Exhibition view of Graphic Arts USA, 1963. Courtesy Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv.

To see the CIA launch a contemporary rebrand that has been likened to electronic music fliers or a generic tech conference identity was a start to 2021 that we didn’t see coming. The CIA’s vaguely trendy new look, unveiled on January 1st, which uses typefaces by the independent Swiss foundry Grilli Type, is clearly an attempt to improve the agency’s image among young people and to represent itself as a diverse place, shaking up its reputation as a white, male, upper-class, old boys network. In the wake of the CIA’s visual identity update, many people and publications erroneously believed that digital artist and graphic designer Ryder Ripps was responsible for the rebrand following his Instagram post taking credit for the identity, which has since been shown to be a prank.

Had it been true, it wouldn’t have been entirely without precedent. Throughout the CIA’s 74 year history, the agency has used popular artists or avant-garde culture to serve its aims and exercise American “soft power.” The CIA’s psychological operations—or “Psy-Ops”—have routinely used popular culture covertly for propaganda purposes abroad while hiding its own financial or logistical involvement behind front-organizations and plausible deniability. In the ’50s, through groups like The American Society of African Culture and the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the CIA paid for jazz musicians like Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, and Nina Simone to perform around the world, showcasing a uniquely American art form predicated in total creative freedom, with the added benefit of trying to counteract some of the negative publicity around America’s racism and the tragedies of the civil rights movement. 

Visual art was also sometimes touched by covert CIA involvement. MoMA in particular had links to the agency. Thomas Braden was its executive secretary from 1948–9 before joining the CIA where he directed cultural activities in Europe. MoMA and the CIA seemingly shared many goals; as early as 1941 the museums’ president John Hay Whitney, who during the war had briefly worked for the CIA’s forerunner the OSS, declared that the museum had a place in national defense and could be used to help counteract elements “who are doing their best to minimize the achievements and the potentialities of the United States.” It is now accepted that CIA funds, funneled through the Congress for Cultural Freedom and various real or made-up foundations, were used to promote the work of American abstract expressionist painters, like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning, whose work was seen as free of political baggage and a celebration of individual freedom. It helped that Russia, once a bastion of avant-garde abstraction thanks to Constructivism, had abandoned non-representational art in favor of state-mandated “socialist realism.”

The agency has long used popular artists or avant-garde culture to serve its aims and exercise American “soft power.”

Many areas of culture were drawn, wittingly or otherwise, into the politically motivated battles of the mid-century, and the nascent field of graphic design didn’t emerge unscathed. It proved both a useful tool in the spreading of information and also a highly valuable expression in itself. While researching my book Mid-Century Modern Graphic Design it became clear that, although designers before the ’60s didn’t often express their personal politics in their work, the dominant characteristics of mid-century modernist graphic design made it ideally aligned to the image America wanted to project to the world. Particularly its creative freedom, space for personal styles, lack of overriding rules, and perhaps most of all: its weddedness to capitalist consumer culture. 

In the wake of World War II, both sides of the ideologically-motivated Cold War used culture and media as a weapon, aiming to win people over to their political viewpoints while counteracting negative perceptions among neutrals. This intellectual battlefield became known as the “Cultural Cold War,” a phrase popularized by British writer Frances Stonor Saunders in her ground-breaking 1999 book Who Paid the Piper?: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War. Russia was keen to paint the US as imperialistic greedy capitalists from a racist and unequal country that was culturally barren; while America tended to focus on Soviet citizens’ lack of creative freedom, which proved an ideal cipher to highlight oppression more generally. Although many facets of the American state apparatus were involved in the propaganda battles of the Cold War, the CIA was at the forefront of attempts to subconsciously assimilate people outside the US to the American way of life through covert cultural means. 

The CIA frequently looked to printed media as a way of challenging the left-wing, anti-American views that were prominent among intellectuals in Western Europe and at times, to more generally sow dissent beyond the Iron Curtain. The agency subsidized the printing and distribution of thousands of Russian-language copies of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, a novel forbidden in the USSR because of its anti-Bolshevik views. Magazines, in particular, were seen by the CIA as a valuable weapon in winning over hearts and minds to the American viewpoint. In 1967 a New York Times article revealed that both the CIA and Britain’s equivalent, MI6, had secretly funded Encounter, one of the UK’s leading literary and cultural magazines. In West Germany, the CIA backed another new journal; Der Monat and used Marshall Plan aid money to fund it. 

Not all of the many magazines across the globe that received CIA money were aware of the source of their funds, and neither were staff and contributors. In fact, most were completely unaware. Often the money was covertly funneled through the seemingly independent Congress for Cultural Freedom, or the magazines’ precarious coffers were simply kept afloat by the CCF purchasing many copies for European distribution. Another magazine frequently included in discussions of CIA funding is the still-published and beautifully-designed Paris Review, whose co-founder Peter Matthiessen was later revealed to be a CIA agent. Although Matthiessen denied that the magazine was ever funded by the agency—he maintained that it was part of his cover story for being in Europe—research in recent years has revealed that at the very least the magazine benefited financially from CIA money being used by the CCF to license articles for other agency-backed magazines across Europe. 

In keeping with their left-wing credentials and shoestring budgets, CIA-backed magazines embraced minimally designed covers. The Paris Review was refined but somewhat classical, as was Der Montat; Encounter favored a more progressive and modern approach sometimes using sans-serifs, half-tone photographs, and simple geometric backgrounds. The most graphically interesting was The Partisan Review, which received funding from the CIA through the CCF in the late ’50s and early ’60s. It had a striking, avant-garde design which had changed little since its founding in the mid-1930s as a literary magazine aligned to communism, a viewpoint which would later drift towards the center. As noted in an American National Security Council Directive of 1948, covert action “conducted or sponsored by this Government against hostile foreign states or groups, or in support of friendly foreign states or groups” should be done in such a way that “US Government responsibility for them is not evident to unauthorized persons.” Slick graphic design was often deemed too much of a giveaway of propagandistic purposes and potential state-involvement. 

Slick graphic design was often deemed too much of a giveaway of propagandistic purposes and potential state-involvement. 

An earlier example of American cultural Cold War publishing was perhaps a cautionary tale for the CIA when it came to utilizing leading proponents of graphic design. Perspectives was launched in October 1952 and published by Intercultural Publications, a non-profit created expressly to publish the journal with funding provided in the form of a massive $500,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, the equivalent of almost 5 million dollars in today’s money. Perspectives, which was printed in English, German, French, and Italian, was the brainchild of James Laughlin, the founder and editor of New Directions, America’s foremost modernist and avant-garde literary publishing house. Published four times a year, Perspectives showcased the very best of high-minded American culture, especially art and literature. Writing in 1952, Time magazine reported that the journal was “designed to show people outside the US that ‘Americans can think as well as chew gum.’’’ According to Time, the journal would be “uncompromisingly highbrow” and would include “no advertising, propaganda or politics.” Of course, just because it didn’t seem to contain propaganda or politics, didn’t mean that it wasn’t actually propaganda. Laughlin was less circumspect. He noted that his aim for the magazine was not “so much to defeat the leftist intellectuals in dialectical combat as to lure them away from their positions by aesthetic and rational persuasion.” 

The aesthetic persuasion Laughlin was referring to was modernism, and the journal’s design, especially its covers, was an extremely important aspect of this. One of America’s leading designers Alvin Lustig, for whom Laughlin’s New Directions had been a great patron, was brought in to design the first issue and to act as the creative director. Just as Perspectives editorship changed every issue to “avoid any taint of cultism,” each issue would have a different cover designer. Lustig designed the debut in a red, white and blue color scheme with an abstract cover riffing on a literal interpretation of the journal’s title. Writing about the project for Typographica magazine, Lustig noted that he aimed to “provide a lively and dynamic version of the usual some­what stilted form of the ‘scholarly’ magazine that would be interesting but still not self-conscious.” 

The run of the first 12 Perspectives covers are perhaps the most archetypal examples of what American mid-century modern graphic design was all about: creative freedom, avant-garde influences, individual approaches, and playful abstract graphic illustration. Some of the leading US-based designers of the day would create covers for Perspectives including Leo Lionni, Rudolph de Harak, Paul Rand, and former Bauhaus teacher Herbert Bayer, as well as names now less well-known such as Erle Yahn, Jerome Kuhl, Jason Kirby, Frank Lieberman, and Clemens L. Mirmont. Each designer was given an incredible level of creative freedom; surprisingly, given the title had to be translated to German, French and Italian, as well as being given the suffix USA in the American edition, there wasn’t even a consistent masthead. Even the list ‘Art, Music, Literature’ that appeared on the front of some issues, didn’t seem to be imposed on designers, and all but two of the designers signed their covers.

Although Perspectives’ high-quality design carried many values that the US hoped to project into the world, it didn’t help make the journal a success. In Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy, Greg Barnhisel recounts that “many Europeans saw the magazine as ‘fairly obvious American propaganda’ because of its slick cover and low price.” Ultimately Perspectives ceased publication in 1956 after 16 issues because its backers felt it wasn’t achieving the desired effects on European intellectuals. The final four issues, perhaps in response to negative feedback, had less experimental covers that followed a consistent format set by Lustig.

While not known to be financially linked to the CIA, the aims of Perspectives were perfectly aligned with American foreign policy and mirrored publishing projects the CIA would soon fund. The Ford Foundation, which held around three billion dollars’ worth of stock in the Ford motor company, didn’t need CIA hand-outs, but it has been alleged that it was happy to act as a cover for agency money being covertly funneled to cultural projects. People working for the foundation often had ties to the intelligence community and the CCF, and as Stonor Saunders wrote; “at times, it seemed as if the Ford Foundation was simply an extension of government in the area of international cultural propaganda.” Documents now available on the CIA’s website show that in 1951 the agency gave  memos to the Foundation on the kind of projects they wanted to see them support. Richard Bissell, a Ford Foundation staffer at the time Perspectives began, frequently met with CIA head Allen Dulles to discuss their mutual aims and left the foundation in 1954 to work as Dulles’ special assistant. William Casey, who was on the board of Perspectives’ publisher Intercultural Publications Inc., would later go on to head the CIA under Ronald Reagan.

Ford, although funding Perspectives through its independent charitable foundation, wasn’t the only big American business whose aims and values were entirely in-sync with the government’s own. Since the main goal was the global spread of US-style competitive capitalism, it is unsurprising that there were often similarities between commercial advertising and CIA-funded cultural propaganda. The best example of this comes from theContainer Corporation of America, which published a series of adverts from 1950 onwards under the title of “Great Ideas of Western Man.” The series, initially art directed by Herbert Bayer, promoted “Western” thought and values, especially democracy and free speech, rather than encouraging the purchase of the company’s products. (In 1950 CCA’s chairman Walter Paepeke had founded the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, which like Perspectives, received Ford Foundation funding for its aims of infusing “post-war Capitalism with humanistic values and fostering a shared transatlantic, Western tradition” in the face of Communism.)

If Perspectives made American cultural cold warriors wary of using slick graphic design on their covert propaganda, due to it being too much of a giveaway of large financial aid, graphic designs’ propagandistic potential hadn’t been completely exploited. Exhibitions, like publications, had long been valued for their ability to communicate the message America wanted to spread in Europe and beyond. As designer and researcher Ruben Pater wrote, MoMA’s 1955 photographic exhibition The Family of Man, which had a catalogue designed by Leo Lionni, received state funding to travel abroad, spreading “the values of the West by showing that freedom and the inclusion of all cultures and religions was an alternative to the closed and strict ideology offered by the Soviets.” This foreign tour was assisted by the United States Information Agency (USIA), and people have claimed that MoMA’s International Program received CIA funding.

The most blatant example of mid-century graphic design being used for Cold War propaganda was an exhibition initiated by the USIA’s design director Jack Masey: Graphic Arts USA, an exhibition mounted at four Soviet cities from 1963 to 1964 as part of a cultural exchange with the USSR. It later travelled to eight cities in Romania, Poland, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia in 1964 to 1965. The exhibit, which had an identity designed by Tom Geismar of Chermayeff & Geismar, showcased the best of American graphic design and illustration to an audience accustomed to “Socialist Realism,” the representational style sanctioned by the Communist state. The American magazine Pageant reported on the show in 1964, noting that: ‘“The exhibition is a study in calculated disorder, diversity, and uninhibited gaiety. It has been designed to show what happens in a society where an artist, whatever his talents happen to be, is free to let his imagination run in any direction he wants.” 

Many of the most quintessentially mid-century modern graphic designers and illustrators had their work included, and the takeaway portfolio of prints, which a reported 3 million-plus Soviet visitors purchased, contained an entire section devoted to “humorous illustration.” The underlying message of Graphic Arts USA—that capitalism and artistic freedom results in fun, appealing, and exciting graphic art—was blatant rather than covert. Seemingly “non-ideological” graphics proved an ideal way to sneak a snapshot of everyday American life to viewers beyond the Iron Curtain who frequently waited in long lines to get into the exhibition. An annual report of the USIA reflecting on the exhibition recounts that Russian-speaking American guide staff at the exhibition were “besieged with questions on the controversial subject of abstract art” and that “as with previous exhibits, there was considerable visitor interest in life in America, and the guides themselves proved to be one of the prominent attractions of the exhibit.” 

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 the attitudes of European intellectuals than American and CIA-funded literary magazines ever could, and Soviet citizens didn’t need to see an exhibition of American graphic design to know that their lives weren’t as free as they could have been. With hindsight, in comparison to training death squads, assisting in coups, attempted assassinations of foreign leaders, using illegal torture, testing psychedelic drugs on unwitting subjects, selling arms to embargoed countries to support right-wing militias, and counting a drug-smuggling South American president as an intelligence asset—the examples from the cultural cold war seem pretty tame. However, as with the CIA’s new rebrand, they serve as a perfect example that design, and culture in general, is always political.