The students are revolting

The May 68 uprising in Paris produced a body of student-generated work that has something to teach all of us

It’s good to find the time look at student work. You never know, one day I may see something stunning. I live in hope.

But it’s safe to say I’m generally somewhat underwhelmed. Which of course is no surprise. It tends to take years of hard work to become proficient in art direction and design (something you juniors should perhaps reflect on, next time you slope off work at 5:30pm claiming a need to get your work/life balance in order).

Today’s students would also do well to reflect on their predecessors. Specifically the class of ’68 at the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris.

While today’s bunch are busy ripping off the latest graphic trend courtesy of the design blogs, these guys were busy bringing an entire nation to its knees, then very nearly overthrowing a government. And graphic design certainly played a part.

Forget social media. Meet socialist media. Our student friends occupied their art school, renaming it the rather less bourgeois sounding Atelier Populaire. They then proceeded to produce hundreds of different designs of screen printed posters, all with amazingly powerful graphics. These posters appeared on the streets of Paris, mobilising students and workers to rise up against the unpopular government of Charles De Gaulle.

It worked. After a series of demonstrations with some excessive police brutality, a general strike ensued leaving the government in disarray. At its height, eleven million workers had walked out.

For passion, energy and conviction, these posters in single colours on large sheets of cheap newsprint are hard to beat. Infinitely superior to the sanitised gloss of today’s smart phone screens.

The poster featured here says something like ‘Workers, the struggle continues-form grassroots committees’. With the simple graphic idea of a clenched
fist and arm in the shape of a factory chimney.

But it’s not just the message that communicates. There’s an urgency in the graphic look of these posters (there had to be, they were churning out over two thousand per night). It gives power to the design. It makes it impossible to ignore.

These posters also tell us something else.

That if you really mean it, it shows in the final design. No money? No problem-it needn’t stop you doing something incredible. A single colour can be stronger than many. And a simple graphic idea can be more motivating than thousands of words of manifesto.

I may not entirely share the political ideology of the men and women from the May ’68 uprising (some of whom lost their lives in pitch battles with the brutal French riot police). But I certainly have the greatest admiration for them. So much so that I almost didn’t write this article.

The frontispiece of a book of these posters published in 1969, states the following: ‘To display these posters in bourgeois places of culture or to consider them as objects of aesthetic interest is to impair both their function and their effect…’ An uncompromising, hardcore attitude indeed. On reflection, all I can say is that I respectfully disagree. And that just sometimes, it’s students that can give the lessons to us.

Paul Belford is the founder of agency Paul Belford Ltd. See and his Twitter feed @belford_paul. Selected posters from the Atelier Populaire can be seen in Beauty Is in the Street: A Visual Record of the May ‘68 Paris Uprising (Four Corners)

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