Have club graphics been co-opted?

The CIA’s contentious new look has been likened to designs that emerged from electronic music culture. This is the latest example of club-style visuals appearing in unexpected places – we examine whether it’s a hostile takeover or the natural order of things

As the coronavirus pandemic refuses to relinquish its grip on the world, the live events industry remains in a state of stasis in many countries. Despite the obvious challenges facing nightlife venues, talk of a new underground space surfaced only a few days into the new year after a slick visual emerged. Yet the date in the corner of the image didn’t pertain to a launch night for a club – it instead marked the moment when a new look would be unveiled by the Central Intelligence Agency.

The CIA’s repackaged website and tone drew comparisons to the streamlined language and promises offered up by ad agency websites and content houses. Yet it was its visual identity, replete with futuristic 3D linear visualisations and chunky typography, which saw mockery come in thick and fast from the design community and beyond. A new additional logo – which might have seemed familiar to fans of Peter Saville’s topographic design for Joy Divison album Unknown Pleasures – attracted endless comparisons to electronic music festivals. Every facet called to mind the visuals that routinely appear around cities on clandestine fly posters promoting nightlife events. Meanwhile the new website shows outlined type similar to Crack Magazine’s cover font, and additional designs reminiscent of LED lighting used on blingy logos for the likes of Clubland.

The redesign marked a new recruitment drive for “people from all backgrounds and walks of life” – a push that broadly explains this unexpected approach to the visual language, which distances itself from archaic bureaucracy and negative perceptions of US security and intelligence operations. A CIA spokesperson told the New York Times that the new look is designed to “pique the interest of talented applicants and provide a modern, relatable experience”.

Top: 3D pattern used on the new CIA website. Above: the CIA’s new logo

The CIA redesign drew substantial attention – unsurprising for an organisation of its size making a move like this – with much of it negative. “I just think it’s so poorly designed – just repeating CIA around the edges. It looks like a student’s done it, or at least someone that doesn’t understand why – let’s call them ‘techno graphics’ – look the way that they do,” says Ian Anderson, who runs Sheffield-based studio The Designers Republic, which is renowned for its logos and album art for musicians including Warp artists Aphex Twin, Squarepusher and Autechtre. “I think it’s an awful logo. I mean, it doesn’t have any gravity of what the CIA is. It’s a little bit like when banks decide they’re going to be a bit funky. That’s fine but at the heart of it, I want a bank to be reliable, and I don’t want my bank manager to be the bloke standing next to me at an Autechre gig – I want him to be pretty boring, but really good at managing my account.”