Design As A Weapon

This post is part of an ongoing series of collaborative conversations. All rights are reserved by the original author, Ryan Burrell.

In my first post in this collaborative series, I worked to develop a broader definition of what Design is – something more than what we tend to think about.  I touched on the idea of Design being a multi-edged sword, a force that can be used for many causes.  Commonly, we think of it as a tool for branding, presentation of ideas, and aesthetic pleasantness.  But can design be used for destruction?  A weapon for good or evil – against the mind or body?

A Branding of War & Nations

German Swastika
US Air Force emblem
Hammer & Sickle

For most of recorded history, nations and tribes have had some form of designating visual symbol.  Empires have had crests, banners, and flags.  Rulers have had signets, sigils, and emblems.  The adornments of soldiers and royalty, the style of weapons, and even the architecture of a culture were all visual decisions designed (consciously or subconsciously) to set a society apart.  The idea is twofold: instill national pride, and make sure your enemies know who you are.  The crest of a warlord or the flag of a nation could strike fear into the hearts of an enemy, or herald the return of hope to a beleaguered country.

In more recent times, we’ve seen the transition from cultural art to dedicated design when it comes to the presentation of power and force.  Ancient symbols have now become sanitized and placed on our flags, with thought put in to their alignment and presentation.  Think of the Nazi swastika, a foreboding cross in a white sphere on a field of red – a brutal herald of an extremist movement.  Or the American military badge that was its contemporary, a shining white star on an expansive blue background, backed by a crimson bar.  The former stereotypical Russian hammer and sickle imparted a sense of pride in strength and power, of struggle and dominance.  To this day, all military units possess some sort of badge that serves to identify their unit affiliation, as well as a herald of sorts that proclaims their past deeds and exploits.  These icons were not casually or idly created, but were designed to install certain thoughts in the viewer’s perception.  Colors, images, shape, line, form, and placement have all been employed to create signs of status – the logos of the world’s societies and military powers.

A Weapon of the Mind

WW2 Propaganda Poster

Whatever the perceived powers of Design may be, the true strength of it remains within the realm of the human psyche.  Design’s results affect those who view them, and the viewer may be irrevocably changed because of it.  A poster cannot will you to fire a rifle, but it may impart a deep emotional response that fires your sense of nationalism – which is perhaps more dangerous.  A billboard sign can’t make you suspicious of your neighbor for treason, but it can instill a sense of the extreme importance of national security and doing your part to keep it.

The term I’m dancing around here is “propaganda”, the famous posters and advertisements of the World War II era perhaps being the most exemplary.  Propaganda is little more than defined rumor, but rumors have so much more weight when a visual element is applied.

A Weapon for Weapons

The industrial design and architecture involved in creating the physical weapons of war cannot be ignored either.  In ancient times, weapons were not only functional but highly stylized.  A great warrior’s heavily embellished sword and scabbard would set him apart from other combatants, bringing fear and respect.  I’m reminded of the fantastic Arms & Armor book I read as a child which contained hundreds of examples of deadly, beautiful, and intriguingly functional weapons.  The brilliance of their designs was not simply in their stylized appearance, but in the fact that they were highly effective as well.

The design behind combat and an arsenal is part utility, part engineering, and part emotional impact.  A weapon must work, it must do its job with a minimum of extra effort and expense, and it must be intimidating.  Think of the sight of Apache helicopters hovering over a battlefield, or the iconic bulky, brooding Russian tanks of the Cold War era.  Imagine the sleek appearance of the first Messerschmitt combat jet in World War II, and the reaction of the enemy pilots in their clunky piston engine flyers trundling through the sky.  In war, the design behind combat can be just as important as the force.

A New Face for Modern Warfare

US Air Force & Army logos

In the modern day, the American armed forces perhaps more than any other military organization before or present have focused on defining themselves to the public via visual presentations and marketing.  The Army and Air Force specifically have developed logos for themselves that obviously attempt to modernize their images.  They have created slogans, and these have been given over to any number of print ads, websites, music videos, and commercials to tout becoming a part of “An army of one” or setting off “Into the blue”.  And driving home the meaning behind these ideas is a huge design force, making sure that the branding has consistency, the presentation is visually engaging, the information is shown clearly, and (above all) that everything that goes out makes the expected impact.

This is the darker side of Design – a creative force for destruction, and a huge contributing factor in the politics, propaganda, execution, and mentality of warfare.  I invite you to take a closer look at the symbolism of the nations of the world, and to research the motives behind those symbols.  Design reaches much further than the idealized notion of printed graphic tees and magazine ads we think of; the tip of the blade can be turned many ways.