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Creativity in times of crisis: The case of public health posters

18 May 2020 —

In this time of global health crisis, a review of public health posters over time offers an interesting insight into the role that artists and creatives could play today.

In this time of global health crisis, a review of public health posters over time offers an interesting insight into the role that artists and creatives could play today.

“Defining what makes an effective poster is not a simple matter” writes William H Helfand in the foreword to Public Health Campaigns: Getting The Message Across, a WHO (World Health Organization) publication reviewing a century of public health posters. While the success of an advertising campaign can be measured in terms of sales-growth, it is more difficult to determine the impact of a public health campaign so clearly.

Like advertising campaigns, public health campaigns aim to change the behaviour of viewers. In fact, it was the success of posters as an advertising medium that prompted the United States and most European countries to hire artists and begin mass production of public health posters amid the terror of the First World War. Because they are both effective and inexpensive to produce, posters have since retained an important place in public health campaigns, although they might have lost some of their prestige in recent decades.

A quick overview shows that 21st century posters have also lost the artistic value that was theirs for most of the 20th century, when renowned artists such as Franz Von Stuck, Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer or Emilio Vilà produced several high-quality posters, or when photographers like Henri Cartier Bresson worked for the WHO.

Hooman Momen, a former senior WHO officer we interviewed explains that part of the problem is that “[early 20th century] artists were happy to be associated with those kinds of high-profile campaigns, whereas today it’s probably more difficult to attract people”. He also explains that the approach of institutions has changed over time, and today posters aim to deliver more direct messages, with image as a secondary argument.

One would be tempted to deplore the lack of creativity in today’s public health posters, but without any real means of evaluating the effectiveness of a given poster, how is it possible to judge the necessity (or not) of an artistic involvement in the process? Seeing how the current global coronavirus epidemic seems to have led artists to reengage with public health issues, the question of their place seems important.

The power of quotation

Posters rely heavily on the power of quotation. Because they need instant recognition to deliver a message in the few seconds they are seen, posters must show images that are so ingrained in the viewer’s brain that recognition of what they represent is immediate, giving an immediate sense of belonging.

A glance at the “pointer”, with his accusing finger pointing at us, is enough to convey a message of sense of duty in a fraction of a second. The image was launched in 1914 in the United Kingdom as a “Your country Needs You” poster, followed closely by its American version in 1917 and has been used ever since. The strength of its meaning has grown over time, through countless campaigns that have used it with slight adjustments, even today with caregivers pointing at people to ask them to stay home.

This need for instant recognition requires a certain universalism; however, to be effective, poster designers must take into account the specificity of each region and each period. This ambivalence is at the root of the challenges of poster design today.

Colour lithograph after A. Games, UK, 1941, Wellcome collection.jpg

USA 1930s.jpg

UK 1920S.jpg

USA, 1934.jpg

The challenge of multiple sub-cultures

Designing an effective poster might have been an easier task in a non-globalized world, with strong and unified mainstream cultures.
In an article, Kevin Rozario, Associate Professor of American Studies at Smith College, argues that the great trend of pulp culture in the American middle class strongly influenced the design of the macabre Red Cross posters during the First World War. Similarly, posters from the 1940s took inspiration from the Marvel comics to depict mosquitoes as the villains in the fight against malaria. According to Davide Rodogno, Professor of International History at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, the mosquito figure was the first successful depiction of a virus in a health campaign.

“Paradoxically, it was much simpler for those who had to create posters in that time, because they had two or three reference cultures (…) they targeted people with a certain aesthetic background that was easy to understand, so the visual rendering afterwards spoke in a way that reached the targeted audience” Prof. Rodogno later explains. Today, communication is facing a new challenge: how to communicate in a globalized world, where subcultures have multiplied?

The communication crisis that WHO and other institutions are currently facing is part of this problem. They must solve, among other things, the question of having to choose between a universal and a targeted campaign, both approaches carrying their share of issues and critics, creating a problem that seems to have no end.

Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, date unknown UK.jpg

USA, 1930s.jpg

USA, 1940s.jpg

WWII Malaria educational poster @USNatArchives.jpg

The place of artists today

Faced with the global Covid-19 epidemic, humanity responded by doing what it has been doing since prehistoric cave paintings: making sense of the world by drawing it, with an added sense of immediacy. Artists around the world began producing drawings and cartoons, which have been widely circulated, as an effective way to help people to come to terms with their new condition.

Without being commissioned by health institutions, creatives have also created new images to help convey WHO recommendations. The infographics Harry Stevens created for the Washington Post, explaining how the virus spreads, has become the most widely viewed story ever published by the journal. Similarly, the matchsticks analogy created by director and artists Juan Delcan and Valentina Izaguirre, has become a common way to explain the principles of social distancing, as has the “flatten the curve” graph that originated in a 2007 CDC (Centre for Disease Control) article. All these new images have become so well known that they have now become quotes in their own right, being re-interpreted and re-used in new creative ways to convey complex messages with a single image.

At the same time, many initiatives have been created to promote poster design. The open source initiative “Stay Sane-Stay Safe” asks artists from around the world to design posters that can be printed freely by anyone. More than 77 countries are represented to date, a variety of cultures that allows the same message to be conveyed in so many ways. Similarly, a UN call-out to creatives from around the world  to help in “translating critical public health messages, into work that will engage and inform people across different cultures, languages, communities and platforms” was launched earlier this month. This multiplication of initiatives combining global and regional response is something that needs deepening and might well be an answer to the challenges faced by public health campaigns.

Because artists have a way of putting the world into universal images, of conveying very complex ideas on a single page, without the use of words, they still have a role to play today as they did yesterday when the world was struggling to get rid of polio. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres said, “the creativity of responses must match the unique nature of this crisis”. Now might be the time to take inspiration from the past to create a new response.