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20 Years Ago: Bomb the Pentagon

For a 1991 AIGA San Francisco event, Steve Tolleson asked fifty Bay Area graphic designers to create posters addressing an environmental issue of their choice. My topic? The tendency of the US military to avoid environmental scrutiny—and, at times, responsibility—by invoking the so-called state secrets privilege. According to Project Censored, “the Department of Defense is the largest polluter in the world, producing more hazardous waste than the five largest US chemical companies combined. Depleted uranium, petroleum, oil, pesticides, defoliant agents such as Agent Orange, and lead, along with vast amounts of radiation from weaponry produced, tested, and used, are just some of the pollutants with which the US military is contaminating the environment.” The design parameters were tight: one color on a recycled stock at a size of 18 x 24. A number of the posters went on to win awards in national competitions, including my poster and those designed by Doug Akagi and Michael Schwab.

I hand-inked the arrows, target, and Bomb lettering, and built the constructivist-inspired typography with an early version of Adobe Illustrator. Final art was a black and white “stat” from which the printer shot a Kodalith film positive; he then screen printed the design using black enamel ink on corrugated cardboard. For any designer who remembers the prevalence of bright white, cast-coated papers such as Kromecote in the 1980s, printing “high end” work on an unbleached and uncoated substrate was unorthodox.

Twenty years later, given our post-Timothy McVeigh, post-9/11 mind-set, Bomb the Pentagon has become both visually and politically jarring: a year or so ago I watched a young museum curator’s body literally recoil from the poster. 1991 was a moment in American history that now seems strangely distant, when calls to bomb anything were rightly understood as hyperbole. Unlike much graphic design which is subject to visual trends, the “look” of this poster doesn’t appear dated, at least to my eyes; rather, it is the message—and its stridency—that dates the piece.