This week the Central Intelligence Agency unveiled a new design for their website CIA.gov that would not have been news if the website had adhered to the formal hallmarks of the government agency: thick bureaucratic text, link directories, declarative headings, nothing too fancy.
Instead, CIA.gov appears against a stark black background offset by points and lines that form topographic contours. There are subtle hallmarks of modern web design, like the site’s animated scroll. The clear lines and the muted color palette suggest a minimalist brand strategy.
On social media, people noticed the website’s visual resemblance to flyers and electronic music streaming platforms like Boiler Room. Others compared it to the looks of The Intercept, an online publication known for its coverage of the CIA, as well as marketing collateral for brands like Urban Outfitters.
“The CIA’s mission is unlike any other and our website reflects it. With the black and white color scheme, photography and graphics of CIA.gov we want to arouse the interest of talented applicants and offer a modern, relatable experience, ”said Nicole De Haay, spokeswoman for the agency, in a telephone interview.
Much of the conversation on social media revolved around the tension between the CIA’s role in American security and the website’s trendy graphic cues.
“If I hadn’t read the copy, I wouldn’t know if it was a direct-to-consumer designer toothbrush or an organization accused of destabilizing governments around the world,” said Eric Hu, a freelance professional Creative Director who previously worked as Design Director at Nike Sportswear.
Regardless of whether the CIA mood board actually contained the electronic music culture of 2010, Mr. Hu agreed with those who noticed visual similarities. He pointed out that many of the event posters and album covers in question are themselves based on previous representations by companies and government agencies, particularly from the 1980s.
“Underground culture captured militaristic, monolithic, dystopian signifiers in the second half of the decade,” he cited Skynet’s artificial intelligence from the “Terminator” series and fictional companies like Weyland-Yutani from the “Alien” films as examples.
“Objectively, it’s really funny that the CIA used a visual language that was once considered evil and dystopian, and that’s kind of reassured ever since,” Hu said. “It just seems like the circle is coming full circle, Ouroboros, where it looks like kids from club culture took on a wicked aesthetic and made them cool.”
Mr. Hu pointed out that the CIA is no stranger to the tactical use of aesthetics; During the Cold War, the agency allegedly funded avant-garde American painters such as Jackson Pollock to contrast with the suffocating intellectual atmosphere of the Soviet Union.
Ultimately, he said, the CIA rebranding exposed the futility of trying to use graphic design as a marker for political ideology. “It’s just a reminder that you shouldn’t look at something and say, ‘This is a liberal script and this is a conservative script,” he said. “Everything has been de-territorialized.”
In a press release, the agency linked the website to a series of recruiting initiatives that began in June 2020 when the agency ran its first television ad. The new website, which links to the CIA careers page, features photos of various young people and their testimonials.
“We have come a long way since I applied by simply mailing a letter that said ‘CIA, Washington, DC’,” Gina Haspel, the CIA director, said in the press release.
The site’s high-tech look and feel and focus on recruiting also underscore that the CIA is competing with Silicon Valley for talent. “The website looked like a digital advertising agency website,” Hu said.
The CIA declined to comment on who created the website. Shortly after it was revealed, concept artist and graphic designer Ryder Ripps – known for his work with brands like Soylent and Pornhub, and musicians like 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 comment section of his post was full of sarcastic replies. “I didn’t know there was a Squarespace template for imperialist coups,” one person wrote.
“Online platforms are games that are played through the attention economy – authorship and sincerity are as murky as they are,” Ripps wrote in an email when asked what inspired his post. “People were already living a fantasy before I published it and said I did the CIA branding. Why not develop their fantasy and say I did it?”
“I think it’s cool that they were so inspired by the Soylent branding I did in 2013,” he jokingly added.
In addition to riffing the design, Mr. Ripps also had some criticism to offer.
“I think it’s pretty bad,” he wrote, “mainly because it looks the inside-out of the design – it refers to the” cool “design of today (maybe even a few years ago) while the government ( and the CIA) already has a very strong federal design language. It probably could have used some tweaking for an update. “