WPA Arts Projects: Design and Typography

Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign featured some of the most striking graphic design to grace a modern campaign. Who can forget Shepard Fairey’s HOPE poster, a composition of block tones that perfectly evoked the presidential hopeful?

Though Fairey claims more modern influences, the simple screen-printed look of the HOPE poster suggests an association to another influential president, Franklin Roosevelt. During Roosevelt’s first years in office, he commissioned thousands of similarly iconic screen-printed posters under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration, or the WPA.

The WPA was the stimulus agency of its time; by instigating public works and arts, the Roosevelt administration hoped to goad a stagnant economy to its feet. The solid color-blocked WPA posters all represent innovative attempts to grab attention and share a message, within the constraints of poster size and four-color printing.

Making the New Deal New Again

WPA poster

Thanks to convenient gradients, tablets, and Photoshop, today’s graphic designers have unlimited command over their printed page. In contrast, Fairey’s HOPE poster was deliberately constrained, like the WPA’s posters. Screen-printed images have less resolution and less color control, so design choices like composition, font, and color carry more weight. If your designs have seemed flat or flabby lately, the WPA poster collection is a great source of inspiration.

Think About Type

WPA poster: typography

Font in poster design must be interesting but clear; it must be readable from a distance, and yet have enough room for the poster’s image. WPA artists answered this challenge by adopting fonts with little fuss or flourish; instead, they often had ultra-readable stylized features, such as large circular O’s. WPA artists were also experts at varying font size and color to draw in readers. Off-colored letters and words were used as adroit accents, or not at all.

Panels for Punctuation

WPA posters

Silkscreen artists didn’t have the convenience of “stroke” commands to set off delicate features, so they planned their compositions’ dark and light areas carefully. One trick the WPA artists used to great effect is the colored panel, which uses color to ground and contrast illustrative subjects. Panels are often a key component in the posters’ most dynamic compositions; they can be used to draw the eye, to create or stop movement, and to bring a multi-part poster together coherently.

When Less Is More

WPA typography minimal

Because WPA artists were constrained to simple printing, they had no choice but to use a restrained color palette. As a result, they had to think carefully about the placement of lights and dark’s within their composition. Surprisingly, many artists kept their color work minimal, even within their allotted four colors. Bold blocks are favored over intricate multicolored patterns, making them easier to be seen and interpreted from a distance. Try it–if you squint at a WPA poster until the details fade, you can generally still interpret the major image correctly.

Though experts debate the WPA’s role in ending the Great Depression, the WPA’s posters had an indisputable role in defining the aesthetic culture of the U.S. in the late 30’s and early 40’s. The posters’ lessons in clean, strong design make them relevant design references for today.

Posters via loc.gov