great design in booklets and posters aimed at this cause. But you are worked differently in many ways from the Russian, Nazi or Chinese branding.