Designing for social justice: What does it mean to create radical posters for the 21st Century?

In conversation with the Labour Party Graphic Designers and the Autonomous Design Group, we explore how UK-based collectives are using historical design movements to inspire their bold aesthetic approach.

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Social and political movements are amongst some of those most renowned for creating ground-breaking designs. From the proliferation of propaganda posters during World War Two, to the ever reworked Che Guevara print and the impactful Silence = Death AIDS poster of the 1980s, a well-designed poster has the power to influence, inform and inspire.

But with the world existing more than ever on the online sphere, the reach of a medium which lived so prominently on the streets has now come into question. Alongside the rapid commercialisation and commodification of design, the potential for such a radical, innovative approach has been sanitised, with much of the same tropes and styles now being carelessly reproduced. However, through collectives such as Labour Party Graphic Designers and Autonomous Design Group, there are designers working to break the mould, forge new aesthetic routes and give the radical poster a new lease of life.

The Labour Party Graphic Designers (LPGD) is an independent design collective dedicated to bringing about a Labour government. Founded in 2018 by freelance graphic designer Kevin Kennedy Ryan, the collective began with the aim of attracting left-leaning designers into political discussions and to provide a practical way of communicating to the party. It’s important to note that LPGD is “unofficially” affiliated with the Labour Party, says Kevin, who recalls being contacted by the party in the collective’s early days (when most of its organisation was happening from his bed). “The first message we ever got from the party was like, ‘Hey, cool project. Can you just add a disclaimer that you’re not affiliated with us?’” Sana Iqbal – a freelance strategic graphic designer and a more recent member of LPGD – recently worked with the Lewisham branch of the Labour Party, and was approached through “a slip into my DM’s”, she says. “As I work alone it was nice to work with a collective and meet more people who I share the same ideology and design interests with.”

“The centralisation of design has lost its grounding and it feels like a giant sales machine, which I just don’t care for.”

Sana Iqbal
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Unknown Designer: 1935 General Election (Copyright © The Labour Party, 1935)

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Unknown Designer: 1935 General Election (Copyright © The Labour Party, 1935)

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Unknown Designer: 1935 General Election (Copyright © The Labour Party, 1935)

“This idea of ‘beautification’ is something that we should all strive towards – life should be more beautiful for working class people.”

Sana Iqbal

Labour’s design history is a core influence to the collective, with much of its work looking to recapture a sense of the vibrancy, power and sway of the party’s past designs. For Kevin, a self-professed “archive nerd”, the 1930s up until the late-60s proved a particularly transformative time for left-leaning design. Citing his love for heavily typographic, letterpress and woodblock posters of the 1930s, Kevin also sees the immediate post-war period as particularly pertinent: “when the party was going back to the idea of millenarianism, rebirth and building a better country.” Echoing Kevin’s sentiment, Sana cites a recent and enlightening LPGD trip to the People’s History Museum in Manchester, during which they learned of the funding and attention previously invested in Labour’s design. Featuring emblems, gold foiling, illustrations and calligraphy, the artefacts represented a much bigger message. “It was almost a way of saying to the person, ‘we value you so much, we’re not going to give you just a bit of plastic, we’re going to give you something so stunning – you’re going to want to keep it and hold on to it’,” Sana says, somewhat wistfully.

So, when did things start to go wrong? “The period from the late-80s through to the late-90s is when communications became much more ‘refined’,” Kevin theories. “It’s the kind of thing New Labour did exceptionally well, and was probably the first time the party had a very rigid set of brand guidelines.” Sana adds matter-of-factly that, as a result of this commercialisation, “the centralisation of design has lost it's grounding and it feels like a giant sales machine, which I just don’t care for”. It’s this very approach that LPGD are trying to tackle – that being the ephemeral, disposable nature of careless political design.

The collective is built around the model of releasing an “artpack” every few months, which includes a number of posters created by different designers. The packs also interact with a timely issue – from the four-day working week, to the privatisation of the NHS, unionisation and the climate crisis. Through this, the group creates visuals that mirror the care and attention of past posters, essentially endeavouring to create something that is “beautiful”, says Kevin. Sana adds: “Historically, there was a notion that art belongs to all people and this idea of ‘beautification’ is something that we should all strive towards – life should be more beautiful for working class people. And so, this is what LPGD is trying to do – to make stuff that people will think ‘this is so beautiful, I want it in my house’.”

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Unknown Designer: 1935 General Election (Copyright © The Labour Party, 1935)

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James Boswell: Let's Go With Labour / 1964 UK General Election (Copyright © The Labour Party, 1964)

Angelina Conte: LPGD Artpack 11: Windows 95 X Socialism (Copyright © Angelina Conte, 2021)

Ellis Pearce: LPGD Artpack 12: NHS Not for Sale (Copyright © Ellis Pearce, 2021)

One of the means by which LPGD strives to achieve this notion of ‘beautification’ is breaking away from archetypal colour choices. “I feel like colour has really changed over time; you see this ‘Conservative blue’ and ‘Labour red’ idea that once felt really distinct,” Sana muses. “But now, people are blurring the lines.” This desire to not be restricted by colour comes across when viewing LPGD’s numerous artpacks. Keir Barnett’s poster for the Public Spaces artpack uses purple, pink, yellow and orange hues to create a striking, sunset-drenched mountainous landscape. Talitha Cargill’s poster – featured in the artpack focussing on the privatisation of the NHS – uses a candy-pink backdrop with pastel-coloured type. It’s the sweetest of imagery and a stark comparison to the serious tone of the poster’s message.

Another aspect of historical Labour design LPGD is trying to recapture is a sense of clarity and directness. “The further you go back, the more visual simplicity you tend to find,” Kevin says, “there’s an efficacy of the message, especially when it’s married well.” Looking at LPGD’s work, Kevin and Sana identify Toby Forster’s poster from the Green New Deal artpack as one that proves the potential for simple imagery. Displaying a figure standing atop a wind turbine mid-construction, the poster is a perfect example of showing, rather than telling.

Meanwhile, The Autonomous Design Group (ADG) is an anonymous design collective founded by a group of individuals primarily associated with left-wing activist groups. Designing posters for prescient social and political issues – including housing rights, unionisation and policing – nearly all of the group are “self-taught”, with only two members studying art and design in a university setting. The notion of giving everyone access to design and essentially “democratising” the medium influences much of the group's practice; they often organise and lead workshops for activist organisations such as People and Planet, the World Transformed, and the renters’ union Acorn. “We’re trying to increase the number of people who can make designs for their own groups and their own causes,” representatives from the group explain.

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Talitha Cargill: LPGD Artpack 12: NHS Not for Sale (Copyright © Talitha Cargill, 2021)

“These ideas shouldn’t be super scary, or for a certain subsection of society. By aesthetically spoiling yourself, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.”

Autonomous Design Group
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Autonomous Design Group: Support the Strike Poster (Creative Commons, 2020)

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Autonomous Design Group: Landlords Need Us Poster (Creative Commons, 2019)

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Autonomous Design Group: Landlords Need Us Poster (Creative Commons, 2019)

Another of ADG’s core aims is to get its designs out onto the street: “not just making graphic design or artwork for the sake of it, or to be put in a gallery”, the collective explains, “but trying to use it as a tool, and using the streets as a way to do that.” This approach is influenced by ADG’s most significant inspiration: Atelier Populaire. Atelier Populaire was a group of radical students in Paris who organised demonstrations and created posters in support of worker strikes in France in 1968. Distributing the posters for free while adopting a colourful, striking yet simple screen-printed style, the group used the streets as their megaphone. Among ADG’s other influences are the Cuban political movement Organisation of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America (OSPAAAL), and the See Red Women’s Workshop – a 1970s feminist screen printing studio that challenged the reductive treatment of women. Unifying all of these movements is the “idea of designing things collectively”, ADG identifies. The group easily signposts two of the primary reasons for such a lack of similar movements existing in the UK today – the continued assault on the welfare state and squatting rights.

It is this desire to reinvigorate or reinstate the lost values of visual grassroots activism that fuels ADG’s work. And perhaps the key aesthetic influence ADG takes from groups such as Atelier Populaire, OSPAAAL and See Red Women’s Workshop is their penchant for creating posters that are bold, bright and colourful. “Because our real goal,” ADG expands, “is making art which is approachable on the street to everyday people.” This means that there are past design movements that ADG aesthetically rejects, in particular the Anarchist work of the 1990s. Citing its predominant use of red and black, the collective sees a lot of their designs as coming across as “scary”, meaning the political and social messages they’re trying to disseminate can come across as “intimidating”. A representative says, “These ideas shouldn’t be super scary, or for a certain subsection of society. By aesthetically spoiling yourself, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.”

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OSPAAAL: International Week of Solidarity with Latin America Poster (Asela Perez, 1973)

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Atelier Populaire: Le Vote ne Change Rien (©Atelier Populaire 1968)

Atelier Populaire: Une Jeunesse Que l’avenir inquiète trop souvent (©Atelier Populaire 1968)

Atelier Populaire: À la Revolution Oui (©Atelier Populaire 1968)

A brilliant example of ADG’s colourful and engaging approach is in its self-initiated Rent Strike posters, many of which were created over the pandemic when enduring housing issues and inequalities came to the fore. In one – The Rent is too Damn High. RENT STRIKE – an artful collage piece using 1960s air France posters, there’s a backdrop of brutalist buildings, overlaid with palm trees and finished with a retro type emblazoned across the bottom. In another stand-out piece, Landlords Need Us, We Don’t Need Landlords, there features a deep blue body, brutalist buildings cracking through the design, and a scattering of pink blossom flowers adorning the cracks. Exuding both beauty and a palpable sensation of optimism, the posters instil feelings of hope and the possibility for a better future. It’s the rare sort of political poster – both anecdotally and visually – that someone would want to hang in their bedroom.

The aim of such striking and unique imagery, the collective shares, is to draw people in. “With a little bit of text, we show them the material ways they can then get involved in the movement.” Therefore, alongside the physical imagery, the text and wording is of key importance to the collective. Much like LPGD, they seek simplicity, accessibility and coherence. “A lot of the left has an obsession with unnecessarily wanky language,” one representative laughs, “which is not the easiest way to put ideas across in an approachable way.” And so, the team often have extended discussions about the “precise” wording of a slogan, the amount of text and how visible it should be. They always keep one central question at the forefront of their work: “If people walk past this will they be able to see it, and, most importantly, will they be able to understand it?”

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Toby Forster: LPGD Artpack 2: Climate Emergency (Copyright © Toby Forster, 2019)

When speaking to both collectives, it’s clear that certain core aspects of their designs, approach and ethos resonate with one another. They observe design movements from the 20th Century as being much more powerful and persuasive – a contrast to the distinct lack of unified, radical design culture today. They see the importance in reinstating a sense of vibrancy, colour and visual distinctiveness in their posters, which is something that will set them apart from the dreary monotony plaguing current political design. And finally, they want to move away from overcomplication, and focus instead on simplicity and accessibility. So, their posters aren’t just aesthetic objects, but a means to send a clear, and insightful message. Discussing the future of their projects, both LPGD and ADG have come to similar conclusions, which involves expanding resources and seeking creative collaboration between individuals and collectives. In their hands, the posters of today have the potential to become as prescient, lasting and persuasive as those of the past.

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Autonomous Design Group: Rent strike Poster (Creative Commons, 2019)

Emma Flood: LPGD Artpack 9: Join a Union (Copyright © Emma Flood, 2020)

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About the Author

Olivia Hingley

Olivia joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in illustration, photography, ceramic design and platforming creativity from the north of England.

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