running words around
design education and visual communication
authored by chris m hughes

Classic Election Posters

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Over the next few months in the UK we can look forward to lot of awful graphic design in the shape of the campaign posters by the main political parties as they proclaim, dismiss and lie their way to the General Election on May 7th.  Bad typography, dodgy cropping and clumsily applied Photoshop filters will be everywhere.  We can also expect to be mildly amused by a never-ending stream of parody samples and mashups via social media. The Tories have been quick off the mark, and their opening salvo, the 'Road' poster, has already been widely ridiculed.

In terms of visual communication, real ideas in election campaigning have been in decline since the late 1990s.  The 2010 election is a case in point, where the main campaigns ran embarrassing parody posters based on 'Ashes  to Ashes' - a popular TV show featuring a time-travel plot and set in the early 1980s.

We need to go back to 1970 for the beginning of a golden era of design in political posters and election material, and its entertaining to look at some of the best ones, especially given that regardless of their success or failure, nothing written in any of the strap-lines or quotes was true or came to pass.  In fact, it was mostly the opposite.  Which is as good as reason as any to hope that 2015 will see a definitive end to two-party politics in this country.

In 1970, the cult of personality was emerging in British politics, and the Conservatives took the lead with this classic poster of Edward Heath, who led to Tories to an election win that year.

Heath did manage to decimalise the currency and take the country into the EEC, but by 1973 Britain was crippled with the three-day week and a series of damaging miners strikes. It wasn't a better tomorrow after all, and in 1974 Labour found their way back into power.

In the run-up to the 1979 election, after 5 years of an equally inept Labour administration under Harold Wilson,  Saatchi & Saatchi came up with probably the most famous poster in British political history -

In actual fact, the real campaign poster was yet to follow, this was just the primer for what turned out to be a winning campaign for Margaret Thatcher.  The official election poster was this frightening and unforgettable effort  -

By 1983 the UK had woken up to what it had really voted for.  The nation was in a serious mess, with 3 million unemployed and interest rates at a whopping 12%.  This Trade Union Congress spread shows the depth of loathing aimed at Thatcher and her then Employment Secretary, Norman Tebbit -

Thatcher survived until 1991, losing power through an internal coup rather than an election defeat. The Conservatives retained office under John Major, and this amusing campaign by Labour caught the mood of the electorate in the run-up to the 1993 election after the fiasco of 'Black Wednesday' when the Stockmarket crashed and forced the UK to withdraw from the Exchange Rate Mechanism -

Which leads us to another classic poster.  If it looks like this New Labour poster is familiar, that's because it's practically a carbon-copy of the Heath poster from 1970 -  the lowercase sans serif, the moody lighting, the cropped portrait, and the wistful yet assured gaze. Obviously a winning formula in art direction.

Conservative retaliation wasn't far away though, and the final example I've selected is a design classic from 1997.  'New Labour New Danger' was a controversial campaign, again courtesy of Saatchi & Saatchi, and although it failed, the example below marked a high point of political poster design in the UK.