Last month, I attended Posters, Politics, Protest, a one-day conference held at Manchester’s brilliant People’s History Museum. A joint venture with the V&A, the event aimed to focus on the role and evolution of the political poster in Britain – and as a graphic medium for political debate. The well-curated list of speakers – a balanced and diverse mix of theory and practice, fringe and mainstream, and refreshingly for a design conference, male and female – divided the day into the thinkers in the morning and the doers in the afternoon.
Kicked-off by the University of Bristol’s James Thompson, we started in the 1800s, with Thompson arguing that what we might think of as a relatively ‘new thing’ in posters, probably isn’t. It seems designers and political parties have always ‘designed’ their messages with a holistic view, using the poster as a media catalyst rather than a single output. A good example were the early ‘poster vans’ which were covered in campaign posters on every possible surface, wheel-to-roof – but it was the invitation extended to the press to come and get that one great shot of them for the papers which turned a seemingly novel act into a pretty media savvy one. Some early posters were even designed with separate printed messages so people could ‘interact’ with them at street level. Negative campaigning, pastiching, celebrity endorsement, all were rife during the beginning of the relationship between politics and posters. And it all sounded eerily familiar.
We then had a quick flurry of curators and archivists speaking about the meaning of poster collections and why we feel the need to collect this material. The short answer is they are collected for their politics, and not their design. Chris Burgess, curator at the People’s History Museum, argued that we British much prefer word to picture, and being a nation of literature, we don’t covet the poster as a visual medium as much as those abroad. Hence, for Burgess, the political aspect is the first and foremost reason for acquiring any poster.
Monica Cash, deputy librarian at Belfast’s Linen Hall Library, echoed the sentiment when talking through its world-renowned Northern Ireland Political Collection. Said to have “something to offend everyone” their posters were certainly the most intense of the day, visually and politically. But again, politics proved the primary reason for archiving. “The biggest risk to these collections of conflicts is the conflicts themselves,” Cash said. (The Library was firebombed by the IRA in 1993.)
Up next was Dr. Cathy Ross of the Museum of London, who shared my highlight of the day: the collection of the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift, a social and political youth organisation in the first half of the last century. Their ideas and ‘policies’ were explored in the most graphic sense through iconography and infographics (plus some seriously Wicker Man-esque ceremonial get-ups) created by their adman leader, John Hargrave (‘White Fox’). Although beautiful in aesthetics and aspirations, the movement was a failure as their politics and social credit policies weren’t strong enough, and couldn’t cut through.
From the politics behind the pictures, we then moved onto how to picture the politics. Dr. Margaret Scammell of London School of Economics, claimed there are three main methods which have defined political campaigning: The Saatchi effect – the agency as strategist; New Labour – the triumph of the marketing concept; and Obama – the triumph of brand. Each of them illustrates just how deeply involved the creative industry has been in the communications of politics in popular culture over the past 40 years. Jeremy Sinclair, responsible for arguably Britain’s most famous political poster – the Thatcher-winning dole-queuing Labour Isn’t Working – then expanded on the first of Scammel’s points. As a co-founder of M&C Saatchi, he certainly towed his party line of ‘Brutal Simplicity of Thought’ believing, “If you can’t state your message in a sentence, you’ll lose”. And after running through a list of the successes of the Saatchi campaigns for various Conservative governments and the recent ‘Better Together’ campaign, he claimed there’s “very little you can’t do with a poster”. Except, perhaps, beat New Labour with demonic red eyes.
During a quick-fire afternoon, discussions ranged from the diversity and creative-enabling of the Occupy movement; films on the Iraq War; young creative Scotland’s response to the referendum; and the crowdsourced satire of an airbrushed Tory election poster from 2010 (collected at mydavidcameron.com). See Red Women’s Workshop was a particular highlight with their silkscreen posters and prints in support of the Women’s Liberation Front, as well as a variety of feminist and sympathetic causes, all created through a real creative community and educational ethos. The great news is that the also wonderful Four Corners Books have their monograph in the works – it’s definitely one to look out for.
The conference highlighted that although the means and methods of the poster may have changed, the core creative principles of their design and realisation – and ultimately their success – are resoundingly agreed upon by the academic and the artist alike. If the message isn’t intelligible, then design won’t save it.
The poster is a realm where the idea is still king, where big concepts are boiled down to their absolute essence in order to communicate unequivocally. It was invigorating to see that the medium is as urgent as it ever has been – if you have something to say, the poster, although perhaps the oldest medium, is still the best. And in what many would declare are uncertain times for the political poster in the form we know and love, it’s good to know that some things will never change.
Craig Oldham is creative director at and one half of The Oldham Goddard Experience, oldhamgoddard.com. His book In Loving Memory Of Work: a visual record of the UK miners’ strike 1984-85, is out early next year. For more on the People’s History Museum, visit phm.org.uk