> posted by   on December 22nd 2019

Designing propaganda

The original text was in Polish and it was published at Gazeta Wyborcza 30.11/1.12.2019

Designing propaganda.

Are designers and architects responsible?

All propaganda must be popular and its intellectual level must be adjusted to the most limited intelligence among those to whom it is addressed” – Adolf Hitler, „Mein Kampf”, 1925

(quote from a video screened at the „Design of the 3rd Reich” exhibition)

Hardly anyone realizes how much of our daily lives is designed. The way we commute, the news we read or watch, or the politics out there – all that is designed.

A few weeks ago I visited an exhibition that instilled in me great fear, anger and wrath, alongside with an overwhelming sense of helplessness. „Design of the 3rd Reich” is a project conceived by Timo de Rijk, who has managed the Den Bosch branch of the National Museum for a few years. Under his command, its name has been changed to Design Museum Den Bosch.

The exhibition marks the first time when someone took the courage to look at the history of design from a previously ignored perspective. Timo de Rijk shows design as a tool wielded by the ultimate evil – and the Nazis mastered to perfection the art of using designers for their own purposes.



The first stop on the visitor’s route is a timeline that chronologically shows political changes in Germany and the role of design in those changes. A silent black-and-white video is displayed on one of the walls. It is heavy with striking quotes and examples of designed products, physically exhibited further on.

A little bit of history.

After WW1, Germany struggled with an economic and political crisis. The monarchy fell, soon followed by military and administrative structures. General frustration caused by the harsh conditions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles fuelled pessimism, overall chaos and revolutionary social changes.

In an atmosphere of a revolt, bottom-up efforts were undertaken by people sharing the same political views. One of the many parties that emerged in 1919 was the DAP – Deutsche Arbeiterpartei  (German Workers’ Party) formed in Bavaria. In the same year, its ranks were joined by a frontline veteran by the name Adolf Hitler, who quickly became a most active member and an orator at political rallies.

The party’s name was soon changed to NSDAP – Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers’ Party). With the support of a few German industrialists Hitler took over the Völkischer Beobachter daily, and turned it into an official press outlet of the NSDAP. The party’s agenda stressed the need to restore the army and to reintroduce conscription and compulsory military service. The message was simple: the Jews are responsible for Germany’s misfortunes.

Hitler reinforced the party’s internal structures and formed paramilitary units whose role was to protect party rallies and meetings. In 1923, after an unsuccessful attempt at seizing power in Bavaria (Putsch of Munich), the NSDAP was banned and Hitler was arrested. While in jail, he wrote Mein Kampf, his political manifesto which soon became the doctrine of the Nazi ideology.

With many of the party members involved in a campaign to free Hitler, he was released in 1925, reactivated the party and received German citizenship in 1932. In the same year the NSDAP was democratically elected to the parliament, and one year later Hitler became the chancellor of Germany.

In that very moment, a powerful design machine was set in motion, which – as can be reasonably claimed – switched the course of history to a whole new track.

Hitler proved to be a brilliant orator. But what made his speeches well heard was the purpose-designed Neumann CMV3 microphone, still known today as the Hitler-Flasche, or Hitler Bottle, which is a reference to its characteristic shape.

Another eye-catching piece shown at the exhibition is the Volksempfänger – a people’s radio receiver. Designed by Walter Maria Kersting, it was one of the most important tools of Goebbels’ domestic propaganda. Smartly enough, the radio was designed in such a way that it could almost exclusively pick up signals from German radio stations.

Its sophisticated design made the radio rather expensive, its price being roughly equivalent to a half of an average worker’s monthly  wage. In 1941 the number of paying radio subscribers in the 3rd Reich was 15.8 million, which financed a large share of the budget in the Ministry of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment.

No to decadence and moral corruption! Yes to decency and morality in family and state! I consign to the flames the writings of Mann, Kafka, Babel, Freud, Remarque, Trotsky, Musil, Marcuse, Lukács, Lenin, Hemingway, Zweig, Schnitzler...” – Joseph Goebbels, 1933


The one thing you would rightly expect to see at the exhibition is the VW Beetle (Volkswagen Kdf Wagen), designed by Ferdinand Porsche on Hitler’s special request. The car was intended to be affordable to every German family. For that purpose, a special savings scheme was created, with citizens paying monthly advances towards the future purchase. In fact, the scheme was actually conceived as a source of funding the state military industry and none of the citizens had ever managed to convert their savings into a Beetle.

Porsche was Hitler’s favorite designer, entrusted with designing a series of tanks and combat vehicles. Another well-known vehicle assisting the state propaganda campaigns was the Mercedes-Benz 770 („Grosser”), reserved for high-ranking 3rd Reich dignitaries.

With a flourishing automotive industry, the necessary highway infrastructure also had to be designed. Highway routes were drawn in such a way that travelers could admire those of the German views and landscapes that met the NSDAP definition of beauty. In the movie industry, directors had to make sure that the furniture featured in their works reflects the German spirit, and views from windows were artificially staged – even that was designed.

Franz Würbel’s famous poster from the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin was an essential keynote to Nazi visual communication, with references to ancient Rome. The Olympic Games were merely a facade, whereas the true intention was to promote physical culture. After all, the Reich wanted to have a powerful army. The parameters of a perfect body of a true German had been calculated and described. Pseudoscience flourished, with some researchers doing shoddy studies inspired for instance by the works of Darwin, including his deliberations about the white race. Even the German sport was designed, so as to „strengthen the character of the German nation”.


The Aryan race is characterized by a persistent will, which dares to take risks, a fighting spirit and perseverance of what is recognized as a right, courageous sacrifice and contempt for death, pride and self-awareness.” – Hans F.K. Günther, Nazi ideologue



Every creative initiative to be introduced in the context of health and hygiene, the education of young people, public welfare and any revolutionary idea introduced into industry, commerce or farming will flow exclusively via the channels of the Party organization” – NSDAP Handbook, 1936


Filmmakers, architects, musicians, actors, choreographers and other creative professions were subjugated to the official way of thinking of the party.

Hugo Boss, founder of the famous clothing company, designed uniforms for the SS, the Wehrmacht and even the Hitlerjugend. The famous Nazi salute of a raised hand was borrowed from „The Oaths of the Horatii”, a painting by Jacques-Louis David’.

Still, the most terrifying specimen presented at the exhibition is the original blueprint of the Auschwitz camp. Designed by Karl Bischoff, it shows the entire system of gas chambers and furnaces.

Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to the people: “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them “I offer you struggle, danger and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.” – George Orwell, 1940



After visiting the exhibition I felt an urge to hit an invisible panic button. What I saw had a profound effect on me, because during  the two decades of my work as a designer in innovation I have sometimes turned down a client, sticking to my internal system of values. I teach young designers to think twice about who they are going to work for.

We live at a time that is so dynamic and chaotic that it takes just one mistake to trigger a disaster. It is no accident that in the fall of 2018 Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, presented the first retrospective exhibition dedicated to Victor Papanek: „Victor Papanek: The Politics of Design” (the exhibition was on display until March 2019).

The Austrian designer and academic teacher (1923-98) was one of the first staunch proponents of socially responsible design. He opposed designing and making products that were intrinsically useless or only visually appealing. In a way, Papanek was a philosopher of industrial design. In his writings, he would emphasize that „designing  has become the most powerful tool used by people to shape their environment, and thus the social and self-awareness”.

In 1971, in his „Design for the Real World” he wrote: „there are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them” – and he meant advertising. That’s because „designing adverts persuades people buy things they don’t need with money they don’t have to impress others who don’t care”.

The Papanek exhibition additionally featured works by a carefully selected group of contemporary designers who carry forward his ideas into the 21st century. However, the topics addressed by their works are much more complex in political terms, as they include global climate change, gender and LGBT issues, economic migration or refugee crises. As it happens, there are more and more topics for designers. They reflect on the thought initiated by Papanek in the 1960s. At the same time, the design perspective aims at forcing the visitors out of the comfort zone of the white, western and male-dominate world with which Papanek was strongly connected, despite all his efforts.

The world of contemporary advertising is a world of waste generation. All the packaging, labels, weekly supermarket specials catalogues, TV commercials with anonymous faces, depicting scenes from a utopian life, large format outdoor ads of harmful alcohol or even tobacco products (still legal in some countries).

Advertising is a huge business. There’s no room for social or political correctness. Each client with a recognizable label is a bonus for new business hunters from all sorts of advertising agencies. The hunted client’s logo is displayed like a trophy on the company’s wall of success.

Industrial design is only marginally better. Another chair, another lamp, another table. While visiting industry shows, I’m sorry to realize that three out of four products are made of large amounts of precious raw materials. Most of them will be sold as „designer products” to unaware consumers. Just think of all those trees that had to be cut down.

I’m no saint either, because for the last 20 years I’ve been involved in developing a large number of products and services. Still, I’ve always done what it took to be able to wake up the next day and look at myself in the mirror with a clear conscience.

There’s a good and a bad side to design. Dear fellow designers, be careful about what you design and for whom! Because when you’re fooled with propaganda, your names may make their way to the blacklist of history. And you, dear citizens, please remember that history likes to repeat itself and people still don’t learn from past mistakes. That’s why you should see „Design of the 3rd Reich”.

Original pages from Gazeta Wyborcza | Magazyn Swiateczny 30.11/1.12.2019

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