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Posters are a form of visual communication designed to convey messages in public. The information must be accessible and engaging to attract and hold attention. Visual literacy is the ability to decode and synthesize meaning presented in a visual or graphic form. It is a powerful tool for navigating the many messages communicated on billboards, on buses or subways, or in front of your favourite restaurant.
The following preparatory sketches for a series of Second World War propaganda posters by Canadian poster artist Hubert Rogers will shed some light on the components of poster design.
The message is the linchpin of a strong poster design. The designer has a finite amount of space to communicate an idea, so must rely on strong keywords or slogans. He or she will develop an idea into a finished work through several transformations.
To create a strong visual idea for "Attack on All Fronts," Rogers made small sketches of various schemes and layouts to distill the complexities of the message into a simple yet powerful final design.
Figure 1: Seven sketches for the war poster "Attack on All Fronts," ca. 1943
Figure 2: Six sketches for the war poster "Attack on All Fronts," 1943
Figure 3: A drawing of three figures for the war poster "Attack on All Fronts," 1943
Figure 4: War production poster representing the military, manufacturing and agricultural sections of the war effort, Wartime Information Board, 1943
Typography is the way in which words are presented. Its principal component is font: the size and style of each letter's typeface. Words married to images function as pictures; the viewer takes them in as an integral whole. There are many different fonts and each has a particular tone. They set the mood of the design.
The sketches for "Come on Canada" illustrate how Rogers created the visual vocabulary of the final poster, by trying out the figures in various poses and shifting the placement of typography with different combinations.
Figure 5: A sketch of three soldiers "going over the top" for the poster "The Army Will Finish the Job," ca. 1943
Figure 6: A sketch of a soldier in army fatigues for the poster "Come on Canada," January 1942
Figure 7: A sketch of three soldiers for the poster "Come on Canada," January 1942
Figure 8: A pastel sketch of two soldiers "going over the top" for the poster "Let's Go Canada," ca. 1943
Figure 9: A sketch of a soldier in army fatigues for the war poster "Come on Canada. The Army Will Finish the Job," January 1942
Figure 10: A colour sketch of a soldier for the poster "Come on Canada" with several colour tests, January 1942
Figure 11: Painting of the words "Arretez-le!" on plastic, ca. 1943
Figure 12: Painting of the words "Stop Him" on plastic, ca. 1943
Figure 13: Painting of the words "Every Minute Counts" on plastic, ca. 1943
Figure 14: "Come On Canada!" poster designed to increase morale and support for the war, January 1942
Graphics are the illustrative elements of the poster's design. They can become so attached to a place or product that they become its signature. Look at the two studies for the poster "Men of Valor." The most significant difference between sketch and final design is the replacement of the sailor's cap with a helmet. The second sketch shows the four components of the final design of the poster: TITLE at top, IMAGE at centre, OVERLAY crest at bottom of image, and TEXT below. The most significant change between the second sketch and the poster is that the crest has moved to the left against the black coat, providing clearer detail.
Figure 15: A sketch of a soldier for the poster "Men of Valor. They Fight For You," ca. 1943
Figure 16: Final watercolour design for the war poster "Men of Valor. They Fight for You," featuring Capt. Fred S. Slocombe, 1943
Figure 17: A pencil sketch of a battle scene for the poster "Men of Valor. They Fight For You," 1943
Figure 18: "Men of Valor - They Fight for You" poster designed to increase morale and support for the war featuring Capt. Fred Slocombe, January 1943.
Colour is integral in creating tone and mood in a design. Certain colours are linked to particular feelings-red can be very dramatic. In this poster, Rogers uses red text to highlight the main message.
Figure 19: Five separate sketches of designs for Second World War posters, ca. 1943
Figure 20: A sketch of a soldier "going over the top" for the poster "Come on Canada," January 1942
Figure 21: A sketch of a soldier "going over the top" for the poster "Up and at 'em Canada, Stop Him Now," ca. 1943
Figure 22: A pastel sketch of a soldier running across a field for the poster "Men of Valor, They Fight for You," 1943
Figure 23: "Ce qu'il faut pour vaincre" poster designed to increase morale and support for the war, featuring Lieutenant-Colonel Menard, 1943
Presentation comes together through the creative thinking behind the poster's design. Changes in the look of a poster have a dramatic impact on how the poster is perceived. Look for posters in the collection that deviate from the traditional rectangular form and think about why the designers chose that particular shape.
After finishing a large, detailed study of the cockpit of an RCAF Lockheed Hudson aircraft, Rogers came up with an even more daring presentation for his poster: diagonally squared-off and dark, like a frame in a comic book. The two smaller sketches of fighter planes diving towards a battleship are studies of what the pilot might have seen. The final study takes you right into the drama of an air and sea battle, looking over the shoulder of a silhouetted pilot attacking an escaping Nazi destroyer.
Figure 24: A sketch of a pilot in a cockpit for the war poster "Men of Valor, They Fight for You," 1943
Figure 25: A sketch of a sea battle between a plane and a ship
Figure 26: A sketch of a plane in flight over ships, depicted in four panels
Figure 27: A watercolour design for a war poster featuring a pilot in the cockpit of a plane which is attacking a Nazi ship below
Finally, look carefully at how all the elements of design are put together and how the intended idea has ultimately been conveyed.
Posters are a powerful means of communication not only because they are visually appealing, but also because they are part of the urban landscape. We are all used to reading them as we go about our daily lives.
By breaking down the basic contents and visual vocabulary of poster design into several key elements, you can become a savvy viewer. This know-how will help you see many examples of strong design and powerful messaging as you look through the Library and Archives Canada poster collection.
Curator, Exhibitions and Interpretation
Library and Archives Canada
Portrait Gallery of Canada