Contemporary Advertising and Propaganda Posters:

are they the same thing?

There are many ways to look at graphic design. One can say it is an art of creating appealing imagery with text and pictures, another one can say it's a technical skill of arranging imagery and text while preserving legibility and readability. Either one would be correct, but I also think there is a possibility of using graphic design to persuade audience using effective design principles that can create certain public opinion.

A primary purpose of graphic design is to deliver some information and communicate certain messages. These principles were taken in consideration and developed further by the governments that used graphic design to lead their citizens in a needed direction, to promote goals and desired attitudes. This idea is known today as propaganda. Through use of propaganda posters governments have been shaping public opinion throughout many years, but only in 20th century its influence was critically examined and developed into communication theory. There were many theorist that approached this topic, but I mostly admire a work by Walter Lippmann called Public Opinion(1922). His book contains a lot of practical examples that explain origins of communication and influence of public opinion through media and propaganda in particular.

Although his work is an incredible source to refer to, this blog doesn't focus specifically on his work, but takes a look at communication theory and its application to graphic design in particular. I think as graphic designers we sometimes don't realize what kind of power we have in our hands when we design a poster, a flyer, a logo, a websites or anything else that intends to deliver messages and promote ideas. I specifically take a look at propaganda posters of early 20th century and contemporary American advertising and examine what design principles they use to persuade their intended audience.

First thoughts

With so much information that surrounds you, your eyes try to look for something visually compelling or at least relevant to you, but end up looking at something provocative or most colorful. Reasons for that are obvious: advertisers want to sell you a product or an idea, deliver a message or persuade you in something and use all the tools availbale. Contemporary advertising aims to persuade its audience and often uses analogous design elements to World War II propaganda posters to achieve that goal.

On communication theory

Advertising and Propaganda try to communicate with an audience and to fully understand the methods used to succeed in this process, and compare their effectiveness one should understand communication theory.

On Walter Lippmann and public opinion

The most notable remarks regarding propaganda through the lense of communication theory were made by Walter Lippmann. A writer, reporter, and political commentator among he wrote brilliant conclussions from his observation of media influence on the publi opinion.

On types of propaganda

There are four main types of propaganda that were identified by an educator Darlene Mahaney in her article. She clarifies that these were mostly found during WWII period in the United States, however similar examples can be found throughout Europe and even socialistic parts of Asia.

On types of advertising

There are about 12 common types of advertising, however, for the purpose of comparison in this presentation I will only talk about four that are similar to the propaganda types introduced in the earlier post.

On visual trust and interpretation

Propaganda, the word, has a negative connotation, however, not long after wartime it had a trustworthy and respected look, which was used in different way later on. Trusted propaganda look, especially in the U.S, was used to deliver other messages, particularly related to social issues.

On global propaganda

World War implies the effects on nations globally, therefore it’s logical to take a look at propaganda globally. There are many unexpected things that I came up in my research, the way countries represent their enemies, messages sent to their communities, as well as noticeable presence of national art period characteristics, including drawing, typefaces and format.

Last Thoughts

All of these themes that I’ve researched and design elements identified led me to a question: Are all contemporary commercial materials are just a new form of propaganda?