In 1968, in the depths of a fume-filled Camden basement, a small group of people set about making many, many political posters. Described by one of the participants, Sarah Wilson, as a “hotbed and melting pot of ideas and images,” the Poster Workshop was a reaction to the growing need for a quick and inexpensive method of dispensing visually-accessible political ideas.
The posters produced – consistently simple and striking – dealt with various heavily political issues; the Vietnam war, unemployment, capitalism, racial inequality, as well as lighter subjects such as free film nights. So how did this all come about?
“Out of discussions, some lengthy, between a number of people, some fairly quick, involving only a few,” says Wilson. “The majority of the posters were made because a group (or an individual representing a group) came to ask for what they wanted, and ideas would evolve from there.”
The workshop’s main success lay in the members’ ability to assign recognisable and often hard-hitting visuals to political ideas. The images they created were immediate and understandable – viewers were made instantly aware of the reasons for protests, which made them far more likely to support them.
But the Poster Workshop existed in a pre-internet era – an age without the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it immediacy of contemporary social media. Twitter played a crucial role (good and bad) in last week’s UK riots – it’s quick and easy to use, wide-reaching and free. Facebook too, whereas print is a medium tied up in time-consuming processes.
Can print, in these specific cases, keep up? Can the humble poster still be used as a quick and easy medium for dispensing political thoughts and ideals?
“Clearly social media is now crucial in communications between many people who come out to demonstrate,” Wilson says. "It’s instantaneous. Our posters were pretty quick for the time, but can’t compare.
“But the media that involves visuals – television, newspapers, etc. – will always seize on a clear, graphic image. And if it’s more than a one-off image – if it’s an image that is seen all over the place – it will have added impact.”
The question now is whether that image should be created or chosen by designers, and should it be disseminated in print? Or will social media assume that role, and create images all of its own, like it did last week – images made up of a thousand others published on the internet.