Do posters about climate change work?

As a desire to care for the planet has evolved into an urgent need to rescue it, the way designers express concerns about the climate has changed too. Tim Medland, curator of an exhibition showcasing 50 years of environmental posters, discusses how they reflect the changing times

“Every poster in this exhibition is a failure” is how Poster House in New York introduces its new exhibition, We Tried to Warn You!, which brings together 50 years of posters about the environment, including designs by the likes of Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast. It might seem a counter-intuitive statement for a museum dedicated to celebrating the power and influence of poster design. But, it argues, nothing so far has managed to shift behaviour enough to protect the environment – including posters.

Of course, that’s a rather big burden for designers and graphic artists to shoulder alone. In truth, the show’s curator, Tim Medland, takes less of a hardline stance, and instead believes that the posters on display in the exhibition are praiseworthy. Without them, we might be in much more of a predicament than we are now. He believes that “the posters have helped with the visibility of the problems and encouragement of grassroots protests, which leads to legislative solutions”.

However, along with the opportunities of poster design, the exhibition acknowledges its limitations, namely that design’s effectiveness sits largely in the hands of its audience. “The issues have got worse, the poster designers tried to ‘warn us’ but partially we didn’t listen – partially corporate and government actors obfuscated and appropriated messaging,” he explains.

Poster showing an illustration of a person cutting off an oil pipe with the headline 'Wall Street Funds Climate Disaster. Stop Funding Fossil Fuels'
Top: Photo by Stephanie Powell; Above: Wall Street Funds Climate Disaster by Jan Martijn Burger, 2023, from Poster House Permanent Collection. All artwork images courtesy Poster House