Graphic bedrock

Designing a poster is an excellent way of creating focus and fine-tuning your ideas – never more vital than in election times. David Bernstein is looking forward to the campaigns ahead

By the time this appears we may be in election mode. We have already been made aware of the parties’ strategic thinking courtesy of the oldest of advertising media, the poster. Not that many of us have actually seen an election poster, in the flesh as it were. We have, for example, encountered David Cameron’s air-brushed flesh via intermediary media, be it TV, press, website or, spoofed, on You Tube. A news item might feature a minister or shadow unveiling a billboard. A conference might display a putative slogan.

Is this predilection for posters, as I believe, a recognition of the medium’s quintessential strengths or a reflection of traditional thinking by traditional politicians? The latter, if the media are any guide. The Observer ran a story on 28 February about a couple of provocative flyers published by the Romford Tory constituency and Labour’s response, choosing to headline it thus: ’Tories attacked over immigration poster (sic).’ The day before on the Breakfast TV programme a BBC commentator dusted down an old advertising mantra: ’Campaigning is all about repetition.’ Up to a point, Lord Copper. Campaigning today must recognise diversity via a coherent theme with executional variations.

This focus on the poster is not surprising. Ask yourself what election advertising you remember. Odds on it’s an outdoor ad. ’Labour isn’t working,’ perhaps.
Political propagandists are right to focus on the poster because the discipline of the medium itself creates focus. Outdoor is the toughest advertising medium, the designer’s severest challenge. The limitation it imposes clearly isn’t one of space – what could be bigger than a wall or a bus? It’s one of time, the length of the encounter between image and viewer.

Paradoxically, the discipline of this static medium is predicated on movement. The image is passing us, or we are passing it. The design has some seven seconds to register – time, as Abram Games advised, to make a point rather than tell a story. The street is no place for detail.
The idea must be the engine of the design, expressed in one image and some seven words. As I write, the Tories have settled on three: ’Vote for change’; Labour on five: ’A future fair for all’. As for the miffed Lib Dems, they are criticising both without declaring their hand (A real change? A whiter shade of fair?).
It will be interesting to see how the Tory and Labour lines are visualised. Will change and fairness be treated in abstract or concrete terms? And if the latter, by means of a single physical manifestation, how will it be chosen, and at the expense of which section of the community? My money’s on abstraction and symbolic illustration – with a side bet on words alone.

Of course, there will be a variety of media. It’s a fact of digital life. All the more reason for concentrating on the poster. As creative director I used to encourage teams to begin work on a campaign by designing a poster, whether or not outdoor featured in the media plan. A poster brought focus and we believed that if the idea worked there it would work in other media. The reverse rarely applied and a poster treated as an afterthought and relegated to a support role was often no more than a copy of the end frame of a TV commercial.

In an age of advertising fragmentation the poster represents bedrock. In the words of Sir John Hegarty, ’Good posters have the power to capture the nation’s attention, which is perhaps why political parties rely so heavily upon them.’

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