Is Graphic Design the C.I.A.’s Passion?
This week, the Central Intelligence Agency unveiled a new design for its website, CIA.gov, which wouldn’t have been news if the site had stuck to the formal signifiers of government authority: dense bureaucratic text, link directories, declarative headers, nothing too fancy.
Instead, CIA.gov is set against a stark black background, offset by dots and lines that form topographical contours. There are subtle hallmarks of modern web design, like the site’s animated scroll. The crisp lines and muted color palette suggest a minimalist branding strategy.
On social media, people noted the website’s visual similarity to electronic music festival fliers and streaming platforms like Boiler Room. Others compared it to the look of The Intercept, an online publication known for its reporting on the C.I.A., as well as marketing materials for brands like Urban Outfitters.
“C.I.A’s mission is unlike any other, and our website reflects it. With CIA.gov’s black-and-white color scheme, photography and graphics, we want to pique the interest of talented applicants and provide a modern, relatable experience,” said Nicole De Haay, a spokeswoman for the agency, in a phone interview.
Much of the conversation on social media revolved around the tension between the C.I.A.’s role in American security and the website’s trendy graphical cues.
“If I didn’t read the copy, I wouldn’t know if this was for a direct-to-consumer designer toothbrush or an organization that’s been accused of destabilizing governments worldwide,” said Eric Hu, a freelance creative director who served previously as a design director at Nike Sportswear.
Regardless of whether the C.I.A.’s mood board actually included 2010s electronic music culture, Mr. Hu agreed with those who noticed visual similarities. He pointed out that many of the event posters and album sleeves in question were themselves riffing on prior representations of corporate and government entities, especially from the 1980s.
“Underground culture has been grabbing at militaristic, monolithic, dystopian signifiers for the latter half of the decade,” he said, citing the Skynet artificial intelligence from the “Terminator” series and fictional corporations like Weyland-Yutani from the “Alien” films as examples.
“Objectively, it’s really funny that the C.I.A. has used a visual language that used to be considered evil and dystopian, and that’s since been kind of pacified,” Mr. Hu said. “It just seems like this full circle, ouroboros kind of thing, where it’s like, club culture kids took an evil aesthetic and made it cool.”
Mr. Hu pointed out that the C.I.A. is no stranger to the tactical use of aesthetics; during the Cold War, the agency reportedly funded avant-garde American painters like Jackson Pollock in order to draw a contrast to the stifling intellectual atmosphere of the Soviet Union.
Ultimately, he said, the C.I.A. rebrand revealed the futility in trying to use graphic design as a marker of political ideology. “It’s just a reminder that you shouldn’t look at something and say, like, ‘That is a liberal font and that is a conservative font,’” he said. “Everything’s been deterritorialized.”
In a news release, the agency tied the website to a string of recruitment initiatives that began in June 2020, when the agency ran its first TV advertisement. The new site, which directs to the C.I.A.’s careers page, features photographs of diverse young people and their testimonials.
“We’ve come a long way since I applied by simply mailing a letter marked ‘CIA, Washington, D.C.,’” said Gina Haspel, the C.I.A. director, in the release.
The website’s high-tech look and focus on recruitment also underscores that the C.I.A. is competing for talent with Silicon Valley. “The website looked like a digital advertising agency website,” Mr. Hu said.
The C.I.A. declined to comment on who created the website. Shortly after it was revealed, the conceptual artist and graphic designer Ryder Ripps — known for work with brands like Soylent and Pornhub, and musicians including Kanye West, Pop Smoke and Grimes — claimed credit on an Instagram page he uses as a digital portfolio. It was a troll, and it worked; the comments section of his post overflowed with sarcastic retorts. “Didn’t know there was a Squarespace template for imperialist coups,” one person wrote.
“Platforms online are games played through the attention economy — authorship and sincerity is murky as it is,” Mr. Ripps wrote in an email when asked what inspired his post. “People were already living a fantasy before I posted it, saying that I had made the CIA branding, why not take their fantasy further and say I made it?”
“I think its cool that they were so inspired by the Soylent branding I did in 2013,” he added, jokingly.
In addition to riffing on the design, Mr. Ripps had some criticism to offer.
“I think it’s pretty bad,” he wrote, “mostly because it’s looking from the inside to the outside of design — referencing ‘cool’ design of today (maybe actually a few years ago), all the while the government (and CIA) already has a very strong Federal design language. It probably could have used some tweaking for an update.”