Usually, when someone mentions advertising the military-industrial complex they mean something fairly sinister: “manufacturing consent,” improper incestuous lobbying, or somesuch. But sometimes, advertising the military-industrial complex really just means advertising – making a product look good. That was certainly the case when the Swiss graphic designer Erik Nitsche started working for General Dynamics in the mid-50s.
The 1950s was when corporations started commissioning corporate identities from designers, like Paul Rand’s iconic IBM logo. Boeing was ahead of the curve with its bespoke Stratoliner typeface, created in the late 1940s and still used in the Boeing logo today, but nowhere were the results quite as striking as in Nitsche’s work for General Dynamics. If there was a company in desperate need of a corporate identity in the 50s, GD was it. The company was an amalgamation of eleven different business units, including Electric Boat (submarines), Canadair and Convair (aircraft), Electro-Dynamic (motors), Stromberg-Carlson (telecommunications), and General Atomics (nuclear reactors). It got the visual kick it needed from Nitsche, whose connection with the company began when he worked on GD ads for The Gotham Agency before being commission directly by GD’s CEO John Jay Hopkins to create a poster series for the 1955 Atoms for Peace conference in Geneva.
The results were nothing short of remarkable. Design writer Steven Heller has called Nitsche “The Reluctant Modernist,” because his simple, clean style was as much the result of low budgets as of functionalist principles. Nitsche called Swiss design “‘a little too cold for our uses,” and said that when it came to typefaces, “I really never went outside of my love for Didot,” but for GD he created a series of posters that leapt into the future with equal parts enthusiasm and confidence.
The Atoms for Peace posters, which were followed by several more series, offered abstract representations of GD’s core businesses. “Electrodynamics” was represented by a lighbulb with a nuclear core, silhouetted against the globe, “underseas frontiers” by a propeller within a colorful swirling maelstrom. The Triga reactor was depicted as black control rods sliding down into a grid of cool blue circles. Probably the most representational poster, and the most famous, had the first nuclear submarine – the USS Nautilus – shooting out of a nautlius shell (which doubled, in Heller’s words, as “a virtual cornucopia of progress”). The text on the posters, usually little more than the chosen theme and the name GENERAL DYNAMICS in a crisp, wide sans serif, exuded confidence without being overbearing. The elongated letters, especially Gs and Cs with their strong horizontal lines, made it look like GD was going somewhere: without being particularly specific about where that was, or what effort might be required. Nitsche also did the advertising for the ill-fated Convair 880 jetliner, which got trounced by the Boeing 707 and the Douglas DC-8 despite being the “world’s fastest jetliner.”
It’s interesting just how much money and effort goes into advertising for defense contractors. Vogue looks restrained in terms of how many ads they cram in before the table of contents compared to the Jane’s defense yearbooks. Look at Aviation Week and Space Technology and ask yourself, why are they paying for all of this? Because one presumes that no one is making multi-million dollar weapons acquisition decisions on the basis of advertising.
The answer, of course, is that impressions matter, and people are impressionable even when they are trying to be dispassionate. Erik Nitsche’s posters and corporate design gave GD a larger public profile than it might otherwise have had. But it also spoke to those involved in the business decisions that could make or break the company. After all, who would look at those eye-catching images without thinking – this is a company that’s going somewhere.
Sources: Steven Heller has written about Erik Nitsche and his work for General Dynamics in several places, including the January/February 1998 issue of Print magazine, but the most accessible version of his profile is at Typotheque. Images of Nitsche’s work for GD are all over the internet, including General Dynamics’ own website, where you can see the USS Nautilus and Triga posters mentioned above. The “electrodynamcs,” “underseas frontiers,” and Convair 880 posters all appear in Heller’s article in Print.”