Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Star Wars Logo Is fascist.

Last week I wrote about Star Wars and Cold Warriors. I argued that the Nazi-look of the Imperial uniforms was not an attempt to repackage the struggle against Nazis or Soviets as a space fantasy; that the film is not about an external threat - capital "F" Fascism. I argued that the Imperials were an expression of disgust with American Cold Warriors - lowercase "f" fascism - as in "fascist pigs." While hurriedly looking for sites to link to, the first hit on google search for "Star Wars fascism" brought me to a site quoting at length a woman named Suzy Rice, who says she designed the original Star Wars logo:

"I designed the logo for the film, Star Wars with a minimalist directive from George Lucas: that he wanted “something very fascist” as to the film’s logo… And so, when George described what he wanted, I returned to the office and used what I reckoned to be the most “fascist” typeface I could think of as reference: Helvetica (Helvetika) Black… the forerunner typeface version, Helvetika, was designed by the dreaded Joseph Goebbels for use in culture-wide signage—road signs, license plates, “official” statements—to implement a standard of appearance by a government for purposes of both organizing and monopolizing culture through a uniform statement (uniformity of expression and style)."

I had never heard this story about the origins of the Star Wars logo. I couldn't figure out a way to search the film's credits. There is no mention of Ms. Rice’s name anywhere in the Making of Star Wars and no allusion to the story she tells, but the story is all over the web. You run into it it pretty quickly with any search related to the Star Wars logotype. The problem is Ms. Rice’s account of font history doesn’t hold water.

I had felt Ms. Rice’s story sounded fishy so I posted a larger section of Suzy Rice’s historical narrative of Helvetica on the Star Wars Modern Facebook page and started a discussion there. Erik Spooner, a print designer for Discover magazine, a sophisticated font geek, and a lover of German culture and design, blasted away at the historical inaccuracies in Suzy’s recounting of history. He pointed out that the Nazi connection is absurd –and had pretty interesting reasons for questioning her personal story as well. I have asked Erik to guest write a post on Helvetica & Suzy Rice. I'll leave it to him to untangle that story, which leaves me free to write about where the logo did come from.

Being a child of the 1970s I have never associated the logo with Fascism (that relationship should be unpacked at another time and place). Like most people I associate Fascism, especially Nazi Fascism with crazy gothic Blackletter fonts, not the san serif of Helvetica. Rice’s historical non sequitur made me realize what I do associate the logo with: Disco.

The disco/scifi association is a real one. In May of 1978 Andy Warhol wrote in his diary that:

"I'm surprised that the Star Wars movie company didn't actually franchise discotheques of Star Wars all over the country, but then, now that I'm thinking about it, things like that never work. It's usually one person who stands around screaming that makes a success out of a club."

But the Disco/scifi connection is one that predates Warhol's comment by more then a decade. In his book The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test Tom Wolfe credits the Merry Pranksters for creating the first psychedelic light shows for their happenings:

“The idea went beyond what would later be known as mixed-media entertainment, now a standard practice in “psychedelic discotheques” and so forth… Both the Fillmore and the Avalon did the Pranksters Acid Test with all the mixed media stuff, the rock ’n’ roll and light shows. The Avalon even had it down to details like the strobes and sections of the floor where you could play with Day-Glo paint under black light. Everything but… the fourth dimension… Cosmo… the three o’clock thing… the experience.”

Those early ‘mixed media’ spectacles are clearly the inspiration for the Stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which in turn inspired the Millennium Falcon’s jump to hyperspace.

Star Wars then, was part of a feedback loop between scifi and Disco, but all the same my association between the logo and Disco is an anachronism. It was a connection that was made after the fact by Warhol and others. The reason the Star Wars logo looks "Disco" to me is because of the hellish Disco remix of John Williams score that was part of the hysteria that I was born into. but because I was born into that hysteria (I don't remember seeing Star Wars for the first time, its just always been there), it never occurred to me that that could not be the actual source of the logo.

The logo that proceeded Star Wars that looks like the most likely source of inspiration is the NASA “worm” logo adopted in 1975, but dropped in 1992. Recently T Magazine ran a little piece on what they refer to as the worm "word mark":

“The worm consists of NASA’s initials portrayed in super-simple letters stripped to absolute essentials. There aren’t even any crossbars on the A’s, which are depicted as upturned V’s, rather like rockets ready for liftoff. Each letter is composed of a tube, with the first A flowing into the S, as if speeding off into space. The word mark (as graphic designers call it) is in a confident shade of red, occasionally with NASA’s full name written below in black Helvetica, the default typeface for any 1970s corporation with aspirations to modernity. Everything about the worm is seductively new, optimistic and futuristic, declaring that NASA is leading us toward a brighter, bolder future.”

This brings me back to Suzy Rice’s story and the small “f” fascism argument. While I think Rice’s knowledge of history is mostly bunk, I can easily imagine Lucas saying he wanted “something very fascist,” after all the film is loaded with Fascist imagery. From the Imperial Uniforms to the Rebel Alliance Awards ceremony there is a lot of Nazi imagery on view. But the film’s visual program willfully collapsed two wholly opposing aesthetics – Nazis and Modernism (the Modernists might have flirted with the Nazis, but the Nazis hated the Modernists).

But if Lucas did want a san-serif Helvetica-like font because he thought it looked fascist, it's because it looked Modernist, and he meant fascism with a lowercase “f.” When Star Wars was made the Modernists were at the peak of their powers and Helvetica had been widely adopted by the US government. NASA had represented something forward looking and positive when Kubrick made 2001. Only a few years later the space agency was tainted by associations to Nixon and the Vietnam War. In the minds of many young Americans, NASA was just another aspect of the corrupt authorities.

Consider that the artist Robert Smithson (the art world's closest equivalent to Luke Skywalker, and a HUGE scifi fan) decided in the spring of 1969 against representing the US in the Sao Paolo biennale. Smithson explained his decision to withdraw his participation in a letter he wrote to Gyorgy Kepes:

"I have to reconsider the context of the exhibition and feel that my art will not fit. To celebrate the power of technology through art strikes me as a sad parody of NASA. I do not share the confidence of the astronauts... The ‘team spirit’ of the exhibition could be seen as endorsements of NASA's Mission Operation Control room with all its crew cut teamwork... I am withdrawing from the exhibition because it promises nothing but a distraction amid the general nausea. If technology is to have any chance at all, it must become more self-critical. If one wants teamwork he should join the army.” Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings; 369.

It’s a pretty big deal for a young artist to turn his back on such a prestigious opportunity. Gill Scott Heron’s Whitey On The Moon is another example of this association from yet another and equally different artist. Lucas made no secret of his disgust with the Nixon administration. It is impossible for me to imagine how an artist could have to separated American power politics from American aesthetics in 1977. Star Wars artfully combined them and has shaped our view of both.

The Science fiction author David Brin argues convincingly that, as literature Star Wars is anti-modern. Others consider the film post-modern. I respectfully disagree with both these positions. Star Wars is not Postmodern, Modernism is post-Star Wars.


  1. You mean Modernism is pre-Star Wars? How is it post. That confuses me. A lot.

    I love Helvetica! I don't care if the masses and US gov't. have blasted it all over our world. It's simple, clear and easy to read. It makes communicating BETTER.

    On the other hand, I also like Blackletter when it's ironic. Especially if it spells: S P I N A L T A P.

  2. I mean after Star Wars modernity is different, but it is still very much modern. Just as I don't believe Star Wars was and anti-modern film, I don't believe it was an anti-American film.
    I am sure as a fan of Helvetica you saw the 2007 documentary about the film. Its been a few years but as best as I can remember the film had three section. There were the Modernists who loved the font, the post-modernists who rejected it completely and then there was the last group of contemporary typographers who had embraced the font but were using in ways that the Modernists never would have. They were hot-rodding the font; willfully customizing it and making it their own.
    When George Lucas and his young crew made Star Wars there we're a lot of reasons to be pessimistic and cynical about life and politics, and a lot of young people were. But Star Wars is a film with a nuanced visual program. Unlike the post-modernist typographers in Helvetica Star Wars didn't reject Modernism, it hot rodded it; reoccupied it and made it something hilarious (the Millenium Falcon is hot rodded Modernism).

  3. The font long predates Star Wars - in fact, you can see it in all the titles for Road to Utopia (1945). This makes sense when you disconnect it from Lucas - artistically, it clearly is fitting with the art deco style of the 30s and 40s.

  4. Thats an interesting idea, but looking at the images of Road to Utopia I am not seeing the relationship. No worm "S." I would like to hear from someone at Lucas Arts about the logo. McQuarrie's sketches are the earliest designs I can find But Suzy Rice's claim is still the number one hit on a search for "Star Wars Fascist." Part of me wants her story to be true - that Lucas asked for something that "looked fascist," if only because it doesn't look at al fascist to my child-of-the-70s eye, but it maybe for the same reason it doesn't look at all deco either....

  5. You'll have to watch the film - the online images are mostly from the trailer and don't use the same typography.

  6. Having followed this controversy for an art design class, I'd like to point out that Ms. Rice connecting Goebbels' font with Helvetica is being misunderstood. According to her own website, she never intended to imply that Goebbels' font inspired Helvetica, but that Goebbels' font inspired HER USE of Helvetica, since at the time of her design it was often the ONLY font that would be proscribed, just as Goebbels wanted his font to be the ONLY font used by the Nazi party. Her connection of the two was not due to similarity or influence in their DESIGN, but the similarity in their USE.

    Or, in her own words:

    I wanted to point this out since I feel that the controversy over how she came to design the Star Wars logo is overshadowing WHAT A FREAKING GREAT LOGO IT IS.

  7. I'm curious where you study design Scott, because the only real controversy about Rice's claim, is her claim. As far as I can tell, she is the only source that credits her with designing the logo (and your right it is a great logo, which is why I sent so much time writing about it). Although there are plenty of responses to her claim all over the internet, There is no mention of her anywhere, in any primary literature about the making of the film. If I have missed something PLEASE let know.
    As for what her web page says - it sounds to me like she changed her story (I'm assume you read my post and saw the excerpt I took from her blog where she implies nothing, she states it as fact: "Helvetika, was designed by the dreaded Joseph Goebbels." But the fact is, this is invention, and it throws the rest of her story in doubt, which is too bad. I like the idea that Lucas' design brief for the logo was that it be "fascist" - if that were true it would be an amazing detail. Unfortunately I find Rice's story implausible at best. But prove me wrong. Point me to a source that back her claims.