From Iceland — The Violent Outburst of Graphic Design

The Violent Outburst of Graphic Design

Published August 5, 2005

The Violent Outburst of Graphic Design

Liberal economist Thorvaldur Gylfason recently mentioned that once upon a time, and until quite late, history had been saturated with politics. Yes, from his words one could gather that history had once even been political history, pure and simple, whereas this would no longer be the case. What history consists of today, he did not mention, but certainly graphic design is a prominent candidate. One might even risk declaring the precise point where it, not so secretly, took over.

At the beginning of the 20th century visuality entered a new era with the arrival of the camera. In a civilization founded on texts, where the rule of law has been the rule of the word, the arrival of direct visual testimony to the universe and habitat of humans was loud, even violent. The most violent response to the new visuality may be found in Nazism, which can, quite cynically, be seen as strictly centred on graphic design: to make humanity stylistically coherent.

Of course, bringing Nazism up in any context is usually a rhetorical suicide. So this should be clarified and qualified a bit: things have been made to look this way or that way for a long time, for many different reasons, aesthetic or pragmatic. But it was only after the birth of the photocamera, and the subsequent birth of cinema, that propaganda on the scale of Nazi Germany became possible. And Nazi Germany is not merely the most infamous manipulator of those recent visual powers, but the first to employ visuals so fully for conscious mobilization and manipulation of people. What is more, the visual aspects of Nazism reached much further than propaganda, and can be interpreted as its aim: people and their habitat were supposed to fit an overall design concept.

Adolf Hitler was stopped, as no graphic designer should be that powerful – and he was probably caught in an incoherent thought anyway: the main conclusion of the 20th century might be that you don’t need to make the world fit an image, you can simply ignore the world and make an image fit the image. Subsequently, reality has now left the planet and landed in Photoshopland, possibly declaring the only actual winner of the wars of the 20th century: the poster.

Graphic designers rule

The influence of Nazi aesthetics on graphic design is no secret to graphic designers themselves, who generally look in awe at the immense coherence and sophistication of the work of Leni Riefenstahl and her coworkers. The principles of Nazi aesthetics are more easily applied to Iceland than many other places, and its influences can be found, quite clearly in many places. For example in advertisements for Icelandic museums that collectively invite visitors to realize the origins of Icelanders – showing blonde samples of, apparently half-naked natives, in sharp, sophisticated full-page profiles. (Subsequently, foreign visitors have been known to call the museum tour the Eugenics Tour.)

The designers. They are no popstars, usually they are rather timid or shy creatures, often handsome, well-dressed or in any case stylistically conscious – but with a slight grin on their faces. Because they know. They might not brag about it, but they know it’s their world now.

One pseudo-scientific way to check that statement is the Google test. “Grafískur hönnuður”, Icelandic for “graphic designer” gives around 16,000 result pages. “Ljóðskáld” – poet – gives 850. That’s 20 mentions of graphic designers for every poet. “Myndlistarmaður” – visual artist – gives 3,600. “Blaðamaður” – journalist – does come close to the designers with 15,400, but even “Stjórnmálamaður” – politician – is far behind, at 4,170. “Nakin kona” – naked woman, only receives 194 pages. I guess the outcome might be somewhat different in English, but as I want to keep my bias, I refuse to check. On Icelandic webpages, graphic designers are 800 times more popular than naked women.
So they are all around. Obviously, all in all, even if their omnipresence may at times irritate those who claim to put substance above surface, graphic designers are not Nazis, and ours are not straightforward fascist times. Far from it. Graphic design may be just as powerful as it was in the 1930s, even more so, but its powers are used differently now than then. How then?

As every other entity in today’s neoliberal universe, graphic designers are a headless army. There is no central committee of market-oriented stylistics that controls what will be cool next season. And the phrase itself, ‘cool’ along with its synonyms, would seem to defy centralization. ‘Cool’ is the adjective of youth, a cultural phenomenon that more or less dates back to the end of WWII, applied by those people old enough to have money but young enough to have little or no inescapable social duties, such as attending children. At the same time, ‘cool’ is the leading adjective category of graphic design, going hand in hand with youth: having money, being loud, but defying duties. And they do make a lovely couple, youth and design, making the world look like a lovely – and cool – place.

Since most of contemporary graphic design is not aimed at establishing the Third Reich, what is it there for? First of all, of course, graphic design is supposed to make you want things, or at least not run away from them. They are oil to make the machinery of the economy run smoothly. In doing this, graphic designers and creative teams must strike a balance between familiarity and the sense of safety; the sense of belonging, on the one hand, and surprise or freshness on the other – the establishment and repetition of themes is needed to create a brand, at the same time, care must be taken that the audience/consumer does not become bored, that the ad is not absolutely predictable. Which is how a stylistic history evolves.

Graphic designers are, all in all, amazingly sensitive to new trends and where the world might be headed. In the wake of the Iraq invasion, for example, Apple’s design team decided to switch from their operating system’s innocent and subtle ‘aqua’ look to the more masculine, harder, stainless steel look of recent versions. The world militarized, and so did Apple computers. A bit.
And as the graphic designers get more apt at reflecting the state of the human spirit, less and less seems to be asked from words on page. Such is the power of graphic design that you can actually publish magazines that say the same thing over and over again, but make it seem “fresh” “inviting”, “cool” and even “true”, by hiring the correct creative team and feeding them enough energy drinks. You can actually publish tons of them.

Why would someone do that? Why would someone publish a magazine and fill it with text if he or she has got nothing valuable or interesting to say?

The key concept to understand that might be that of exchange value. It was Karl Marx who first pointed out how the ‘real value’ of phenomena would potentially be swallowed up by their ‘exchange’ value, under a capitalist system. We have reached the point, a while ago already, where the idea of ‘real value’ started sounding like so much metaphysical nonsense. Economists don’t believe in it. ‘How much is it?’ they ask and grin.

The wheels of the economy expect there to be a certain amount of printed material each day, to catch readers’ interests, upon which brands can be loaded, to keep their place in the market.

And the drum keeps on rolling …

German philosopher Theodor Adorno and his companion, Max Horkheimer, coined the phrase ‘culture industry’ in the 1950s. Their main concern was the state and direction of culture in the world of exchange-values, that is: culture as commodity. Adorno described this state, with an analogy of the circus, or variety-acts:

“What really constitutes the variety act, the thing which strikes any child the first time he sees such a performance, is the fact that on each occasion something happens and nothing happens at the same time. Every variety act, especially that of the clown and the juggler, is really a kind of expectation. It subsequently transpires that waiting for the thing in question, which takes place as long as the juggler manages to keep the balls going, is precisely the thing itself. In variety the applause always comes a fraction too late, namely when the viewer perceives that what was initially imagined to be a preparation for something else was just the event of which he has been cheated as it were. … Thus variety already represented the magical repetition of the industrial procedure in which the selfsame is reproduced through time – the very allegory of high capitalism which demonstrates its dominating character even as it appropriates its necessity as the freedom of play.”

Which would basically be the way graphic design makes shopping feel like a game, and dresses the carriers of advertisements and upcoming trends, as free, democratic discourse. Behind our reading, our shopping and film-going we hear the circus drum roll … and it just keeps on rolling.

Not that no one has anything to say. Among the spinning wheels of the economy, you will find quite a lot of wheels putting in a bit of extra effort, doing a bit more than is asked of them, for their own sheer pleasure … you might even find most souls hanging on to a meaningful existence by doing more – the excess, that extra little doodle on the page, the subtle colour coordination, the subversive break in that colour coordination, or even the words on the page, may originate in the simple aesthetic will, political aim or creative joy of the person behind it.

When a whole publication is founded on an idea other than simply making money and creating an aura – that is, when it is founded not merely on exchange values, but on something subjectively valuable to those who establish it – the reader can find himself taken by surprise. Joy and wonder. As if she actually has something in her hands.

Of course, such occurrences do not really affect the totality of the publishing industry, which marches on regardless: whether or not you have anything to put on paper, the paper will be printed, there will be words on it, it will all look quite neat, and it will be read.


All right. So there you are with this magazine in your hands and you’re wondering if this particular article would be worth reading if you would subtract from it all the rather nifty design tricks added to it before printing. Of course, in this particular case, no – for without those spiky designers, there would be little to speak of here. The problem with problems is that often their only solution seems to lie within themselves. That is: there seem to be few ways to actually tackle the mindless flow of aesthetically pleasing bullshit around us, with any other weaponry than its own. And so some graphic designers have started seeing themselves as part of a problem, and hope to be part of its solution – they have started acting against what they seemed doomed to be part and parcel of, and use their visual powers for subversive acts. Some examples of their work are published with this article, other brilliant material can be found on: and For example.

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