At its best, graphic design offers a beautiful piece of editing. A good designer takes a range of disparate information and makes sense of it. The creation of an icon goes even further by reducing multiple messages into one visual symbol, instantly easier to recognise and digest than text. The resulting image acts as a processing shortcut, delivering meaning before words have even drawn breath.
During my graphic design career, I saw the value of a good icon to business. Every company craves something memorable: they aspire to the Nike swoosh but will settle for a BP helios. Inevitably, the most successful icons are not just clever constructs. Global saturation plays its part and as a consequence our memories are tattooed with brands and identifiers. We have unconsciously absorbed their commercial and political concentrate since birth.
The swastika is possibly the modern world’s most powerful icon. Beyond Western execration, it can represent good luck and prosperity. Hindus, Buddhists and Jainists have traditionally identified the swastika’s sacred, ancient form in spiritual terms; photos of US First Nation tribes in the early 1900s reveal a chiral cross woven into their clothing; at the same time European energy companies were using it to signify electricity (an example can still be seen on the wrought iron gates of Oslo’s Municipal Power Station; an anti-fascist mob might well trash it for all the wrong reasons).
Today, the West is unable to see past the swastika’s association with the holocaust. We are hard-wired after nearly a century of cultural exposure to the symbol’s appropriation by the Nazi Party in the 1930s. It now reads as a shorthand for hate, white supremacism and specifically, anti-semitism. It is, of course, not the perpendicular shapes themselves which instil fear and loathing, but their marketing history. Yet I was still surprised by the incendiary public response to Lawrence Fox’s latest attempt at clever-dickery, after he promoted a graphic combination of swastika and Pride rainbow flags to make a political point about vexillology (yeah, I had to look it up too).
Because Fox is a mean-spirited narcissist, you can surmise that his posts will be intentionally facey. Striking a Twitter pose by integrating Nazi and LGBTQ symbols, his new profile picture was bound to be contentious, the story shaded with murk. But I first saw the image in isolation, cut and pasted a hundred steps away from @LozzaFox, and I thought it was a radical attempt to take the sting out of a malevolent graphic icon by surrounding it with the bright colours of freedom. I thought I saw an exercise in undermining the power of the swastika, similar to those black, gay and female individuals who have reclaimed the racist, homophobic and sexist nouns used to offensively describe them.
Once I knew the author’s blimp identity, my response adjusted for context. And yet, is this not an own goal by Lol Fox? Graphic design can build potency but its tropes can also be subverted. If we continue to displace the swastika - stick it wherever the hun don’t shine - its authority and hatefulness can be diminished. Add some flowers, a couple of puppies, some daft words in a 1970s bubble font, and blow the spite right out of the water. Maintaining a taboo around the swastika to ensure a perpetual reminder of past atrocities also weaponises the emblem, creating opportunities for monstrous idolatry all over again. Would it not be healthier to detoxify its ferocious clout, rendering the symbol no more than a wonky bunch of lines?