William Drenttel | Essays

The Lying Game No. 2 (Or Vietnam Redux)

New York City - (AP Photo/Shawn Baldwin)

In America, we are experiencing the most polarized populace since Vietnam. Millions of people may have disapproved of Bill Clinton's immoral behavior, but even at the height of his impeachment trial there was none of the vigor of disdain we are experiencing today.

The reason is simple: millions of people have come to believe that Bush is not stupid (as he has been naively painted by journalists), but that he is actually evil. Whatever good will America has maintained in the world thus far has suddenly been replaced by hatred, much of it deeply felt. An analogy to Vietnam is not used lightly: today more than ever, America is widely seen as "an imperialist power" -- language we have not used in years.

President Bush, an X over his mouth, has become the graphic moniker for this seismic shift in American political ideology.

Vainui de Castelbajac - France

Micah Ian Wright:The Propaganda Remix Project/Bangkok: European Pressphoto Agency

Sadly, this is not only an American phenomenon. On a recent visit to Italy, the cynicism and disdain for Silvio Berlusconi seemed to be equally evident, and equally intense. Election upsets in Spain and France suggest comparable dissatisfaction, as does the highly disputed Presidential election in Taiwan last month. In Britain, many suspect Tony Blair of being more dishonest than Margaret Thatcher. The politics of lying, it seems, has become an international phenomenon.

It will come as no surprise that the visual responses to these events -- most noticeably at demonstrations around the world -- are both plentiful and varied. Yet to look at these graphic design artifacts one is again reminded of Vietnam: but why does our contemporary language of protest still look like it did in 1970?

I would urge Design Observer readers to visit étapes, the French design magazine's site where there are close to 1000 anti-war posters against Bush, America, and the Iraq enterprise. You will find an endless supply of American flags with stars replaced by skulls or crosses, Bush as the gun-wielding star of recent movies (MIB III), pretzels as peace signs, bullet holes through everything from doves to the word NO, corporate logos translated into evil-doers (especially oil companies, but also Disney and Apple), and, of course, graphic plays on language (war...ning). As a gallery of design responses from designers in many countries, this resource is enlightening. (As is any Google search on Bush/anti-war and posters.)

Looking at hundreds of posters has made me wonder: What will become the iconographic symbols of our era? Where is the graphic design language that can say more, do more? Will any designers transcend mere anger and communicate, instead, new solutions for peace?

Julie Tachdjian - France / Toulouse

Posted in: Graphic Design, Politics

Comments [22]

I find many of these designs very disturbing, particularly in light of Drenttel's last paragraph. They are horrible cliches, and they really don't have anything positive to say. We keep running from things we don't like, ending up in even worse situations, without ever running toward anything. During Vietnam, vigorous protest was also accompanied by a strong "peace and love" countercultural movement. Those symbols of peace and love overpower the negative messages of the period, even after most people gave up. I think it was because they had a dream. I don't think my generation has any real dreams.

I'm not sure my generation's "counterculture" is much more than anger. And it is taking an enormous amount of visual bombardment to even create that anger in our lethargic generation. Although we're influenced by them, we're being told by the previous generation that utopianism is stupid. We're not creative enough to envision a utopia of our own in spite of them. We're more ashamed of our desire for free love, rather than thinking that there might be something to it. So we are not strong enough to create a positive movement, such as a movement toward the free exchange of ideas, free questioning, free answering.
Tom Gleason

Speaking of cliches, consider the way politics in America presents itself from a design standpoint. I am currently creating a website for a congressman and I've found the graphic imagery of today's campaigns occurs within standards that hearken back to an "old time" aesthetic. The fonts must be traditional, the colors red, white and blue and a flag must appear somewhere. This aesthetic shows up again when our TV networks cover an election but it's wrapped in a shell of slick motion graphics. It's an obvious attempt to modernize a look and feel that no longer fits our media landscape.

The campaigns aren't just attempting to "look the part" either. The cover of last Sunday's New York Times had a photo of Bush dressed like a cowboy again and I thought "He's playing that revisionist history game." The Bush campaign is de-emphasizing the President's blue-blood background by presenting him in an historical context that no longer exists. It's an attempt to distance Bush from the reality of the present moment.

With all of this retreating into the past, perhaps the design free-for-all and rollicking creativity found in most street protests and posters hopes to shake us from our simulated slumber. After hearing about the Socialist Party's rise to power in Spain recently, I was surprised to find their graphics and website steeped in high design. They obviously approach campaign graphics from a contemporary branding perspective that says "Out with the old and in with the new."
Ellis Neder

I think it is actually a positive thing that reaction against the war is not trying to offer a utopian alternative, because it maintains focus on the issue itself. It has always been my view that the best, wisest and most responsible kind of political reaction is based on specific issues rather than on overly simplistic theories and utopias. These are too easy to misinterpret and often end up become the subject of discussion instead of that which they were originally intended to address.

And of course the reaction against the war doesn't have anything positive to say, there aren't many positive things to say that haven't been said before a million times and that people don't already take as a given.

Most civilised people acknowledge that things would be better if "we all just got along", but it's getting there that's the problem, and I think that non-utopian issue based reaction is the best way to get there.
Achilles Why

"What will become the iconographic symbols of our era? Where is the graphic design language that can say more, do more?"

Within a generation that is visually oversaturated (a cliche in itself), images are no longer enough. Design should not be content to merely describe the problem with outdated and overused metaphors (thereby perpetuating a 'see say' response to events that have already occurred in the past). Real solutions to grave political and environmental problems are not easily summed up in two colors or quick cliches. Real solutions require us to ACT rather than to react.

and to Tom Gleason's comment, "Although we're influenced by them, we're being told by the previous generation that utopianism is stupid. We're not creative enough to envision a utopia of our own in spite of them."

Vision we have, as was obvious to any of the attendees at the AIGA "Power of Design" conference in Vancouver, e.g. Design for Democracy's efforts to redesign and standardize election ballots, Dan Sturges' development of community-improving transportation systems (the Segway), Studio eg's work with recyled, reused, and non-toxic materials, or William McDonough's Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things which addressess the adverse environmental and physiological impacts of industrially-produced consumer goods. Sadly, such solutions do not translate easily into poster format, and require us to change not only the way we vote, but also the way we live.


Achilles Why, I think your comment is interesting, but I'm not sure this kind of reaction maintains a focus on the issues. The reaction encouraged by this kind of design is based on a simplistic theory of good v. evil. Unfortunately, it is not easy to tell whether Bush's plan is pure evil, and I'm not sure it should be presented in such a simplistic way. When our discussions turn toward calling Bush "evil" (a tactic that we supposedly do not like HIM using), I really think I would rather see some discussion about ideals.

I'm not sure that ideals are obvious to most people. When I talk to most people about the perfect, responsible anarchist society (admitting that it is not likely, but that it is an "ideal"), I get laughed at. Ideals are not supposed to be "practical" in and of themselves, but they are the measuring stick for true practicality. What I see in these political wars is a common ideal of a good/evil worldview. We could do well to come up with better ideals. No one is pointing out and stressing the ideal secretly inherent in all of these communications—that free talking is good for us—and using that ideal to critique the ways in which these communications, including the activists' communications, have been distorted by systems of money and power. There are lies on both sides. I am afraid that these simplistic images are not what is meant by true "dialogue". No, America will not become suddenly less oppressive to the world if we vote in a Democrat. It's not that simple. It may become a more palatable form of oppression, though. And it seems most of us would be satisfied with that, but that is no "ideal".

I have been wondering if this article is a misinterpretation of Helfand's point. But apparently it is easy to take the older generation's thinking as warning of impending doom. In resistance, I can't simply take their side, since I have to be critical about their lack of critical thinking about good v. evil idealism, particularly the idea that mere resistance to "evil" is automatically so Good.

I would like to think that there is a goodness that doesn't depend on evil.
Tom Gleason

We are seeing plenty of anti-war flag graphics, but what if we look behind it and meditate on the idea of freedom and independence. For me the idea of being free and independent means that I make decisions that reduce my dependence on oil (economy car, walking), on electricity (fluorescent bulbs), on supermarket goods (grow fruit and vegetables), on corporate culture (have my own business). I am heartened to see that cars like the Prius are becoming hip (perhaps the love affair with gas guzzlers is starting to decline). I am heartened by how many protesters there are and the consequent renewed interest in global politics. If we could use our graphics to change people's idea of what is cool (to counteract the garbage in most TV advertising), that would be a place to start. In the age of the sound bite, the deeper-message, high-impact graphic image is needed more than ever. How to show the connections between our everyday purchases and decisions and what is happening halfway around the world? Has anyone thought that perhaps the "mystery" behind whales beaching themselves en masse is due to all the crap we are constantly pumping out to sea? What about financial graphics showing how all that war money could have been spent on free healthcare for everyone without bankrupting medicare? What about a graphic on poverty and debt cycles, compounding interest, and how real wages haven't gone up since the 80s?

Britian took over Iraq many years ago and now we are following up in the good name of Imperalism. The Ottoman Empire, The Roman Empire, the British Empire, the American Empire. Human nature makes us greedy and then the weight of time the the putrefaction of corruption causes us to crumble.

Studies of primitive societies show that humans are not inherently "good," but that goodness stems from prosperity. Fat bellies create apathy? Or perhaps it's that people are so overburdened and overtaxed by long commutes, long work hours, family demands, and worries over lack of healthcare that we don't have time to see the bigger picture? We just get a bigger waistline in our big cars, with our supersize fast food, and our big-screen TVs. We are plugged into the Matrix of propaganda and don't have time to look up while the water is starting to boil all around us.


"I'm not sure that ideals are obvious to most people. When I talk to most people about the perfect, responsible anarchist society [...] I get laughed at. Ideals are not supposed to be "practical" in and of themselves, but they are the measuring stick for true practicality."

You're right in that most aren't aware of, and often aren't willing to really listen to, many kinds of ideals. But I believe that basic ones are accepted by most, ie. I think most people agree that we should all try to get along, a simple ideal, not all agree or are even aware of the ideal of true anarchy in the Bakunin sense, a much less simple ideal.

But to me the war is does not have to be an issue of ideals, it can actually very easily be condemned on the basis of practical politics. To me, and I firmly hold this as a realistic and feasible although very long-term solution, it seems simplest way to stop people from adhering to extremist groups and exploding is to feed them. People who aren't suffering, or peceive themselves as suffering, will not be willing blow themselves up. There will always be zealots, but such a tactic would seriously limit their powerbase.

I fully agree with what amma is saying. yes! yes! yes! yes! yes! As a student, I've recently realised that by making careful choices in my future career I can actually make some kind of difference; this might seem like an obvious conclusion to most of you, but I was agonising over the politics and morals of design since I started studying four years ago.
Achilles Why

Is it possible to make a similar criticism of pro-war graphics? Correct me if I'm wrong, but recent pro-war design has not evolved beyond yellow ribbons, flags, and "Support Our Troops".

I do believe there is a diversity of opinion among the anti-war masses, especially when it comes to the finer points of policy. But the thing that unites these protests is opposition to the war, so I'm not surprised if the graphics with the least nuance and highest corn factor rise to the top as being most representative of the events.

Having greatly admired this forum for a while, I'm compelled to contribute to it for the first time in discussing this issue, which is pretty important to me.

I'm a designer who, like the individuals behind these French compositions, is actively creating inexpensive political posters to express my extreme dissatisfaction with the policies of the current administration (among other things).

So I hope I don't seem out of line by talking about my own experience here; forgive me if this post seems rather self-centered (and long).

Mr. Drenttel asks in his essay: "Will any designers transcend anger and communicate, instead, new solutions for peace?"

This is exactly the problem I've thought about every day since Sept. 11, 2001.

In creating design work that speaks to the greater public with substantial, constructive messages, transceding anger for new solutions in my work is among my highest aspirations -- and the challenge with which I've had the most difficulty.

Quite frankly, I usually fail in my efforts, creating work that echoes tired, Vietnam-era protest messages, which merely exacerbate the anxiety of a culture already in turmoil.

I've found that it's far easier to create a severe commentary of a situation (as many of the French posters do), or to promote a particular cause that may offer a strict doctrine, than to compose a piece of visual work that brings real insight and even hope to an issue -- much less in a striking, appealling, tidy fashion.

Seriously: it's a high order for any designer -- most of whom are admittedly not experts in the fields of geo-political military policy -- to generate actual solutions to global conflict when even leading experts cannot. It's difficult enough for us to influence people to think in a more pro-active frame of mind (even momentarily), much less to communicate answers to complex political conflicts that aren't hopelessly naive.

Believe me, I've tried. I've studied a great deal of protest graphics throughout the 20th century for guidance. (Perhaps Mr. Heller, Mr. Beirut, Mr. Poynor or anyone else reading can comment on particularly effective political graphics from the past that are worth emulating, especially in the context of present circumstances. It would be appreciated!)

This difficulty has led me to focus on stating my own core convictions and ethical pronouncements on the posters, which are expressed easily and simply. Yet, no matter how elegantly written and designed, even these come off as hollow and propagandistic at times.

Which speaks to the heart of this issue: crucial to any political graphic, I've found, is solid content with an obvious sense of immediacy -- and that's the most difficult part to create.

In this case, as in most others, style is merely the catalyst that carries the message. As some of the French posters demonstrate, heaps of frivolous eye candy do nothing to strengthen a weak message. (As usual.)

A great example of terrific content and minimum style is Glaser's recent "Dissent Protects Democracy" campaign, which has almost no ornamentation to it. The idea is so simple, powerful and crucial on its own, it needs no dressing up. It needs only to be conveyed.

Like Glaser's message, I think it's important for designers working in this medium to try to eschew the traditionally defiant and hostile tone of many political posters for (whenever possible) a more positive, inclusive, even friendly message -- a far greater challenge than a visual composition of obvious rage and provocation.

I came to this conclusion in part by necessity: my aim was to place posters in the business and tourist sections of downtown Chicago (doing my best to avoid pasting on private and city property), as opposed to the left-leaning, quasi-bohemian hipster sections of town (i.e., where I live -- and where I'd be essentially preaching to the choir).

My intent was to display a viewpoint that the average business person, tourist or suburbanite -- all of whom spend some time in the downtown areas -- might not have much exposure to, to perhaps invite them to think about an issue in a different way. This would best be achieved, I figured, by communicating a message with an amiable spirit, rather than a typically insolent one.

The French posters don't really offer this opportunity. Many are -- from a design standpoint -- contemptuous, obtuse and relatively immature in nature, and are perhaps best served to galvanize those who agree with the same point of view.

Maybe the relatively superficial thinking behind the French poster designs stems from a sense of helplessness and an inability to really grasp the whole of the monumental injustices occuring. The only instinct the designers would have is to scream at us, and that's what these posters represent: graphic screams.

While that might not fit nicely into any reigning academic or professional design criteria, and while such statements may be graphically unidimensional, I think these pieces of self-expression are quite valid and very telling (as any vernacular is), particularly in such a significant moment of history as this.

Please consider the fact that -- if my instincts for contemporary rebellious design are correct -- many of these were probably created by young designers, or teenagers with a grasp of Photoshop (and the web), or creatively inclined individuals who appreciate the power of visuals but don't necessarily have a professional stake in design (i.e., musicians, writers, etc.).

I may be wrong, but I have a lot of non-designer friends who create very similar work in their free time, almost all of it rather amateur, shallow and composed in haste -- but nonetheless impassioned and very expressive. (They invariably send the results my way because I'm their "political graphics dude" friend.)

Personally, I like the fact that there's such a plethora of these French posters and graphics, even if the majority of them are pretty crappy -- it's a good example of the pro's and con's of democratizing design. That America is the target is a little harrowing (though not unexpected), and such bombsatic forms of communication may muck up a clear dialogue about the war a bit. But it does show that people are awake, at least in France.

Gosh, there are so many aspects of this subject worth covering (I haven't even gotten to the hazardous "blacklisting" aspects of posting such works in the public arena, thanks to these Patriot Act-enforced times), I could go on about it endlessly -- but given the ridiculous length of this post already, I'll stop here and just say thanks for reading (and sorry for taking up so much space).

I see that yesterday 33 more GI's died along with 170 Iraqis... so, somewhere in the next 14 hours of paying work I have to finish today, perhaps I'll try to say something constructive about this development on a poster. Wish me luck.

(Note: If anybody wants to receive some of these posters free, drop a line with your postal address at [email protected] -- I'll pay the postage and mail them out ASAP. The website's coming soon.)
Jon Resh

Regarding Ellis' comment, I thought I'd post a link to the Spanish Socalist Party's site, since it took a bit of hunting to find.

The index page is a better look at their creative: very clean and colorful. Reds and blues are dominant, though softer than typical campaign material. Interesting choice of colors, though, since Spain's flag is red and yellow. Has US visual culture so permeated other countries that people worldwide associate red and blue with elections?

Jon, brushstroke.tv had a peace poster design contest during the war in Iraq, and I've always loved John Yates' work.
Paul K

Maybe It's because I'm having a difficult week, or maybe I'm finally facing facts, but has anyone amidst all this political rhetoric considered that the political poster—regardless of how well-designed or well-meaning it may be—is irrelevant? We talk about how we live in this hyper-visual age, but rarely about how this phenomenon has made most people impervious to certain forms of visual media in their decision-making.

I'd go further to consider if the design during the Vietnam Era had any effect either. I wasn't born yet, so I can't contribute any personal experience, but I wonder if the graphic agitation from that period hasn't been overstated in our design history classes. My parents have told me that the real force that turned them and their peers against the war was the unedited, raw footage they were seeing nightly on the television.

The discussion should not be about if the visual metaphors in these posters are clichéd or not, but if the political poster is a form that has teeth outside the fetish concerns of graphic designers. To think that creating a political poster (and I do it, too) is really going to do anything to foster change is naive, arrogant, self-serving and, well, LAZY. Instead of doing more posters, we should be considering what medium and methodology will really talk to the most people. TV is the first one that comes to mind, but as the MoveOn people have illustrated, a really powerful commercial means nothing if you can't get it on the air. So what then?

I think it is apt that William Drenttel started this discussion, because amidst all the pie in the sky talk at the AIGA conference in Vancouver, the only societally motivated design solution I found to be innovative and ACTUALLY EXECUTED was his petite "National Security Strategy" pamphlet included in our conference bag of goodies. (Although on my designer bookshelf, I just had a hard time finding it amidst the larger tomes and even trade sized paperbacks.) Here was design bringing a piece of legislation—one that has changed irrevocably our country's societal landscape and had been buried on a White House website somewhere—to the people in a more palatble and user-friendly format. Designed and sent out to the printer in ONE day, no less. I admire William's initiative, intelligence and chutzpah in doing this. It's not sexy, but it goes beyond giving a visual sheen to a political issue and actually empowers people with information.

Terry Irwin, the programmer of the AIGA conference in Vancouver, has spoken of "open systems"—rather than designers trying to IMPOSE order on the world, they should harness and extend the systems that are already present in the world to forward change. Dan Sturges' Segway made for an entertaining hour at the conference but do we really believe that this invention is going to take hold? As well meaning as this product is, it falls prey to the same Utopian conceits that the Modernist ethos celebrated. And we all know how well those Corbusier "Machine for Living" towers did in our inner cities. Drenttel's little book instead utilizes forces already present to new and more effective aims. Maybe I am overstating the effect of this book, but it's this kind of long view thinking designers need to engage in more if they want to foster change in the large scale arenas spoken of in this discussion. A debate on whether the metaphors used in political posters are novel or not seems slight and selfish in this day and age.
Eric Heiman


I agree with your comments about Corbu's towers and the impact of television, but certainly there is still a place for the static graphic, whether or not it's a poster, or a stencil sprayed on a sidewalk. Anything that gets a person's attention can have impact. A good story, a tattoo, a crazy man shouting in the street. Didn't people thing that TV would bring on the demise of radio? Didn't happen. Perhaps in the near future, when e-paper works in color as well as b/w, we will have posters with motion graphics and/or video, and then we designers can really have a say.


I certainly don't doubt that posters (as well as the other mediums you mentioned) can have an immediate, visceral impact. There wouldn't be a flourishing visual art and design culture if they didn't. My concern is that does the effect ever go beyond the visceral and into provoking action and, further still, HOW to take action. How effective are the posters in the image at the top of this discussion without the mob? Can design that proclaims to be "poltical" can actually point us to, or even illuminate, answers and solutions, rather than just highlighting the problem? The problem with the poster form in my mind today is that we are so inundated with them that we are almost conditioned not to look for anything other than a visceral reaction.

A poster that says "Peace Now", no matter how visceral my reaction to it, still just says "Peace Now". Those for peace will say, "Right on!" Those not for peace will say something else. Nothing and no one has been changed here. It's easy for designers to do work as such and feel that they are contributing to the betterment of the world, and that's great. I do it, too.

What struck me—DARED me—about the Drenttel book is that it went beyond where we as designers normally go. I'm asking (myself, most of all) if we want change, could we use our talents to go further than a poster.
Eric Heiman

'A poster that says "Peace Now", no matter how visceral my reaction to it, still just says "Peace Now". Those for peace will say, "Right on! Those not for peace will say something else."'

That's absolutely right. Posters are a very good way for a person to register his or her dissent, but they admittedly don't go very far in terms of convincing other people. Last year we had a march here in London against the war and hunderds of thousands of people showed up, but again all it did was express dissent, I am not sure whether it actually helped to convince others of this injustice-if something like that doesn't do it then I can't see how an A3 sheet pasted on a wall can do any better.
On the other hand a book or leaflet like the one that been mentioned-I haven't seen it-seems like a much more effective tool, because it can simply contain much more information than a poster which the reader can take with him and absord at his or her leisure; and in the end if you're going to convince any one of anything you need to present an argument backed up by facts.
The poster remains-and will do so for a very long time-a powerful medium to express one feelings about something exactly because it's short sweet and to the point, but in the end it remains a largely personal thing. Still love it though.
Btw, If any one is interested in graffiti as a means of registering dissent, check UK stencil graffiti artist Banksy.
Achilles Why

Not to get personal, but his physical characteristics bring to mind the three monkeys.

I also think that pants on fire would work.
brendan murphy

Excellent post, Eric -- and you're tapping into a subject to which I've given a few years of thought.

Every time I put up a political poster of my own making, I find myself torn: what good does this do? Is it influencing anyone's thinking? Why am I trying to do so? Is this in any way useful? Could it assist someone in taking action? Then how, exactly -- given that I don't know how to take direct action myself?

Then it goes deeper: is this just a fashionable conceit on my part, thinking that I've contributed to the solution to a political problem when, in fact, I'm just pumping my ego for some sense of personal artistic satisfaction? Could this actually be worse than doing nothing at all, given that I've spent so much effort, time, money and -- perhaps worst of all -- natural resources on what may amount to personal advertising, or even tagging, disguised as high-minded calls-to-arms?

It sinks even further: am I just littering here? Am I polluting and using valuable materials just to make myself feel important? By making and pasting up this political poster, am I actually doing more harm than good?

And finally it hits the lowest point: will this somehow affect my professional career as a designer? Will the AIGA bail me out of jail if I get nabbed for vandalism? (Ha -- I'm not even a member.)

Yup, that's what I go through, to some degree, each and every time. In the end, though, I've come to this conclusion:

Political posters (and tshirts, banners, etc.) do a little bit of good when they express a statement well -- just a bit more good, I think, than the harm inherent in the poster's manufacture, in terms of the resources used (wood for paper, petroleum products for processing, bleaches and inks, etc.) -- not to mention that a poster eventually ends up adding to the world's trash.

Overall, I think a political poster can be a really positive contribution to the intellectual landscape, and, when it's quality stuff, it can have the following effects (to name a few):

-- It can, if just momentarily, show a person a certain manner of approaching an issue. I know this because people contact me via an anonymous email address (in fine print at the bottom of the posters) with more frequency than I would've ever imagined. They want copies, or want to know why I made the posters. These people aren't designers. In one case, it was a secretary; in another, a financial analyst.
-- Among masses of people, political posters obviously articulate a message and help unify a cause. Even the photo at the top of this page shows that.
-- When posted, a good poster lends a sense of meaning to an environment, as any ornamentation does. In the case of political posters, it reflects that somebody in the area has a certain viewpoint, even if it's only that person's alone. (I find such public expressions, even detrimental ones, very insightful -- whether it's scratch-bombing by gang members or Christian pamplets left on bus seats.)
-- Some people enjoy possessing a political poster for the same reason they'd possess a piece of art -- it inspires them, speaks to them, or expresses something about their beliefs or personal identity.

In the end, I don't think merely a single graphic can do much, especially in this age of saturated visual information. Truly, did the Peace Sign do anything to truly change events in the U.S., other then brand a generation of visually sophisticated suburban kids as hippies -- or did it just serve as a symbol of the zeitgeist? (I wasn't there, so I don't know.)

But perhaps elsewhere in the world, an iconic image has really galvanized people: the Polish Solidarity logo? The Che image? The American flag? The crucifix -- or swastika?

Additionally, I fully agree with you, Eric, on your point about including informational resources on a poster (as opposed to shallow sloganeering) -- and I'd sure love to see that Drenttel brochure. The question then becomes: how can a poster direct people to take some sort of action or get involved?

When the invasion of Iraq began last year, and worldwide mass demonstrations seemed to have absolutely no effect on the Bush Administration's opinion, I heard a lament that echoed my own: I know this policy is absolutely wrong, but what can I do? Where do I turn to work against this?

Let's also remember that the same question was asked by many people with anti-Nazi sentiments living in Germany between 1935-1945 (perhaps the most villified citizenry of the 20th century -- and, in most cases, justly so). They simply did not know how to fight this massive system that emerged, nor did much power exist to do so.

Fortunately, there are structures in place here and now for people who want to get involved in turning the political tide (not the least of which is the voting booth). Perhaps, then, the most effective political poster would guide viewers to those resources (to use Eric's erudite statement, "to harness and extend the systems that are already present in the world to forward change").

This is very much in line with what I believe could be a potent graphic recipe that I'm currently working on and exploring, that may give viewers of a poster access to a means of direct action:

-- A strong image/graphic (as usual)
-- Simple, straight-forward text related to the graphic (as usual)
-- The prominent placement of a memorable website URL, in which viewers can then get more information, voluteer, etc. (and thus take a step toward providing real solutions)
-- Besides the usual means of distribution, the poster would be available online in downloadable PDF and JPEG formats for global disemination (at both 8.5 x 11 and larger sizes, in both color and B&W, for personal printers)

Thus the purpose of the poster would be more concrete: to express a message AND offer a means of further involvement and more data for the viewer. (Any other suggestions about such tactics to make a political poster more effective -- or, for that matter, suggestions about why my idea may suck -- would certainly be welcomed.)

One last thought: Eric mentions that political posters may very well be irrelevant, and question whether it "has teeth" or would foster change, given that it hasn't really done so in the past. This is a good point.

But consider: how many other forms of cultural media have truly changed things? For instance, exactly how many movies -- a far more vast, monied and powerful medium with an enormous number of admirers -- have truly altered the course of human events? Though some books certainly have, it was usually not through the narrative (in the case of novels or biographies) as much as the ideas presented within them (e.g., "Uncle Tom's Cabin," "1984," etc.). So perhaps posters have that potential too.

Lastly: I'm kinda new to this industry, so I don't know for sure, but... did the AIGA ever sponsor/commission voter registration posters by designers (or am I completely off-base)? Are they doing it now? If not, they sure as hell should.

And oh yeah: thanks to Paul K and Achilles Why for bringing Yates and Banksy into this discussion.

Banksy's work is taking grafitti stenciling to a wonderful plateau, influencing politically minded designers worldwide; his style and mastery of technique is incredible. I'd recommend his little books, available from AK Press -- they're just great.

In my teens, John Yates was one of my earliest serious design influences (with his art direction for Alternative Tentacles records, his amazing zine Punchline and his political posters and tshirts), and was one of the reasons I was attracted to the discipline of graphic design in the first place. Yates really deserves a great deal of credit for directing a generation of postcore kids to try their hand at content-based design, some of whom, including myself, have made a profession of it. (He was also nice enough to put out a few of my old band's records on his Allied Recordings label, so I'm obviously a little biased.)
Jon Resh

A poster that says "Peace Now", no matter how visceral my reaction to it, still just says "Peace Now". Those for peace will say, "Right on!" Those not for peace will say something else. Nothing and no one has been changed here.

Perhaps a poster—or, better yet, a bumper sticker—is the perfect medium of expression for people who see issues as simplistically as people being "for" and "not for" "peace."
Gunnar Swanson

My high school had some very outdated encyclopedias. One day I started flipping through them out of boredom. I was perusing volume "F" when I came across the page for flags. For Germany, the encyclopedia showed the swastika. It seemed like a joke, but it wasn't. The swastika is really eye catching and it is really evil looking. Did Germans in the 1930's look at their flag and say to themselves, "Boy, our flag looks evil." Not likely. Do I look at the Old Glory and think to myself, "Boy, our flag looks evil." No. But will that change? When I went to see Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981 I was about 5 years old. I thought the Nazis were pretty fascinating bad guys. They had a striking symbol, and an intimidating presence. As I child, I likely thought Nazi's were mostly make believe. Years later, I was at the National Air and Space museum, and they had a Nazi uniform on display. I was astonished at how qruesome and oppressive it looked. This was something that the theatrical presentations of Hollywood did not need to exaggerate. Iron crosses, lightningbolt "SS" insignias, swastika armbands, all on a black leather shroud of death. Of course, military uniforms should appear intimidating, especially to the enemy. Decades from now will people see Old Glory and United States soldiers as caricatures of evil? I hope not. I think that the American flag is a brilliant design resembling freedom. Most of the posters on étapes are just plain ugly. However, some of them look like they had some thought put into them. There are some major problems with these posters. First, many of them use corporate symbols to represent America. This is a visual cliche that should be abandoned in at the Junior High level (perhaps these posters were designed by pre-teens, I don't know). Anybody can take the Nike swoosh and twist it to have new meaning. This is a juvinile idea and when it is presented with such simplicity, it isn't a design, it's a gag. Second, the best political and propagand posters tend to have deep meaning through the intelligent use of imagery. Once again, many of these have little thought beyond taking Bush's face and pasting it somewhere. Some good political illustrations exist at http://www.claybennett.com/archives.html
Unfortunately, the biggest disadvantage these posters have is that they only exist on the internet. I recall an anti-bush(senior) political poster campaign where entire sides of buildings were plastered with posters. Perhaps it's no longer economically viable, but a printed poster in the public eye is far more powerful than a gif on a website. What will become the iconographic symbols of our era? Difficult to anticipate. But it will likely be viewed in an electronic format... while we still have electricity.
Mark Smith

'Decades from now will people see Old Glory and United States soldiers as caricatures of evil? I hope not. I think that the American flag is a brilliant design resembling freedom.'

The American flag, like all flags, resembles nothing, it only gains meaning through association. Some may associate it with freedom, some may associate it with imperialism, others may associate it with coca-cola. Flags and symbols of this kind have no inherent meaning, we just make associations. And actions of the sort going on currently do not assist positive associations. This is indeed very unfortunate.
Achilles Why

"The American flag, like all flags, resembles nothing, it only gains meaning through association."

So maybe the better word is symbolize, not resemble, but it was created as a symbol, and freedom was meant to be a strongly associated with that symbol. To say flags have no meaning is to say words have no meaning, which they don't if you don't speak the language.

As an example, Mark, you understand the imagery of the swastika as "really evil looking". But what if you were used to its origins as a Sanskrit symbol often associated with good luck? How would it look to you then?

Could design help those in positions of power make better decisions?

Simon Griffee

Readers of this post may be interested in some maps that we have recently made for MoveOn.org:

A minute-by-minute record of calls made to US Senators urging them not to support the declaration of war:

A display of worldwide candlelight vigils on the eve of war, last year:
vigil map

A display of locations where MoveOn's documentary "Truth Uncovered" was shown, also last year:
truth uncovered

And a map showing where "Bake Sales for Democracy" are happening this weekend, around the country (if you haven't already, there's still time to sign up):
bake sale

The idea of these projects is to allow people to visually understand the breath of opposition to the current administration's policies in Iraq. By showing just how many places around the country people are organizing in, you can get an immediate sense of the deep division of the country over this issue; but it also allows people to get a sense that they are not alone, that there are alot of other people who feel the same way that they do.

They're also kind of a map of liberal sentiment around the country :)

They're very simple designs: they operate in a different kind of space than the posters that have been so eloquently discussed in this post. It's not so much about giving a graphic representation of opposition or protest through an image or a layout; it's more about getting out of the way, and letting the simple fact of the widespread unhappiness with the way things are going shine through. Show the locations; let people upload their own photographs; let them connect. Of course the maps are "designed" -- but strong graphic imagery seems like it would get in the way of letting people connect via the maps.

This, I think, may be something that designers may be uncomfortable with, given our desire to shape the messages that we are sending. Perhaps these maps would have been more powerful if they had been prefaced by a striking image up front; but perhaps not. The case might be made that an image as powerful as the one posted above of the person blindfolded by an American flag might have detracted from the power of the huge numbers of people who participated in this event; I think it certainly would be a distraction once you start digging around inside of the different images that are available in the different locations.

I think my point here is that if we really want to make designs that affect the political landscape, we may be better off designing things that allow people the ability to have some impact on our designs; and that a world may be opening up that is more about accomodating a degree of participation and involvement than it is about finding one image or a series of images that express an idea. The fact of people's involvement, in these maps, *is* the message.

Another map that you all may find interesting is this one, done by Eyebeam: it shows the amounts of money donated to political parties by individuals in different cities:

fund race
Eric Rodenbeck

Jobs | July 22