Designers on social media enjoy going apoplectic when a famous or infamous logo is borrowed or stolen. Flagging these misuses has become a veritable pastime, like trainspotting.
The designer of the recent “Paul Ryan Speaker” logo was either blind to or ignorant of the logo’s similarity to the Grosse Deutschland symbol — the national emblem of the Third Reich – which itself derived from the imperial eagle and was worn by all members of the military and by the SS and the Nazi party. And both of those possibilities are worrying.
For among the prize spots for the design watchers are those that inadvertently resemble Nazi signs. The blame for these types of faux pas usually falls on the designers themselves, who, aesthetically seduced by what is generally acknowledged as the most effective political branding system in history, copy from the original indiscriminately. In this instance, though, given his national political position, Ryan must take some of the responsibility.
It is odd for the speaker of the United States House of Representatives to have a personal brand mark. The office of official heraldry is set up to serve government agencies, but not government officers, with a range of traditional symbols. So, it seems especially impolitic for Ryan to have his own, especially one that is so potentially offensive.
Whether or not the mark reveals the speaker’s hubris, the eagle is an ancient heraldic symbol representing empires, kingdoms, dictatorships and democratic nations, including — of course — our own. Rep. Ryan’s choice, therefore, is consistent with acceptable American iconography. As our national symbol, deeply rooted in an historical heritage, the American bald eagle dates back to 1782, when the great seal of the United States was adopted.
Still, even the best-known symbols are subject to misinterpretation based on subjective perception. Logos are only as good as the institutions they represent. Experienced logo designers are trained to manipulate signs and symbols so that they are meaningful, memorable and, most of all, positive. Mistakes happen, including unintentional sexual or phallic innuendos or unfortunate double entendres. In 1991, a brouhaha erupted when Procter & Gamble’s vintage trademark of the Man in the Moon was called “satanic.” It was a costly hoax that plagued the brand for years.
Ryan’s logo has not suffered the same public relations fate as yet. But there are rumbles in some logo circles that this will be a costly error on Ryan’s part, especially given the rise of the “alt-right.” But let’s take a close look.
For design purposes, the name “Paul Ryan” is typographically balanced, so the visual mark is nicely positioned between the four letters of his first and last names. Although the eagle is modeled to suggest the top of an American flagpole, its expanded wings, left-sideways facing head and talons clutching a globe are perilously close to the foul German iteration.
Nazi markings are not commonly misappropriated. Although the Nazis used a number of eagles, the fashion company Boy London continues to use one of them with its talons clutching the O in “boy.” In the early 1990s the D.C. United soccer team emblem showed an imperial-looking eagle, with talons, holding a soccer ball, in a logo that has since been revised.
For similar reasons, in 2007 the fashion retailer Zara was forced to withdraw a handbag from the market when it was felt that the swastika on it was too negatively charged by the Nazi use of the symbol.
I doubt Ryan’s logo is meant to be a deliberate reference to the Third Reich. But there is a lesson to be learned about how powerful Nazi symbols remain in the minds of many of us. But in the minds of younger generations, while the swastika and SS runes still have symbolic power, other Nazi symbols carry only a vague sense of oppression.
So, while there are movements devoted to returning the swastika to its earlier benign state as an ancient symbol of good fortune, and while there are many non-malevolent instances of majestic eagle symbolism, these designs still represent, in living memory, the most evil regime that has ever run a modern Western state.
Designers who serve companies, organizations and especially governments that use symbols need to understand the impact of visual icons and to avoid those that, by aligning you visually with untenable allies, can be sharp, double-edged swords.
Steven Heller is the co-chair of SVA MFA Design, in New York, and the author of “Iron Fists: Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State” (Phaidon Press, 2008) and “The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption?” (Allworth Press, 2000). Follow him on Twitter, @thedailyheller