Can Posters Still Change the World?

For centuries, printed and mass-produced signs have helped activists spread the message of everything from AIDS awareness to the plight of Syrian refugees.

Gran Fury

In 1987, commuters in New York City started seeing posters on the street reading “Silence = Death.” The images were the work of the pioneering AIDS-awareness group ACT UP, and their stark simplicity made an immediate impact.

Two years later, the organization had a graphic-design arm, Gran Fury, which produced a new poster that appeared on the sides of buses showing three couples kissing, two of which were same-sex. Their message: “Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do.” As works of both art and activism, the ACT UP posters gave a face to same-sex couples, inspiring compassion and encouraging awareness of what the group described as “government inaction and public indifference” to the AIDS crisis.

Gran Fury

Such was the power of public images to transmit targeted messages long before the advent of social media. From Ben Shahn’s anti-H-Bomb design to the Guerrilla Girls’s campaign against gender inequality in art museums, posters have a long history of engaging and informing people through a mixture of artistry, wit, and economy. It would be easy to assume that posters have lost some of their impact in a hyper-connected landscape. But in many ways, the rise of social media has given protest and advocacy posters a bigger audience than ever before, while platforms like Facebook are creating ways to let users craft images featuring their own photo to further the causes they identify with.

This doesn’t mean posters aren’t facing challenges in the Internet age. Commercial ads and billboards are almost always placed in approved venues, and have adapted well to the new technology of the 21st century, with many featuring QR codes, video sequences, and even facial-recognition software. But the humble advocacy poster is printed with ink on paper, and usually hung illegally on buildings, lampposts, and hoardings replete with the “post no bills” imperative. Since most of those locations are controlled by commercial businesses that guard their real estate, they’re often removed before they can be seen by more than a handful of people.

“No one cares about posters anymore, except the designers who make them,” says the graphic designer Matteo Bologna. Posters, he implies, are often simply feel-good portfolio pieces that do more for their designers’ careers than for the cause they’re seeking to raise awareness for.


But a number of images, placed by guerrilla campaigners in a large number of spots late at night, have made themselves noticed. In 2014, posters designed by the street artist Banksy appeared as if by magic on Capitol Hill, featuring an image of a small girl wearing a headscarf and letting go of a red balloon. Below the image was the message #WithSyria—encouraging viewers to explore the hashtag to understand the poster’s message, and replicate it by posting the image online themselves.

Banksy isn’t alone in his belief that the medium is still alive. “Posters are a practical way for passionate artists to communicate important ideas and play a role in shaping that public sentiment,” says Aaron Perry-Zucker. “You don’t choose a channel or type in a URL to see them. They come to you as you walk down the street.”

Perry-Zucker is the co-founder of the Creative Action Network, an online community of artists and designers who help raise awareness and funds for various causes. CAN bridges the gap between digital and analog by using crowd-sourcing methods to acquire and distribute printed posters from contributors. In addition to campaigns advocating for such diverse issues as gun control, funding for libraries, and marriage equality, CAN recently launched a collaboration with Earthjustice, a group of environmental lawyers, for a campaign called  “JoinThePack,” to increase understanding of the plight of the endangered gray wolf. Posters and shirts are sold for $25 to $30.

“The strength and beauty of a well-designed poster cannot be beat,” says Mark Randall, the co-founder of Design Ignites Change, a New York-based firm that has engaged in grass-roots social-advocacy campaigns for more than a decade. “A poster lodges in your memory more than other mediums because it distills an idea to its core. [It] becomes a brand statement around the issue it represents.”

Randall is currently collaborating with the group Make Art With Purpose (MAP) to develop a nationwide public-art initiative empowering teams of community representatives, artists, and designers to create posters, public murals, and banners that address themes connected to race and social justice. “The images are not a means to an end,” says Randall. “The goal is to support and continue the public dialogue around one of the most pressing issues of our time.”

Randall agrees that contemporary posters must be part of an overall media strategy and “should move people to do something tangible.” Yet he notes that some posters become iconic on their own owing to a confluence of events and timing. These include Milton Glaser’s 2001 design I Love NY More Than Ever, Shepard Fairey’s 2008 Hope poster, and the meme-ified British World War II sign imploring viewers to “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

Obey Giant

Social media also allows new viability and greater distribution for posters through the countless sharing opportunities on Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, and personal websites. “Before digital technology, you had to be out of your home environment. Now, anyone with access to the Internet can view them,” says Elizabeth Resnick, a curator of the Massachusetts College of Art exhibition “​The Graphic Imperative: International Posters for Peace, Social Justice and the Environment 1965–2005.” “The world of the poster is now available to anyone on a very personal basis. How we interact with posters has completely changed, and because of its accessibility, people have altered the way they view and respond to them.”

Earlier this year, following the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling on same-sex marriage, Facebook allowed users to cover their profile pictures with a rainbow filter, making their image a poster expressing solidarity with the movement for marriage equality. In some ways, the rainbow posters were the perfect 21st-century heir to the AIDS awareness posters designed by Gran Fury, adding millions of faces to the gay-marriage movement, on a platform more visible and widely accessible than earlier designers could have dreamed. Posters, Resnick says, are made for causes, issues, and campaigns that need “a kick of emotion and energy—issues that are widely understood, but need more action.”