Before the outbreak of World War I, posters existed primarily as a popular art form. With the outbreak of war, posters gradually became a means of political propaganda and began to play a new role as a visual medium. Poster design reached a high level during the First World War, and they evoked patriotism and the spirit of courage and unlimited hatred for the enemy in all aspects of the population.
At this particular time, the backing of the rear populace became necessary for the victory of the war. The government began a massive propaganda encouragement campaign in order to receive more material and social opinion assistance from the people. In the era of no TV, digital media, posters became the most powerful form of propaganda, and various countries used them as part of their political campaigns, encouraging artists and illustrators to create them to recruit soldiers, prepare funds, sell war bonds, and appeal to the people to unite in the war.
Many Graphic designers in various countries have been involved in the design of these political posters. Of course, different cultural backgrounds, existential environments and political attitudes make the posters of each country very different in terms of design style and narrative perspective. For example, French designers emphasize romantic colors, individualism, and Passionate Wisdom. German posters, on the other hand, always have some gloomy or even depressing colors. In the British and American posters, war images are rarely used outright, but rather popular images that can represent the unified will of the nation and encourage people to participate in the war.
Alfred Ritter’s 1915 recruitment poster for the British government, Join Your Country’s Army, shows British Defence Secretary Horatio Keschener, wearing a Field Marshal’s hat and medallion, majestically pointing his finger at the viewer. “Britons, your country needs you to join the army!” This commanding, direct appeal makes the viewer uncomfortably feel a sense of shame in avoiding responsibility, and the bold, striking text gives the work a very strong visual impact and shock. The work was recognized by the British Wartime Conscription Board, and the posters were widely printed, even producing many imitations in other countries.
The American poster “I want you for the U.S. Army” designed by James Fleiger is an imitation of Alfred Ritter’s posters, in which Uncle Sam, representing the U.S. government, points to the viewer and says, “I want you to join the U.S. Army. Uncle Sam” (Uncle Sam), representing the U.S. government, points to the audience and says: “I want you to join the U.S. Army”. The simple composition with a red, white and blue line frame representing patriotic colors was visually strong and challenging, and became a very popular American poster during World War I.
Compared with the direct expressions of Britain and the United States, the political poster design of Germany, the “Axis Power” of World War I, focused on symbolic appeal. The German posters were designed in the style of the Vienna Secessionists, with a strong visual effect consisting of representative motifs and concise slogans. The most influential graphic designer in German political poster design was Otto Lehmann, who showed a group of German soldiers tearing down the British flag in one of his posters, with the torn flag prominently displayed in the center of the picture, symbolically showing the overjoyed of destroying the enemy and using national emotions to arouse public support for the war. Although German soldiers fought almost exclusively on the territory of other countries throughout the war, German posters rarely portrayed themselves as conquerors; instead, they often portrayed themselves as self-defenders who had to fight bravely against a strong neighboring enemy in order to survive.
The First World War brought bitter experiences and blows to every citizen of the warring countries. Therefore, some of the posters avoided aggressive approaches and tones and used euphemisms and indirect appeals. For example, E.V. Kealey’s 1915 poster for the Congressional Draft Board, “Women of Britain Say: Go!” Depicts a mother with two children standing in front of a window, looking out at the departing troops. The poster is aimed not only at men who had to serve in the military, but also at women on the home front, and is a strong expression of civic nationalism and patriotism. The use of families and women and children as propaganda material, and the use of the emotional feel, were also common in World War I posters, and were highly effective.
The outbreak of World War I was devastating to mankind, but it was the war that brought poster design to the stage of design history. Although the content of World War I posters was not as rich and diverse as that of World War II posters, there is no doubt that it played a huge role as a powerful propaganda weapon in World War I, and became a milestone page of modern poster design.