Is Graphic Design the C.I.A.’s Passion?

This week, the Central Intelligence Agency unveiled a new design for its website,, which wouldn’t have been news if the site had stuck to the formal signifiers of government authority: dense bureaucratic text, link directories, declarative headers, nothing too fancy.

Instead, is set against a stark black background, offset by dots and lines that form topographical contours. There are subtle hallmarks of modern web design, like the site’s animated scroll. The crisp lines and muted color palette suggest a minimalist branding strategy.

On social media, people noted website’s visual similarity to electronic music festival fliers and streaming platforms like Boiler Room. Others compared it to the look of The Intercept, an online publication known for its reporting on the C.I.A., as well as marketing materials for brands like Urban Outfitters.

Regardless of whether the C.I.A.’s mood board actually included 2010s electronic music culture, Mr. Hu agreed with those who noticed visual similarities. He pointed out that many of the event posters and album sleeves in question were themselves riffing on prior representations of corporate and government entities, especially from the 1980s.

“Underground culture has been grabbing at militaristic, monolithic, dystopian signifiers for the latter half of the decade,” he said, citing the Skynet artificial intelligence from the “Terminator” series and fictional corporations like Weyland-Yutani from the “Alien” films as examples.

“Objectively, it’s really funny that the C.I.A. has used a visual language that used to be considered evil and dystopian, and that’s since been kind of pacified,” Mr. Hu said. “It just seems like this full circle, ouroboros kind of thing, where it’s like, club culture kids took an evil aesthetic and made it cool.”

Mr. Hu pointed out that the C.I.A. is no stranger to the tactical use of aesthetics; during the Cold War, the agency reportedly funded avant-garde American painters like Jackson Pollock in order to draw a contrast to the stifling intellectual atmosphere of the Soviet Union.

Ultimately, he said, the C.I.A. rebrand revealed the futility in trying to use graphic design as a marker of political ideology. “It’s just a reminder that you shouldn’t look at something and say, like, ‘That is a liberal font and that is a conservative font,’” he said. “Everything’s been deterritorialized.”

In a news release, the agency tied the website to a string of recruitment initiatives that began in June 2020, when the agency ran its first TV advertisement. The new site, which directs to the C.I.A.’s careers page, features photographs of diverse young people and their testimonials.

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