The concept of safety is quite straightforward. At a basic level we understand it as safety from predatory violence. Now, thankfully and for the most part, we live beyond this red-in-tooth-and-claw-survival-of-the-fittest arrangement. Nevertheless, modern society provides ample reason for safety issues to remain important.
It’s worth remembering that some of Britain’s biggest industries have, in the past, been so dangerous that they were obliged to provide orphanages for the destitute children of deceased workers. The big railway companies, the merchant marine, and even the General Post Office, were each required, at various times, to accept this terrible responsibility. The creation of increasingly safe environments for work, rest and play, is one of the great achievements of 20th century Britain – one that graphic design has played its part in.
For most of its 100 years, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents has been using the techniques of visual communication to make Britain a safer place. Nowadays, as far fewer people have experience of the brutally dangerous working conditions associated with heavy industry and regulations have been tightened, fewer people are exposed to its message. As a consequence, the visual record associated with the promotion of safety and accident prevention has, for the most part, disappeared from view. The absence of a dedicated archive of safety material has also played its part in this ‘forgetting’ of the RoSPA story.
Last year, however, RoSPA announced the re-discovery of its archive. It had lain undisturbed in a warehouse since 1976 and had been, hitherto, lost. The archive now comprises some thousands of items of documentation, original artwork and posters, ranging in date from the 1930s through to the early 1970s.
Suddenly, there is a much more complete history of RoSPA available; particularly in relation to its promotion of a visual culture of safety and accident prevention. The discovery allows us to connect directly to an earlier period of safety history when poster messages were at the forefront of RoSPA’s activities.
The origins of RoSPA date back to the end of 1916. The mechanisation of world war one provided a context for a greatly increased number of road accidents. Initially, the London Safety-First Council (LSFC) was formed to co-ordinate pedestrian awareness of the dangers associated with increased traffic, flagged up by an appeal to public duty and patriotic war effort.
The example of the LSFC was quickly followed by other cities where increased traffic congestion, and military activities, made the urban environment more dangerous. The various campaigns were merged into a national organisation in 1923: the National Safety-First Association (NSFA).
For most of the 1920s and 1930s, it was primarily concerned with the promotion of road safety, largely using pictorial posters. This places the NSFA at the forefront of design and communication development during this period – alongside organisations such as London Transport, the General Post Office, Shell-Mex and BP Ltd. It’s testimony to the NSFA’s ambition and design sense that it employed the services of some of the most significant designers working in Britain at the time, including Kenneth ‘Fougasse’ Bird, Hans ‘Zero’ Schleger, Edward McKnight Kauffer and Abram Games, to promote its efforts.
During the 1920s, the LSFC had also incorporated the British Industries Safety First Association (BISFA) and had, accordingly, a notional concern for industrial safety. This activity remained much less publicly visible. However, the approach of the second world war made factory safety a far more widely held priority associated with worker welfare, efficiency and production.
The war transformed the scale and scope of the NSFA’s activities. In 1941 the Association was granted Royal patronage and was re-named the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA). It had three main areas of activity – road, industrial and home safety. It was quickly realised that these concerns were aligned to those of the war effort – efficiency, morale and production – and so government underwrote its activities. Civilians injured in the blackout or factory used up resources set aside for victims of military attack. Likewise, workshop injuries (made more common due to the inexperienced wartime workforce) were both personally debilitating and inconvenient and inefficient to colleagues. Effective campaigns could reduce these incidents.
Implicit in this political decision was the recognition that graphic communication could serve the interests of Government and society through being made widely available at relatively little expense. Forms of graphic communication at the forefront of mechanical reproduction best exploited these features. Accordingly, RoSPA’s printers, Loxley Brothers in Sheffield, made great use of photo-mechanical techniques in design, make-ready and printing, allowing RoSPA to re-issue their most effective designs at regular intervals.
The demands of industrial production during WW2 were such that RoSPA’s Industrial Service, with its association with the Ministry of Labour, became the largest and most extensive of its services. At the height of this effort, about half-a-million posters were displayed in factories and workshops around Britain.
They were a mixture of graphic posters, illustrational posters and slogan posters. Thus, a relatively small selection of posters could be displayed in new combinations and the presentation kept fresh. The posters were supplemented by a series of notes, strip-cartoons and educational material for discussion. In addition to all this, factory managers were obliged to provide permanent display areas for poster materials and a dedicated space for the safety training.
The quality of RoSPA’s visual communications was advanced during the 1940s by the presence of Ashley Havinden and Tom Eckersley on RoSPA’s Publicity Committee. Remarkably, the context of WW2 provided an opportunity for RoSPA to commission work by designers in uniform and by emigre designers. Accordingly, Manfred Reiss, HA Rothholz, and both Jan Lewitt and George Him, feature regularly from this period.
After the war, with Leonard Cusden as creative director, RoSPA began to re-orientate itself to the changing patterns of civilian life. The widespread prosperity and leisure associated with the post-war boom brought a new range of dangers. These were associated with increased road traffic, the problem of drinking and driving, and various forms of new leisure activity that involved the excitement of risk.
Sometimes, progress and prosperity combined to create new types of risk. The advent of polio vaccination, for example, and its widespread use across juveniles, from the late 1950s onwards, transformed the usual risks attached to youthful adventure.
The dangers of polio were well-known. Epidemics associated with the water-born virus were a recurring feature of most communities in America and Europe from the 1880s onwards. These dangers were usually enough to dissuade the young from any contact with standing water. The advent of polio vaccination suddenly made rivers, canals, ponds and lakes fatally attractive. In consequence, there was a spike in water-related accidents and drownings and thus, from the late 1960s onwards, RoSPA started producing posters about water safety to address these risks. Similarly, the progressive electrification of the home associated with the progress of a materialistic consumer culture created additional and unforeseen risks.
Cusden’s role within RoSPA allowed him to produce many designs for the society (his is the largest number of designs within the archive) and to define its house style during the 1940s and 1950s. The varieties of style used are a measure of RoSPA’s sophistication. Illustrative material acts as a bridge between the comic story-telling of training and the dramatic reminders of the posters which, broadly speaking, belong to three distinct categories: graphic modernism, illustration and typography.
The style of graphic modernism combined word and image into a single comprehensible message. The obvious photomechanical origination of these designs connects these images to the best of the heroic modernism of the 1930s, but this style was not always appropriate. A more obviously illustrational style of poster combined humour and surrealism to create witty reminders of simple safety messages for all ages. In addition, the typographic slogan posters, with simple text messages, were displayed as a counterpoint and alternative to image-based communications. The three types of poster could be displayed simultaneously and in rotation to provide for a compelling display in workshops, factories and public buildings.
With the rediscovery of its archive, the significance of RoSPA’s contribution both to graphic design and to British society can finally be made clear. These posters were, let’s remember, the first of their kind anywhere in the world. They formed part of a sustained campaign to improve (and save) lives for nearly a century. And they did so using the highest standards of design and execution.
Just one of these factors would be sufficient to draw attention to these posters. Together, they suggest something of historic and international significance. That’s well worth celebrating.
Paul Rennie is a poster collector and historian. At the end of the 1990s he was invited, by the London College of Communication, to investigate a collection of material belonging to Tom Eckersley. This resulted in a thesis that examined the graphic and cultural significance of RoSPA’s industrial safety propaganda during WW2. At the time, the absence of any single archive required the collation of information from various sources in the UK and internationally. The thesis alerted RoSPA to the significance of its rediscovery. Now, RoSPA’s rediscovered archive has greatly increased the scope of this study. Paul is Head of Contexts in Graphic Communication at Central Saint Martins, London. He is working with RoSPA and is preparing a book about safety and design.
All the above images can be found at the RoSPA archive