Book Review:: Iron Fists: Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State. By Steven Heller.

Iron Fists: Branding the 20th-Century Tiron-fists-steven-heller-book-coverotalitarian State. By Steven Heller. (Phaidon: Phaidon Press Limited, Reprinted 2010. 224 pp.)

The idea of “branding” usually brings to mind the recognizable logos, corporate identity packages, and benign graphics that saturate today’s commercial market. However, the use of these comprehensive design systems to communicate an organization’s idea or message to the masses is not limited to corporate design and capitalism in the Western World. The power that early corporate identity systems proved in eliciting an emotional response from the public was quickly recognized, and total-branding strategies came to play an instrumental role in disseminating political party ideas, swaying public opinion and creating a façade of power throughout history’s most devastating totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. Steven Heller, author of Iron Fists: Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State, provides the first illustrated survey of the propaganda tactics utilized by Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, the Soviet Union, and Communist China as components of a successful modern marketing strategy. Heller explores the symbolism, slogans, and strategies utilized by these former regimes, and evaluates the highly effective way these totalitarian governments were able to “sell their brand” to the masses.

Steven Heller served as art director for the New York Times for 33 years, and currently writes the Visuals column for the New York Times Book Review and co-chairs the MFA Designer as Author program at the School of Visual Arts in New York. He has published and produced or edited over 100 books, and among many other accolades, is a leading authority in design and popular culture.

Heller has broken down this 224-page tome into four sections, treating each government separately as a case study in effective branding. In order to survey the history, symbolism, design strategy, dissemination tactics, and overall impact and effect of the branding methods of these totalitarian governments, he breaks up each section further into four or five chapters, and the organization of information is structured consistently among the four sections. Although Iron Fists carries the size and weight of a textbook, this heavily illustrated survey of propaganda and symbolism reads quickly since many of the pages and spreads are dedicated entirely for graphic imagery that coincides with the text. Heller utilizes propaganda posters, photography, symbols, logos, flags, typographic design elements, books, journals and other print publications to illustrate how these autocratic regimes in history gained loyal followers to a powerfully devastating brand. Heller’s method of examining each regime separately aides to highlight the similarities and differences manifested between the former totalitarian states, with the common thread being that these governments were able to effectively create and maintain a strong loyalty, albeit the sinister motives behind their brand.

Iron Fists provides an in-depth historical overview on the political and societal contexts from which each of these totalitarian regimes were built and propagated, as well as the branding and marketing elements that allowed these regimes of terror to maintain control for so long and the impact these branding methods had on modern graphic design and marketing. The first 75 pages focus on the branding strategies of Hitler and Nazi Germany, and how Hitler strictly enforced a design system that he made sure was fully integrated into German society. Hitler devised the swastika as the definitive icon of his brand, and along with his own image as the Führer, he controlled and utilized posters to communicate, declared blackletter as the official typography of Germany, enforced a strict color palette on branding elements, banned all opposing press and viewpoints, and even altered the school curriculum, among many other tactics to infiltrate his brand to all aspects of everyday life. The effectiveness of Hitler’s brand can be measured in the most detrimental racial genocide in our recorded history, resulting in the death of over 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. Notably consuming the bulk of the book’s pages in comparison to the last 3 chapters, Heller argues that Nazi Germany had the most effective totalitarian campaign due to their achievement of a completely synchronized system of graphics within the realms of Nazi control. He maintains that “although the Nazis did not, as many have asserted, develop the archetypical corporate-standards manual, the Promi and German Labor Front accomplished through caveat the kind of graphic synchronization that major companies spend millions to ensure” (p75).

The consequent chapters outline the branding and marketing strategies of Fascist Italy, the Soviet Union, and Communist China, allowing parallels to easily be drawn between the design and propaganda strategies among the four regimes. By breaking down the book this way into case studies, Heller is also able to highlight the differences in strategies employed between the Nazis, Fascists, Soviets, and Communist China regimes, which were each successful nonetheless. For instance, Mao and Hitler employed themselves as dictator, leader, and sole face of the government, and maintained control over their own image with an iron fist, strictly prohibiting the use of any unauthorized printed material. Large posters of Hitler as the proud leader of the German people were sanctioned and approved by Hitler himself, and Mao had multiple series of Mao figurines that were made to hand out to the public, elevating himself as an omnipresent figure in the homes of the people. On the other hand, Mussolini did not restrict or limit the use of his image, and encouraged its appropriation, even in the commercial realm as imagery on packaging, to infiltrate the market, and minds of the people.

It is important to have an understanding of the chilling ways in which these totalitarian governments inculcated their extreme and hate-filled ideology to the public, because having an understanding of history allows for the ability to create a more peaceful future. The branding strategies used by these totalitarian regimes, which were successfully able to disseminate radical messages of supremacy and racism or maintain control over the populace through fear and facades— are branding strategies that can be compared to and used in modern marketing strategies due to their success building and maintaining a strong brand loyalty. Iron Fists provides a thorough survey of each of the four most detrimental political regimes of the 20th century, and how they used iconic branding and varying degrees of control over the media to cultivate some of the most powerful, and impressionable brands that have ever existed. The heavy shroud that remains today pertaining to Nazi symbolism such as the swastika, leaves the topic of Nazi propaganda more frequently swept under the rug, rather than discussed for merit in design. And as hard as it may be to find “merit” in anything that was espoused by Nazi Germany and the other brutally oppressive totalitarian states, the lasting emotional impact that prevails today surrounding those controversial symbols, such as the swastika, alludes to how powerful the symbol can be and how profoundly it can impact culture and society.

This book is a great supplemental text for understanding the history of graphic design, because it provides a more in-depth look at the propaganda and political art of the four notoriously evil regimes that existed in the 20th century.

Heller successfully combines an array of propaganda elements from a variety of sources to support his assertion that the Nazis, Fascists, Soviets, and Communist China carried out massively successful marketing campaigns that have helped shape and influence the history of design. Iron Fists provides a valuable design resource by analyzing some of the arguably most effective mass communication strategies that were ever implemented. Just know—they can be used for bad, or good.


Keep Calm and Carry On

170px-keep-calm-and-carry-on-scan“KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON” was a poster design originally created in 1939 as a series of three motivational posters from the British Government’s Ministry of Information, in order to boost public morale during WWII. The poster was printed in a run of 2.5 million copies, but the government deferred them to storage for use after a potential air raid, and they were never actually hung or distributed. After 1945, all of the prints in storage were destroyed to make pulp (for new paper) and very few of these original prints remain. This design only became an icon of popular culture more recently, when the design was rediscovered, and redistributed on a worldwide scale in the early 2000’s. This image has become so ubiquitous, in fact, that you have probably already seen it printed somewhere on something today. Although Keep Calm and Carry On Ltd. holds a trademark for this exact slogan, the slogan and graphic style have been countlessly replicated, parodied and imitated since the original design’s resurgence in popularity.

The poster design features a bright red background, and the slogan “KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON” is printed down the majority of the page in a bold, sans serif typeface. Each word sits on its own line, and the text maintains the same point size throughout, aside from the conjunction “AND,“ which sits in-between the other four lines at half the point size. The leading is consistent between all five lines of text, although the letter spacing is a little sloppy. The Tudor Crown, an emblem of the British State, sits on top of the text in the upper middle portion of the composition, as if it is resting on the head of the two EE’s in “KEEP.” The text is centered, and the O’s and C’s have very rounded letterforms. The crown icon and text are white against the bright red background, resulting in a highly contrasting image.

This poster is really interesting because it can be discussed in terms of significance and effectiveness in design from two separate eras in graphic design history: first from its origin as a piece of British propaganda from WWII, and then again with its resurgence and widely appropriated design as a quintessential piece of the postmodern era. Although this design was never utilized for its original purpose, the poster falls in line with typical agitprop of Britain’s WWII poster design. In the event of a catastrophic air raid, the poster was intended to send a message of reassurance from the government to the public, while bolstering loyalty to the crown. Through the message “keep calm and carry on,” the government was urging citizens to remain calm, complacent, and loyal to the crown amidst the atrocities of war. The crown is literally placed on top of the text, and the shape of the text on the page creates a form that alludes to a British soldier. The bright red background also associates with the red uniforms and stoic resilience of the royal army. Although the Ministry of Information toned down their messages a bit after WWI, the other posters of this series were still criticized by the public as sounding manipulative, or patronizing, and were not favorably received.

When a surviving original poster was rediscovered in an old bookstore in London, it became so popular that the “Keep Calm and Carry On” design has come to resemble what is quintessentially British. In the true spirit of postmodernism, this historical design was rehashed, parodied, and used commercially out of its original context with great success. The slogan and Tudor Crown combination have been appropriated for countless other applications. I believe the design is effective today because it still represents the idealized British character and renowned regalia of the British military, but with a more light-hearted sentiment due to its context and commercialization. Today, people can buy this message on a tote or coffee mug on their own free will at retail outlets worldwide.


Fowler, Brittany. “Brits May Roll Their Eyes at ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ – but Here’s Why They Secretly Love It.” Business Insider. Business Insider, 23 June 2015. Web. 03 Dec. 2016. <;.

Hatherley, Owen. “Keep Calm and Carry On – the Sinister Message behind the Slogan That Seduced the Nation.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 08 Jan. 2016. Web. 03 Dec. 2016. <;.

“Keep Calm and Carry On.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Nov. 2016. Web. 03 Dec. 2016. <;.

Hannah Höch


bio_hoch_hannahHannah Höch (1889-1978) was a photomontage artist most distinguished for her role in the Berlin Dada movement and her innovative techniques with photomontage. Her politically charged satirical collages ridiculed the failings of the Weimar government, but also fed into the early feminist movement, opposing stereotypical gender roles, promoting women’s suffrage and empowering women to explore their own creativity in the applied arts. Hannah herself faced adversity and was marginalized as the only woman within the Dada movement, and was not treated as an equal contributor by her peers.

Born Anna Therése Johanne Höch in Gotha, Germany, Höch moved to Berlin and attended the School of Applied Arts in 1912. The school was closed at the onslaught of World War I, but in 1915 she was able to rejoin her education, and studied graphic arts at the School of the Royal Museum of Applied Arts. It was also here where she met Raoul Hausmann, fellow member of the Dada movement, and for a period of time, her lover. Höch and Hausmann both experimented and helped extend the technique of photomontage by appropriating popular press images into fine art. Höch’s pieces utilize metaphorical imagery to illustrate her message and satirical jabs at the hypocrisy of mainstream European society, whose bourgeois leadership and middle class led the country to disaster in WWI.

dada-obras-importantesHer most famous piece, Cut With the Kitchen Knife Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany (1919-1920) was featured at the First International Dada Fair in 1920, and was favorably received. The piece is a dynamic collage of images cut out and pasted from newspapers and magazines, as well as some personal inclusions, such as the small image of Hausmann, and Lenin and Stalin, showing her inclinations toward communist parties at the time. The nonsensical fragmentation of images within the collage makes this piece quintessentially Dada, and the fragmentation itself acts as a microcosm for the breakdown of society and the government post-WWI. Cogs, wheels and various machinery eclipse around the image, symbolic of the government as “the machine,” as well as calling light to the industrialization and militarization that was transforming the European landscape.

The upper right corner is labeled “Die anti dada,” mocking prominent political figures that represent the corruption and bourgeois powers that sent Germany to war. The bottom right, labeled “DADA,” includes images from her inner circle of fellow Dadaists, including John Heartfield and Raoul Hausmann. Höch included a small picture of herself overlain on a map illustrating the advancement of women’s suffrage throughout Europe, expressing her commitment to the feminist movement. The left side of the image is dedicated to the absurd, with rhetorical “dada propaganda” encouraging you to “Join Dada!”

Hannah Höch’s process isolated the print images from their original context, allowing her to formulate her own cutting message. Höch’s innovative technique of using appropriated images from popular print publications and photographs has coined her and Hausmann as pioneers in the proliferation of photomontage in the arts. Photomontage was a radically new process, unique to the Berlin Dada movement, but has since inspired countless artists.

Works Cited:

Boucher, Madeleine. “Art or Craft?: Hannah Höch’s Collages Embraced the Conflict Between Art and Craft, Dada and Commercialism.” Artsy. Artsy, 14 Oct. 2014. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.

Smarthistoryvideos. “Hannah Höch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife, 1919-20.” YouTube. YouTube, 02 Oct. 2011. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.

Souter, Anna. “Hannah Höch Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works.” The Art Story. The Art Story Contributors, 2016. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.

“Total Art”within the Palais Stoclet


The Palais Stoclet is a large private mansion located in Brussels, Belgium, designed by architect and designer Josef Hoffmann, prominent member of the Vienna Secession and one of the founding members of the Wiener Werkstätte (“Viennese Workshops”). Under Hoffmann’s supervision along with an elite team of artists and craftsmen of the Wiener Werkstätte, the palace was completed after 6 years of construction as an ideal realization of the “total work of art,” or “Gesamtkunstwerk,” which meant to unify the applied and fine arts.

The lavish home was built for Adolphe Stoclet, a wealthy banker, engineer and art collector. Adolphe placed no financial or aesthetic restrictions or specifications on the project, only that he wanted “nothing left to chance.” This gave Hoffmann and his team of collaborating artists, who were also prominent members of the Vienna Secession and Wiener Werkstätte, creative and stylistic reign to artfully compose every element of experience within the home, including the building’s façade, walls, flooring, furniture, light fixtures, gardens, flower beds, linens, silverware, artwork, and even accessories for the toilet.

The structure designed by Hoffmann features a geometric façade of white Norwegian marble, and an extensive team of collaborating artists of the Wiener Werkstätte contributed to the interior ornamentation and design, including Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser, Leopold Forstner, Carl Otto Czeschka, Franz Metzner, Richard Luksch, Michael Powolny, and George Minne. Klimt designed the large mosaic friezes surrounding the formal dining room table, with surrounding seats for 24 attendees. Every element within the interior has been meticulously crafted in a geometrically inspired pattern with the highest quality materials that money could buy, and in the case of Palais Stoclet, there was no limit to what they were willing to spend for a completely idealized living space.



Orthogonal features and controlled curves within the design structure epitomize the influence of the Vienna Secession and the break away from historical tradition in architecture. Palais Stoclet was an innovative architectural accomplishment in 1911, and was an inspiration to other designers and a precursor to Art Deco and Modernism in architecture.


Adolphe Stoclet and his wife passed away in 1949, leaving the home to their heirs by means of a shareholders association, which intended to keep everything intact and preserved. The palace remains private and blocked off from the public to-date, and has reportedly caused strife amongst the family members in recent years, who are struggling to hold on to the home as a private residence while maintaining the levels of conservation required to preserve this “Gesamtkunstwerk” masterpiece. Uninhabited since a family death in 2002, the house remains tucked away from the public eye, and even a lucky researcher that was granted access inside the home was not permitted to share the photographs with the public. Although elusive as it may seem, Palais Stoclet was recognized as a world heritage cite by UNESCO in 2009 for its high level of integrity in its authenticity, preservation, and the distinct new architectural style that embodies the totality of the Wiener Werkstätte. Since then, the Brussels regional government has drawn out a $1.7 million restoration plan to aid in conserving the site. Using such a large sum of taxpayer’s money to restore a private residence blocked off from the public has created reasonable controversy, although the future of the Palace remains uncertain. Eventually, the Stoclet family may open the doors as a museum, or if the home is defaulted to the government by some form of unforeseen circumstances, the palace will at least remain intact and preserved as if it were still 1911.


The Stoclet House remains as one of the most comprehensive and complete emblematic achievements of the Wiener Werkstätte.



Betsky, Aaron. “The Palais Stoclet Seduces.” Architect. The Journal of the American Institute of Architects, 04 Oct. 2013. Web. 28 Sept. 2016. <;.

“Josef Hoffmann.” Neue Galerie New York. Ronald S. Lauder Neue Galerie New York, n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2016.

“Stoclet House.” UNESCO, UNESCO World Heritage Centre, 27 June 2009, <;.

Wise, Michael Z. “An Enchanted House Becomes a Family’s Curse.” Architecture. The Wall Street Journal, 12 Feb. 2012. Web. 28 Sept. 2016.<;.