Michael Bierut | Essays

George Kennan and the Cold War Between Form and Content

The graphic designer's role is largely one of giving form to content. Often - perhaps even nearly always - this process is a cosmetic exercise. Only rarely does the form of a message become a signal of meaning in and of itself.

Last week, at Princeton University's Firestone Library, I saw an example of the power that form can give content: George F. Kennan's legendary "Telegraphic Message from Moscow of February 22, 1946," or, as it is better known to students of twentieth century foreign policy, "The Long Telegram."

The curriculum vitae of George F. Kennan, who turned 100 this year, makes him sound a bit like the Accidental Diplomat. After graduating from Princeton, he entered the foreign service with "the feeling that I did not know what else to do." Yet time and time again he found himself present at moments of global crisis: in Moscow during Stalin's show trials, in Prague for the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, in Berlin when Hitler declared war on the United States.

In the aftermath of World War II, Kennan was posted again to Moscow, where he viewed the intentions of our wartime ally, the Soviet Union, with progressively deeper despair, and with increasing concern that Washington was failing to understand the changing postwar landscape. As he wrote in his memoirs, "For eighteen long months I had done little else but pluck at people's sleeves, trying to make them understand the nature of the phenomenon with which we in the Moscow were daily confronted...So far as official Washington was concerned, it had been to all intents and purposes like talking to a stone."

So when Kennan received a rather routine question about why the Russians seemed unwilling to join the World Bank, he decided to unburden himself once and for all. As he put it: "Here was a case where nothing but the whole truth would do. They had asked for it. Now, by God, they would have it." The resulting dispatch was an eight-thousand word telegram that ran for 17 pages. It provided a detailed analysis of postwar Soviet aims and precise recommendations of how the United States should respond.

It's possible a document this long sent by courier would have been delivered, forwarded, read and filed. But Kennan, who took pains to "apologize in advance for this burdening of the telegraphic channel," must have been hoping for a more dramatic effect. And he got it: as he put it, the effect was "nothing less than sensational." The document quickly became known as "The Long Telegram." Hundreds of copies circulated, including, Kennan suspected, to President Truman. "My reputation was made. My voice now carried." Less than two weeks later, Winston Churchill delivered his "Iron Curtain" speech and the Cold War was officially underway.

I am fascinated by The Long Telegram. Like its ideological opposite, Mao Zedong's Little Red Book, it seems to be a case where, indeed, the merger of content and form has created an icon. At Princeton, where it is on view for the first time ever as part of a Kennan exhibition that runs through April 18, it sits in a custom-made, climate-controlled 18-foot glass case. I confess I was disappointed that it wasn't printed on a single roll (like that other icon of postwar American literature, the original manuscript of Jack Kerouac's On The Road), but in all its Courier-besotted glory (now disavowed, alas), it has its own unique power.

This was not the last time the seemingly discreet Kennan would prove himself to be a (perhaps inadvertent) master of public relations. A year later, asked to expand on his analysis for the journal Foreign Affairs, he asked that his article be published anonymously due to his sensitive position at the State Department. Attributed to the mysterious "X," his piece caused as sensation in no small part because of speculation as to its author. This was revealed in short order, adding further to Kennan's fame.

I have always known that graphic design requires a degree of tact, especially when dealing with clients. But I would not expect to get useful advice from a diplomat, as I did in Kennan's Memoirs: "It is axiomatic in the world of diplomacy that methodology and tactics assume an importance by no means inferior to concept and strategy." That's as useful a description of the interplay of the forces we designers grapple with as any.

Posted in: Graphic Design, History, Politics

Comments [10]

Very nice post Michael, I agree your assessment of Kennan's telegram regarding form and content. Thanks for the insight. My beef, as it would be, is rooted in your first two sentences.

"The graphic designer's role is largely one of giving form to content. Often - perhaps even nearly always - this process is a cosmetic exercise. Only rarely does the form of a message become a signal of meaning in and of itself."



1. Serving to beautify the body, especially the face and hair.
2. Serving to modify or improve the appearance of a physical feature, defect, or irregularity: cosmetic surgery.
a. Decorative rather than functional: cosmetic fenders on cars.
b. Lacking depth or significance; superficial: made a few cosmetic changes when she took over the company.

I assume you're referring to the latter two definitions. I hope overextended semantics don't become the downfall of critical writing in design. I see it of utmost importance that we do not choose less than exacting terminology.

Did you comb your hair this morning, brush your teeth, apply deodorant, pick an appropriately chosen uniform of clothes and lace up expensive dress shoes? Can we separate the clean, showered, shaven, well clothed Michael from another which chooses to forgo all of the cosmetic niceties we take for granted in everyday public interaction. Does your meaning as a being rely on this cosmetic exercise. Would clients, or anyone else for that matter, take one seriously if they separated all that which is cosmetic from daily experience. I'm actually left with an image of street residents(perhaps prisoners is more correct) of the Zeedijk. It seems that one here, would only hire an Amsterdam junky if they needed an inlet to intrinsic junky—ness. Otherwise I would question the dichotomy that exists between the cosmetic or formal expression of the being and the resulting internal content. I doubt one can clearly separate cosmetic and non cosmetic meaning for this situation. My clients don't talk to dirty, smelly and sloppy designers(not that we don't get dirty or smelly, just definitely not in client meetings), nor do they appreciate dirty, smelly, sloppy design(of course, exceptions always exist).

I get the stinking suspicion that there is some degree of divide and conquer at play here.
Is the graphic designer's role largely one of giving form to content? Giving form to content? I don't think there is such a clear cut division. There is no form that does not contain content to some degree. It's a messy substance to separate, this existence of graphic design or graphic designing, whichever way you can it today. If one gives form to content this implies that the content exists outside of form and form outside of content. What this sheds light on as I understand it, is your belief that form can be applied to content. This is cosmetic. Are we content designers merely slapping on form and taking it off for effect or sales, regardless of the outcome? I wish not to align myself with a profession so confused. Form and content arise together, be it form may overpower content or content may overpower form in certain situations. The goal is to discover a working methodology which brings form and content into a singular expression, elevating both and downplaying neither.
Ryan Pescatore Frisk

Michael's interesting post triggers a response that may not be as layered as Ryan's but perhaps useful to contemplate.

George Kennan was one of the highly respected diplomats who saw geo-political dangers and attempted to influence policy. Unlike others who were discredited because they were not ideologically in sync with their administrations, such as John Service, who warned against the US's anti-Mao policies and was attacked by Sen Joe McCarthy because of it, Kennan's foresight was accepted. What Michael discusses as the power that form can give content is well-taken insofar as on the other side of the coin, the aforementioned McCarthy (and those who followed him) used form to inflame and prejudice Americans.

In the fifties this undistinguished Senator from Wisconsin raised his arm high at a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, holding what he said was a list of a couple of hundred Communists in government. In fact, nothing was on the paper, but his "form" over-powered the content, and because he tickled the fears of Americans over real concerns about Communist ambitions, he managed to ignite a firestorm of reaction that adversely impacted many lives. This tyranny was called McCarthyism.

Not the least among the rhetorical weapons were films, graphics, and comics designed to scare and agitate, and ultimately to smear many (some guilty but most innocent). The "content" was not as acutely articulated as Kennan's telegram, but the form was filled not only with anti-Soviet codes, but with sensationalist racist allusions (i.e. certain types defined by distinct facial characteristics).

These pamphlets, newspapers, magazine covers, film posters, advertisements, and comic books were not designed to win Art Directors club awards (in fact, I have never seen any of this propaganda in old a.d. annuals or AIGA exhibits), but they did target a suseptible audience and helped foster in them fears that fueled the cold war for decades to follow.
Steven Heller

Ryan, thanks for bringing up the "cosmetic" issue. Unlike a lot of other designers out there, I have never discounted the importance of simply making messages look nice (or clear, or funny, or unusual.) Nor do I underestimate how hard this "mere" exercise is to do well in real life.

What interested me about the Kennan document is its singularity. Kennan made a single decision about the form of that message -- that it would be a long telegram -- and that one decision transformed it from one of many foreign policy analyses to something unique: The Long Telegram.

I suppose this might be defined as a cosmetic exercise, but it almost seems as much like a piece of experience design. The effect of 17 pages "burdening the telegraphic channel" must have been memorable in and of itself.

Steve Heller mentions the role of rhetoric in design. This was once seen as a plausible way to analyze visual communications as well as spoken ones. The best argument I've seen is Gui Bonsiepe's 1965 essay "Visual/Verbal Rhetoric," reproduced in Looking Closer 3. Perhaps the time is right to revisit Bonsiepe's ideas.
Michael Bierut

Along the same lines as the Kennan telegram, one small remembrance:

I will not vouch for this actually happening but Lou Dorfsman once told me that when Tisch assumed chairmanship of CBS replacing the enlightened (design) reign of Paley, he asked that the corporate annual report be produced at less than half the previous cost, in part to save money but also to symbolically indicate to stock holders that austerity measures were in place.

Dorfsman told me that his idea was to design the entire report in typewriter type (whether he indicated it would just be stapled together or carefully bound I don't remember), no frills whatsoever, which would vividly get Tisch's message across. Again, I don't know for certain if this was put into practice, but it suggests that "official type" and designed form is one kind of rhetorical authority, and less formal typewriter composition is another. Ultimately, I'd be curious to know how the stockholders would preceive this since they were used to Dorfsman's more elaborate annual reports of the Paley days. Of course its quite different with diplomatic documents (one doesn't need initial caps or scotch rules to make a point), but it goes to the heart of form's power.
steven Heller

Both Michael and Steven describe instances where the standard or expected form, the existing system, was misused for dramatic effect. This misuse was possible in some ways only because form and content had become separated. Content for telegraphs or for annual reports was expected to conform to established forms. Kennan was able to obtain special consideration for his content because he altered the form. So, while I want to agree with Ryan that form and content should not be thought of as distinct -- mainly in order to grant more legitimacy to form -- I think it is useful to make the distinction. And I think it is the designer's job both to uphold form, to help define and create form in and of itself, as well as to disrupt form in order to grant special recognition for content. For most jobs, one is mainly upholding and defining an established form as well as to a lesser extent altering it and redefining it. Making it pretty usually means making it different enough to make it interesting without altering the established form so much that it becomes too jarring and difficult to read, to process or absorb. In order for this to work, the viewer must have in their mind an idea of the template, the form without content.
trent williams

The discussion seems terribly focused on the form. I'd like to poke the hornet's nest a bit and ask about the content.

Perhaps Kennan's content succeeds despite restrictions inherent to the form.

In Trent's words:

"While I want to agree with [Trent] that form and content should not be thought of as distinct -- mainly in order to grant more legitimacy to [content] -- I think it is useful to make the distinction. And I think it is the designer's job both to uphold [content], to help define and create [content] in and of itself, as well as to disrupt [content] in order to grant special recognition for [form]."

Except, form needs no additional recognition. For most designers, we must bravely immerse them in content and hope they notice.
Austin Govella

Interesting discussion. Disclaimer: I'm not a designer (just happened across this site by chance). However, I couldn't resist...

Michael notes "Only rarely does the form of a message become a signal of meaning in and of itself."

I would argue that it is actually rare (if not impossible) for the meaning of a message NOT to be altered by its form (informed by its form?).

Isn't that what designers do? Designers are people who have developed an aethetic/psychological sensibility that allows them to present information that is clear, memorable, emotionally charged, subtly evocative--whatever is called for. This is a process of working with 'meta-meaning'.

Linguists call this 'para-linguistic' meaning--the meaning of an utterance is informed by the speaker's tone, body language, gestural cues, facial expression, as well as by the social relationship/history existing between conversational participants.

Seems to me that every decision a designer makes about how to present 'content' must be a decision about how meaning will be derived from/perceived in the final product--just as every decision (whether conscious or not) made by a speaker adds para-linguistic meaning to his utterance.
Brad Wright

On a related note, Greg Storey has taken a crack at redesigning the now infamous presidential intelligence brief.

Titled "A Better Tighty Whitey," this item at his site, Airbag, looks at the recently declassified White House brief from August 6, 2001 that mentions a possible attack by Al Queda forces within the United States. He proposes a design solution. As he notes, "USA Today made it easier for a nation to monitor the weather through good design, why not give design a crack at making it easier to stop terrorism?"

William Drenttel

The comments on the Airbag.ca site regarding Greg Storey's redesign of the Presidential Daily Brief (noted by Bill Drenttel above) have been really thoughtful. The story has been picked up by the Wall Street Journal in an article that includes comments from the "Holy Trinity" of information design: Jakob Nielsen, Edward Tufte, and Richard Wurman. Tufte, somewhat unsurprisingly, says he would leave the PDB as is: "It wasn't PowerPoint, thank heavens. It was written with complete sentences, subjects, objects, verbs. I think the design's irrelevant."

You can dismiss this as crankiness, but I think Tufte has a point. Of course decent typography (which Storey's redesign certainly introduces) helps, but a document is only as good as the information it contains. Kennan's Long Telegram looked like crap but was incredibly detailed and passionately argued, and that's why it changed American foreign policy.
Michael Bierut

George Kennan is dead at 101. You can link to the complete text of the Long Telegram here.
Michael Bierut

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