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The Curious Case of the U.S. Government’s Influence on 20th-Century Design

By Nikil Saval

A design by Eero Saarinen’s O.S.S. team for a State Department presentation room, which helped create the template for the situation room.
Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
A design by Eero Saarinen’s O.S.S. team for a State Department presentation room, which helped create the template for the situation room.

The Office of Strategic Services was the first centralised foreign intelligence agency in the United States, the direct precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. Founded during World War II by order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the O.S.S. (or the Coordinator of Information, as it was originally called) was established “to collect, analyze, and correlate information and data bearing on national security, to make such data available to the President and such other officials as determined by the President, and to perform related supplementary activities.” And yet its role soon became much larger and more influential. The head of the O.S.S., Colonel William “Wild Bill” Donovan, quickly realised that the information produced by the global war, fought on multiple fronts and territories, needed to be painstakingly abstracted, graphically depicted and efficiently presented. The O.S.S. mission expanded to include not only information gathering through research and counterintelligence but also packaging and interpreting that information for the president and other key decision makers. Propaganda played a crucial role during World War II, with the O.S.S. leading efforts to demoralise the enemy and encourage resistance in Axis-controlled countries. They created a stamp bearing the face of Hitler rendered as a skull, produced radio broadcasts in German, spread pamphlets announcing a German general’s resignation and made films for new military recruits, such as the Hollywood producer Darryl F. Zanuck’s circa 1943 “Organization of the Army,” which was commissioned by General George C. Marshall. Through its manipulation of the art of information, the agency helped shape the look and philosophy of American imperialism. In doing so, the O.S.S. assembled a concentration of acumen and talent that rivalled those of the iconic schools and institutes that propagated design in the 20th century. It was the Bauhaus, but for war.

In his previous career as a lawyer, the exceptionally charismatic Donovan had been an enthusiast for the latest presentation techniques, like colour pamphlets, which at the time were visionary. He brought these interests with him to the O.S.S., whose main headquarters were in Washington, D.C. “This type of warfare,” Donovan said in a speech before the House Appropriations Committee in 1944, “is largely fought underground and behind the enemy’s lines. … The typical field of operations of O.S.S. is those places where our armed forces are not in control — the various no-man’s lands.”

These “no-man’s lands” — the mercurial battlefields of espionage and morale generally — observed no disciplinary boundaries and few political niceties. Donovan and his colleagues were voracious for knowledge: They hired pioneering anthropologists and exiled German Marxists and adventurous filmmakers (the director John Ford, who had already won three Academy Awards by the time America entered the war, was an O.S.S. employee) to help with information campaigns. In her 2011 book, “A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the O.S.S.,” the journalist Jennet Conant wrote that the agency “had the lenient, idiosyncratic atmosphere of a small college, with the same tolerance for campus radicals, zealots and oddballs.” The office earned the nickname “Oh So Social” for its high concentration of Ivy Leaguers and also, possibly, for the relationships that blossomed under its auspices. Julia McWilliams, an O.S.S. employee, met her husband, Paul Child, a graphic designer, while they were both stationed in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

Courtesy of the National Archives and Records AdministrationAn O.S.S. sketch for the proposed stage of the 1945 conference in San Francisco where the founding charter of the United Nations was signed.
An O.S.S. sketch for the proposed stage of the 1945 conference in San Francisco where the founding charter of the United Nations was signed.

But while the O.S.S. is known for its intelligence-gathering operations and its dissemination of propaganda in enemy territory, its perhaps least heralded legacy is in the field of design. Crucially, the organization had its own dedicated design branch — renamed the Presentation Branch in 1944 — that oversaw the creation of graphics, maps, slides and short films about the war effort. (The design historian Barry Katz outlined this history in a groundbreaking 1996 article in the journal Design Issues.) These served various purposes, as requested by members of the military and Department of State. The Presentation team, often working with Research & Analysis and other O.S.S. divisions, explained the diet and nutrition of German city dwellers in order to help the United States government better understand the enemy; illustrated the correct use of weapons, like knives and grenades, and created models of weapons; detailed Japanese “superstitions” for the purposes of psychological warfare; and sent cartoonists to Indonesia to make studies of local iconography that could serve as anti-Japanese propaganda. For these efforts, the O.S.S. would draw on the expertise of an astonishing number of designers from across disciplines: Raymond LoewyHenry Dreyfuss and Walter Dorwin Teague, who had all recently worked on the 1939 New York World’s Fair, with its focus on “The World of Tomorrow”; Walt Disney, the most powerful creator of animated myths in the 20th century; Lewis Mumford, an architecture writer for The New Yorker and an unsparing critic of modern technology; Orson Welles’s assistant on “Citizen Kane”; the designer of the Q-Tip box, who also — in his capacity at the O.S.S. — led the team that designed the logo for the United Nations.

The look of these projects was subsequently so absorbed by postwar America, and by the private sector in particular, that it remains easy to overlook the Presentation Branch of the O.S.S. as a birthplace not just for contemporary design as we know it but for the way we now conduct professional life. The O.S.S. pioneered the use of visual displays in conferences, now such a staple of business and industry that it’s hard to imagine them having an origin story — namely, at the War Department conference at the Pentagon in 1943, which convened business and labour leaders to get them onboard with the total war effort. The basic template of instructional pamphlets and posters — the kind you see on every airplane or near every fire exit — is also a feature of O.S.S. iconography, which offered minimalist, illustrated instructions on how to use a knife against a Nazi in hand-to-hand combat. With the Nuremberg Trials, for which the O.S.S. designed the courtroom — the placement of the military guard, the solitary witness box that made a testifier look guilty, the graphic displays of Nazi war crimes — the office created the look of political theatre for years to come, a setting that was dramatic but controlled, a scene ready for C-Span. It was the Special Exhibits division of the O.S.S., headed by Eero Saarinen, who would become a pre-eminent postwar architect, that was responsible for honing the concept of the situation room, the stage where the bureaucratic mechanics of war would play out, and which would eventually become such a part of the culture — from “Dr. Strangelove” to the front page of The New York Times — that it would change the perception of how wars themselves are fought.

Design was in some sense the perfect profession to accompany the strange, “soft” side of the war effort, a kind of espionage in itself. In the 1940s, industrial design was, as a 1946 Museum of Modern Art exhibition described it, “a new profession,” suffused with energy, which promised to transform every aspect of daily life: from the spoon you used to stir your coffee to the roads you drove on to the way you communicated, interpreted and consumed ideas. With antecedents in British and European social democracy — the lectures and work of the socialist William Morris, the utopian ideas swirling around the Bauhaus in 1920s Germany positing that design should reflect a society at its most efficient and egalitarian — modern industrial design had a revolutionary mission. Design was art in everyday life. It could have universal applications.

Courtesy of the National Archives and Records AdministrationThe catalogue of a 1943 MoMA exhibition intended to elicit public support for the war.
The catalogue of a 1943 MoMA exhibition intended to elicit public support for the war.

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, one of the early instructors at the Bauhaus, wrote in 1940 that a “designer trained to think with both penetration and scope will find solutions, not alone for problems arising in daily routine, or for development of better ways of production, but also for all problems of living and working together. There is design in family life, in labour relations, in city planning, in living together as civilised human beings.” When he wrote that, he was a refugee from Nazism in Chicago, where he had recently founded the New Bauhaus. The design historian Robin Schuldenfrei, in her 2012 book “Atomic Dwelling: Anxiety, Domesticity, and Postwar Architecture,” pointed out that Moholy-Nagy’s experimental, pragmatic approach to design made it adaptable when he was called upon to serve the war effort. Before too long, he and his school (renamed the Institute of Design in 1944) were working with the Army on poster design and with the Office of Civilian Defense in Washington on camouflage. In 1942, this titanic artist and photographer was described in the military journal Civilian Defense as “among the best informed men in America on camouflage techniques.”

In other words, it wasn’t just the O.S.S. that got involved in the design game. The Office of War Information, an agency aimed squarely at the American public, hired graphic designers to create legendary American war propaganda — including a shushing Uncle Sam (a reminder to people not to discuss troop movements). Charles and Ray Eames perfected their plywood-molding technique in designing splints for wounded soldiers. And R. Buckminster Fuller was contracted to deploy dozens of his Dymaxion Deployment Units — circular, aluminium, shedlike houses modelled after rural grain bins — at U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean and the Pacific. After the war, these figures would employ their respective methods in the American postwar design adventure. Without those moulded splints, there might be no Eames plywood chair.

In the same way that Ford and General Motors halted production of cars in favour of tanks and bombers, contemporary design was changed by the experience of participating in the war effort. Though it’s still common sense to think of design as an essentially private, commercial profession involved in styling products for consumers, during World War II, designers found new, more democratic techniques and means for their work. Questions that would become mainstays of graphic design — of how to represent numbers, how to use colour for emotional and dramatic effect, how to represent change over time in a single image — were revolutionised in the context of the American intelligence community. In fact, design may have reached the pinnacle of its influence and achievement as an arm of the government — impossible to imagine today, when federal subsidies for the arts, of any kind, are parsimonious.

But this elevation of the idea of design was arguably also the beginning of the end of its social pretensions. Designers had joined the O.S.S. to fight fascism, but by the end of the war, many were spread out across the intelligence community and conscripted into the American Cold War effort, whose reach, like that of design, was limitless. After all, the United States was attempting to win over “hearts and minds” — the entire beings of any individuals, anywhere — to its cause. Under the auspices of the State Department, exhibitions of the American way of life became common abroad. In 1959, a model American house set up in a Moscow park infamously became a staging ground for a debate — broadcast to millions — between the American vice president, Richard Nixon, and the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, over the merits of their respective systems. Half a century later, “situation rooms” had become theatres of 24-hour pseudo-debate, as in the eponymously titled news show on CNN, or arenas for projecting presidential power, as in the famous image of President Barack Obama and his advisers watching the 2011 assault on Osama bin Laden’s compound. The wartime alliance of design and power did not produce a more peaceful world — only one in which the art of presentation came to overpower our understanding of that world.