Say it straight

From hard-hitting political drives conveying complex messages at a stroke to public information and charity campaigns, film posters and advertising, Anna Richardson finds that there’s still plenty of life in the good old poster

In the era of Twitter revolutions, viral advertising and multimedia campaigns, the well-designed poster could be considered obsolete, or somewhat quaint at best. But when it comes to conveying hard-hitting campaigning messages, the poster continues to be used to full effect, able to reach viewers at numerous touchpoints.

‘There are many other avenues and channels for messages to get out, but I still think the poster is a very relevant and powerful tool,’ says Pentagram partner Harry Pearce, who has created a series of iconic posters during his career.

Campaign messages can be complex and broad. Conservation organisation World Wildlife Fund, for example, represents a range of issues and harnesses the Internet to explain them, says Georgie Bridge, head of design management at WWF-UK. ‘It’s about getting that combination of the deeper messaging that we have online and the very single-minded message of the poster.’

When tackling a visual campaign, Bell Design creative director Ian Allison often designs a poster, even if the brief doesn’t require it, as ‘posters tend to encapsulate a campaign in a nutshell’.

Conjuring such visual shorthand and getting people to notice them in an environment increasingly cluttered with information can be a challenge, says Paul Garbett, of Australian consultancy Naughty Fish. ‘I don’t think it’s important that people like them, or that they are pretty, but instead that people get the message.’

The choice of imagery is key, and the simple solution is often the best. Why Not Associates used a snapshot of a dead fish on the poster promoting The End of the Line, a documentary on the rapid depletion of worldwide fish stock. ‘It wasn’t a particularly good photograph, but as soon as we reversed it, it became really powerful,’ says Why Not Associates founding partner Andy Altmann.

The combination of image and word is particularly important, with a poster offering limited space and opportunity in which to get a point across, says Allison. Bell Design’s poster for Crimestoppers’ I Spy campaign last year, which mobilised the expatriate community in Spain to report criminals, conveyed a ‘short, snappy and powerful’ message, rendered in simple, bold type – a perfect example of content and design working in harmony, says Allison.

One of Pearce’s most lauded posters, Infantry, also illustrates the power of economical copywriting – the word transposed over the image of a child soldier evokes the most vulnerable division of the army as well as the most vulnerable human being. ‘The copy is absolutely as vital as the image,’ says Pearce. ‘Neither could exist without the other.’ Beyond creating an impression or providing food for thought, getting people to sign up to a cause is often the immediate goal of a campaign poster. ‘A good poster is when you succeed to convey a message that hits the target and leaves the viewer with questions, thoughts or feelings that motivate, and even leads to recruiting the viewer,’ says Israeli poster artist Yossi Lemel. ‘A bad poster leaves you indifferent.’

Recruiting people can be as simple as driving them to an associated website, but in a new campaign for Save the Children, design consultancy Exposure is encouraging music festival-goers to leave a thumbprint on a large-scale canvas to express support for the cause, effectively creating ‘consumer-generated poster design’, says creative director Simon Shaw.

There’s generally not a lot of money in creating posters for charities or non-governmental organisations, no matter how powerful or iconic. But for many, the work is driven by personal conviction.

‘In most cases I create these posters because I’m compelled to do so, not because I was briefed,’ says Garbett. ‘As designers, we put all our skill and talent into marketing products that people don’t always need. Some of that creativity can be challenged into areas that do humanity some good beyond fuelling the desire to consume more.’

Lemel also creates a number of personal, self-initiated campaigns, in addition to commissioned posters for the likes of Amnesty International and Greenpeace. His upcoming show Anatomy of a Conflict at Stockholm’s Beckmans Gallery deals with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of the images features a dissection of the Sabra fruit, which is used to describe people born in Israel. ‘All the work comes from my needs, my urges, my anxieties, fears and yearning for justice,’ says Lemel. ‘It’s all connected to the same roots and it’s very personal.’

Even veteran Pearce, who has created all printed materials for New York-based Witness for the past eight years and sits on the charity’s advisory board, still finds the power of a poster surprising. When his 2006 poster, designed for an event to raise awareness of human rights violations in Burma, was brandished around the world as protests kicked off, it became a highlight of his career.

‘It was spontaneous and powerful,’ he recalls. ‘It’s the proudest moment of everything I’ve done. We’re all trying to make a mark, and if your work gets taken out on to the street, it’s everything you hope for.’

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