Graphic designers with security clearances could show you their work. But then they’d have to kill you.
Copyright 2005, Jandos Rothstein
Originally Published in Print Magazine, March-April 2005.
When I was a newspaper designer, my favorite place to see one of my pages was in a puddle. You know you’ve gotten under the fingernails of a city when bits of your work are blowing around the streets, hung up on its billboards, or perched on its store shelves. Designers tend to be a fairly anonymous bunch, at least outside our profession, but there’s some consolation in knowing that the fruits of our labors can become part of the cultural fabric.
But our vicarious satisfaction in achieving fame, or at least ubiquity, through our work is denied to our colleagues who handle classified projects for the U.S. government. Illustrators bringing life to newly imagined weapons, designers developing proposals for clandestine programs, military-game specialists testing combat scenarios before troops hit the ground: All work in secret environments on sensitive material that has short, tightly restricted life cycles; highly select audiences; and a tendency to get locked in filing cabinets for decades after completion, if not forever. Put it this way: You won’t be seeing their work in the next Regional Design Annual.
“Secret” design can seem paradoxical or even nonsensical to those with more traditional careers generating commercial work intended for the public eye. But in this era of Homeland Security and war in Iraq, such work has become a large and growing field that influences extravagant purchases and high-level policies. While there’s a particularly large concentration of designers with clearances in and around Washington, D.C., they’re found wherever military contractors are based. And they’re understandably very secretive by nature.
Stephanie, an employee of a well-known military contractor based near Washington, is working on a project that she assumes will never be declassified—a project worth more than $200 million—for ... well, she won’t get any more specific than to say it’s for “the government.” (To the designers I interviewed, who work with issues of both industrial and national security, answering even my most innocent questions often would have posed an unacceptable risk.)
Stephanie is driven and very devoted to her work. For years, she did classified “marketing”—proposals and presentations for new projects, completed under tight deadlines in late-night sessions. (Maybe, she muses, all those late-night sessions explain why she isn’t married.) She’s happy to be working on a single project, producing PowerPoint presentations and proposal revisions. Yet Stephanie, frustrated that she has nothing she can show a prospective employer after two decades working as a designer, has enrolled in a state university BFA program to build her portfolio. “People think you can just cross out the dirty words in the text, and then you can show it,” she says. “But the pictures are full of dirty words, too.”
Nicole, a recent graduate from a Virginia university, is a CIA designer who lives with her husband in a suburban Washington townhouse. Like many designers with clearances, she had connections: “I got it through my husband, also at the CIA, who was recruited by his cousin. You don’t just walk into a job like this.” Nicole started the clearance process while a junior in college, and it wasn’t until three months after graduating, the day after she got an offer to design graphic interfaces for a software company, that her approval came through.
The secret nature of her work is its biggest downside, Nicole says. “A very small part of what I do is actually classified. Most of the things I’ve designed I could take home with me, but because of the environment, we don’t. I haven’t closed my mind to working in a commercial environment—preferably in advertising—but knowing I can’t take most of my work outside is possibly a problem. I try to keep a freelance base of clients because of that.”
And designers with clearances are sometimes discouraged to find that their clients don’t always appreciate design. “You can be a fantastic designer, but in truth, the CIA isn’t looking for fantastic designers,” Nicole says. “Most people are on the technical side and have no clue what good design is—there’s a conservative bias. It’s frustrating that you work for people who don’t appreciate the value of what you can do. I work with a team of eight people: Three of us are graphic designers. The others aren’t trained, and they get applauded for posters where you can’t even read the text.”
Cory Workman, whose employer, Dynamic Animation Systems, produces computer-game simulation software for military training, agrees. (Unlike Stephanie and Nicole, Workman permitted me to use his real name and to identify his employer.)
“It’s a little bit true that our clients don’t care how it looks, just that it functions correctly. But we’re trying to bring a game quality to artwork on the simulation side,” he says. “If we were on the game side, our work would be somewhere in the middle, approaching good, but not the best. But in the simulation world, we have some of the best sims out there.”
Much of Workman’s digital design efforts over the past year have focused on designing an exceedingly detailed reconstruction of an eight-block section of Baghdad. He says the military’s demand for high-quality motion graphics has lately been increasing: “If a building casts a real shadow, it makes a difference. In simulations, buildings didn’t used to cast shadows, but maybe a soldier can hide in that shadow. Having it there gives a training advantage.”
Designers with clearances tend to believe in what they do. Small wonder, considering the invasive two-year process it takes to get cleared. “If you have any skeletons in your closet, it’s thrown open for anyone to see,” Nicole says. “I was lucky, in that I came from a small town where everyone knew you, and if you had a beer before 21, you got in trouble. But for the government to trust you with secrets it doesn’t trust most people with, they need you to go through that process. And it’s good for you, too—you have confidence that everyone you work with is trustworthy.” (Nicole’s clearance is “top secret with lifestyle poly”: She’s been hooked up to a polygraph machine to answer questions about her personal life.)
Workman also attests to the thorough vetting process that classified graphic designers must endure: “You fill out a long form, they visit your apartment, talk to your roommate, and look through your stuff. Then they get a list of your friends, and then go about three people deep.”
But despite such hazing rituals, the access is worth the price of admission, Stephanie says. “Clearances mean a lot. They’re not handed out like peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. If you’re good and cleared, they don’t want to let you go unless they have no choice, and with the clearance, I feel I have something to barter with.”
Apart from any camaraderie gained by experiencing similar clearance initiations, designers in a classified environment still feel isolated. “I’m too segregated because of the work I’m doing,” Stephanie says. “I sometimes converse with other designers, but we don’t work together. You can’t call up another designer and say, ’I have a problem.’ You can’t show them your work, or ask their opinion—they have the same clearance as I do, but the standard is need-to-know.”
Stephanie, Nicole, and Workman admit that their clearances may limit them from broader career opportunities. “I still have a strong desire to be in a world of designers who produce ads, who get public recognition, and where I’d be pushed,” Nicole says. “In the government there’s a lot of room to be lazy. I can’t grow if I’m not going to be critiqued.” She adds, “I can’t see myself here forever. The CIA is not the top job for designers, the way it is for intelligence analysts.”
Of course, the lure of money soothes such qualms. When Nicole was looking for work just out of school, most employers approached her with a starting salary of $35,000; a starting salary with a clearance is at least double that, she says. And she’s cheered to have the support of her family: “They see it as an awesome opportunity, even though there are aspects of the job that put my life at risk.”
Workman also sometimes finds himself wondering if he wouldn’t be happier doing more commercial video-game work. “Some of the government work can be monotonous,” he says, “except when you get to make cool new weapons. But there’s more realism and not as much creativity as with games. There are no dragons or wizards going down al-Rasheed Street in Baghdad.”