CIA and graphic designers

Why the CIA Loves Me!

Wait…what?
That’s right! The CIA. loves graphic designers… And… they always have. Throughout the CIA’s 74-year history, the agency has used popular artists, graphic designers, and avant-garde culture to serve its aim and enact American “soft power.” We’ll get into that later…

Their rebrand in 2021 sparked up a lot of discussions again on their relationships with top designers to appeal to new generations. Millennials and younger generations care more about creative logos and websites. They know that. They want to appeal to the masses. Very similar to how younger generations wanted to see more freedom of expression in art in the 1940s-1960s.

The CIA psychological operations—or “Psy-Ops”—have routinely used pop culture covertly for propaganda purposes. In the ’50s, through groups like The American Society of African Culture, the CIA paid for jazz musicians like Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, and my favorite: Nina Simone to perform around the world. How great right! Diversity encouragement in the 1950s… No. It was to counteract some of the negative publicity around America’s racism and the tragedies of the civil rights movement that was secretly paid for by the CIA.

They even recruit graphic designers and artists. Former executive secretary at MoMA, Thomas Braden was hired in the 40s to direct their cultural activities in Europe. The CIA paid salaries to American abstract expressionist painters, like Jackson Pollock – whose work was seen as free of politics and a celebration of individual freedom. Their goal was to fight communism with art!

Although designers before the ’60s didn’t often express their personal politics, the mid-century modernist graphic designers that succeeded made their work to align with red, white, and blue values. Coincidence? No. They got paid to. And got paid WELL!

The CIA frequently looked to magazines as a way of challenging the left-wing, anti-American views that were prominent among intellectuals in Western Europe after WWII. To be fair – not all of the magazines across the world that received CIA money were aware of the source of their funds. In fact, most were completely unaware.

Der Montat; Encounter was known as a progressive, intelligent platform to speak on what was going on during the day. They embraced minimalism in their covers with well-designed fonts. Soon this style (which is back in trend now) would be a red flag to the Iron Curtain that anything with sleek graphic design was propagandistic. Perspectives were no different in making socialists or dictators nervous.

As with most covert operations and propaganda, it’s hard to judge the real impact these cultural cold war projects had. In reality, the USSR’s brutal response to the Hungarian uprisings of 1956 had a far bigger impact on European intellectuals than American and CIA-funded literary magazines ever could.

However, as with the CIA’s new rebrand, they serve as a perfect example that design sometimes can be political – but will always be powerful.

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