• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: A Defensive Design Strategy

When it comes to designing "brand assets," the United States federal government today does not consistently hit the mark. There is no central clearing house for government design (and it is debatable that there should be). But the 1930s marked a period of solid federal design initiatives, from architecture to graphics, and particularly logos and marks.


As costly as it was in human tolls, World War II inspired an exemplary number of strong branding programs for the alphabet soup of government, military and para-military agencies. One such for Civil Defense (CD)—created by Charles T. Coiner, design director of the Philadelphia advertising agency N.W. Ayer & Son—will forever have a place in design history.


Over a career spanning 46 years (with 40 of them spent at Ayer as head of the art department), Coiner altered the field of advertising through the use of fine art. When illustration was merely a second fiddle to ad copy and slogans, Coiner commissioned modern artists—including Pablo Picasso, Ben Shahn, Edward Steichen and Miguel Covarrubias—to work on campaigns of all kinds. Coiner never lost sight of the real purpose of great artwork in his advertisements: "We were not trying to elevate art. We were trying to get readership and attention and give character to our clients’ advertising," he said.


But it was as the designer/art director of war posters, Civil Defense logos and the Blue Eagle symbol of the National Recovery Administration (NRA) under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, that Coiner's influence was incomparable.


Commissioned in 1933, Coiner's Blue Eagle design and red and blue type, which he sketched out on a flight to Washington D.C., was displayed by businesses all across the United States. And as its much-publicized creator, Coiner became something of a household name.


A significant portion of Coiner’s time was devoted to patriotic pro-bono work. In addition to the Blue Eagle, he designed marks for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and created other programmatic logos. As wartime design consultant to the Office of Emergency Management, he volunteered one day per week and most weekends in Washington, D.C., where he designed the various emblems used by the U.S. Citizens Defense Corps for preparedness in the event of enemy attack. His red, white and blue color palette was brilliantly applied so as not to render the work as untenably cliche, while remaining true to patriotic brand. He was a master of simplification, using sign-symbols (influenced by ISOTYPE) and bold gothic type to exude a sense of authority, determination and pride.


Coiner's National Recovery Administration and Civil Defense work (aside from his much more award-winning commercial campaigns), seen individually and as a whole, is the most exemplary national identity design of the post-Depression and wartime eras. There was a lot to be done with blue, red and white and a few stripes besides. So, it's worth recalling his contribution from time to time, and his deserving place of honor in the "wartime-Modern" graphic design pantheon.






A shrine in my home devoted to Coiner and his 1933–53 government brand design.

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