How to design the perfect political poster

French illustrator Tomi Ungerer is no stranger to political artwork. He grew up in Nazi-occupied Alsace and once credited the graphic fury of his iconic anti-Vietnam posters to Hitler.

His political engagement has continued to this day in campaigns against racism and fascism, for nuclear disarmament, ecology and numerous humanitarian causes.

Here, Ungerer shares some tips that designers can use to help rally up our own communities...

What qualities does a poster need to communicate a political message?

Eat is Tomi Ungerer's best-known radical protest poster

Eat is Tomi Ungerer's best-known radical protest poster

It's very simple. Normally the principle is that if you have a poster, imagine that you are in a car driving by. You have just a second, or half a second, to preform your hit. It means the message has to be of utmost simplicity.

If there is a slogan, it can't have more than four or five words. That's why it doesn't pay to have several elements in one poster. It has to be one face, or one object.

Of course, then you have the other kind of posters, which hang in shop windows or in the subway, like the ones I did for the New York Times.

There you can tell more of a story in your posters because people are sitting; there might be an advantage to have a charming poster, or a joke poster. My slogan is 'expect the unexpected' – so it stays in your head.

Do you have any design rules?

1994's Pig Heil! was directed against Europe's ever-present strain of neo-Nazism

1994's Pig Heil! was directed against Europe's ever-present strain of neo-Nazism

When you have to include text within posters, it should always be very clearly readable on the background. Normally I have the drawing, and the message on black and white is underneath or above, so that if people want to hang the poster in the living room they can even frame the picture without the text.

Sometimes there's an advantage to making a small drawing and blowing it up. For that I figured out a very simple trick: I just take binoculars and look at the drawing through the other end, so that I see the small drawing as if I could see it from a distance.

This way I could tell if this small drawing was going to work. You might do a line drawing with your pen, but if it's blown up 300 times that line becomes as thick as a piece of brush work.

What advice would you give to an artist who wants to galvanise their community into taking action?

Black Power/White Power is a poster by Tomi Ungerer from the civil rights era

Black Power/White Power is a poster by Tomi Ungerer from the civil rights era

You have the community or neighborhood level, if you're an activist, or then there's the national level, the provincial level or even the international level, like when I did the posters for the freedom of press, for instance, or even my Vietnam posters.

Nowadays if you want to make a flyer and distribute them in the streets, you just buy a pack of paper and use a photocopier, and you can start with your artwork and try it and distribute it out to the people on the street or subway.

Which project from your own portfolio has been the most effective in voicing your political concerns?

The early ones. The 60s were really unique and I still think that the greatest impact was the Vietnam posters, which I printed myself. I was part of the peace movement for Vietnam and they rejected my posters - they said they were too hard. So I printed and distributed them myself.

Discover more about how design can galvanise communities, sharpen your design skills and compare your favourite typefaces in Computer Arts issue 247, on sale 13 November – subscribe today to guarantee your copy!

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