Public Service Announcements

Updating the iconic posters of the Works Progress Administration.

Then

Works Progress Administration, 1935–1943

Washington, D.C.

WPA Federal Art Project, Courtesy of Library of Congress

Then

Works Progress Administration, 1935–1943

Washington, D.C.

WPA Federal Art Project, Courtesy of Library of Congress

The messages are diverse and astonishingly direct: “Keep Your Fire Escapes Clear,” “Visit the Zoo,” “Syphilis Is Now Curable.” Between 1936 and 1943, artists working for the Works Progress Administration designed more than 35,000 posters—of which the government printed over 2 million copies—promoting local and national programs, travel and tourism, and WPA-funded cultural programming, as well as doling out health-and-safety advice. At first, artists hand-painted and signed each poster, but eventually the program came to rely heavily on silk-screening, which allowed the WPA to print multiple copies of a design and churn out up to 600 posters a day.

Al Doria, 1943. Public messages from the WPA became increasingly focused on defense during World War II. WPA War Services, courtesy of Library of Congress
Richard Halls, 1939. One of 14 hand-silk-screened posters commissioned by the WPA to announce that the national parks were open for business with newly upgraded roads and facilities. WPA Federal Art Project, courtesy of Library of Congress

German-born industrial designer Richard Floethe started the first WPA poster division in New York in 1934, and by 1938 the Federal Art Project, a division of the WPA created specifically to provide jobs for out-of-work artists, had adopted the program and established poster divisions in at least 18 states. Floethe trained at Bauhaus, the German state-sponsored school of art that favored modernist design, and his influence is obvious in the WPA posters, which feature clean lines, bold colors, and distinct typography. The posters were distributed nationwide to be displayed in federal buildings and at numerous other sites. They were placed in libraries, public schools, airports, national parks, in WPA-sponsored gallery exhibits (in 1939, a gallery in New York hosted a display of posters solely devoted to combating syphilis), and other locations. Their audiences, ranging from pregnant women to Illinois cattle farmers, were as diverse as their subject matter.

Unknown artist, 1941. One of a number of posters created to deter the spread of syphilis and encourage testing and treatment. WPA Federal Art Project, courtesy of Library of Congress
Unknown artist, 1938. One of a series of WPA posters produced to encourage daily hygiene. WPA Federal Art Project, courtesy of Library of Congress

Today, Works Progress Administration posters have become highly collectible; when a haul of six original posters was brought to a taping of Antiques Roadshow in 2006, an appraiser estimated that the batch might sell for $10,000 to $15,000 at auction. The Library of Congress, meanwhile, has 907 posters in its collection. In a piece Floethe penned for the 1973 book Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930s by Artists and Administrators of the WPA Federal Art Project, he wrote that “the government unwittingly launched a movement to improve the commercial poster and raised it to a true art form.”

Then

Works Progress Administration, 1935–1943

Washington, D.C.

WPA Federal Art Project, Courtesy of Library of Congress

Now

MGMT. Design, 2018

Brooklyn, New York

Now

MGMT. Design, 2018

Brooklyn, New York

Inside the Library of Congress is a part of the Works Progress Administration that most people don’t know exists—a vast poster collection. These posters addressed broad cultural issues about which the government wanted to communicate with ordinary Americans: concerns about health care and social stigmas, about the leaking of wartime secrets, the opening up of the national parks, or problems resulting from rapid urbanization. We were drawn to posters that had a clean design as well as straightforward messages. As designers, we noticed that the advertising of the 1930s and ’40s seemed far less cynical or manipulative than it is today.

In our modernized versions of the WPA posters, we chose images whose original advertising messages had parallels with cultural issues of today. Visually, we kept the the graphics simple, used a limited color palette, and chose bold graphics. A consistent typographic style across the set helps them hold together as a series.

The artists of the WPA were making visual public service announcements using the tools at their disposal: ink on paper. Today’s distribution methods have created a relentless flood of messages, putting a torrent of information in the palm of your hand. How the public values, rejects, or embraces this version of public information is up to them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

MGMT. design is a collaborative women-owned graphic design studio founded in 2002 and based in Brooklyn.

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