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Propaganda Graphic Design: History and Inspiring Examples

Marc Schenker March 31, 2021 · 12 min read
Whether you call it propaganda graphic design or heroic realism, there’s a highly captivating form of design that deals with propaganda to rally people around various causes and events. Seen especially during World Wars I and II and with the rise of various totalitarian regimes in the 20th century, propaganda graphic design is usually political in nature and depicts people, concepts, and goals as heavily idealized. From a pure design perspective, propaganda art can be overwhelming, as it idealizes and stylizes the ordinary into something much more grandiose to rally support for causes or gin up national fervor against something. The 20th century was the decade to be alive if you truly valued propaganda graphic design. Let’s take a look at this important piece of design history in greater detail.

The History of Propaganda Graphic Design and Heroic Realism

It’s not surprising that graphic design of this style has been termed “heroic realism.” If you’re a designer and plotting to rally support for or against a cause, it’s in your best interest to depict your cause and all its adherents as being exceptional and superhuman. Ergo, heroic! The underlying assumption is that the average person will be more likely to back your cause if it seems larger than life and about more than just the mundane things in life. Propaganda graphic design became a force to be reckoned with thanks to the wars of the 20th century, namely World Wars I and II. While belligerents were engaging in deadly combat on the ground with all sorts of weaponry, graphic designers used the communication medium to fight another kind of war, but always in support of the larger cause of their respective nations or causes. This was the classic propaganda battle that could help change the course of any war due to its ability to either mobilize and encourage or demoralize its target audiences. Besides the nationalism, jingoism, and patriotism that were undoubtedly also a part of the reason for this propaganda, there was also a more straightforward reason for design: the need to raise money and keep wartime economies going (or at least to prevent them from going bankrupt). No matter if you were the Central Power or the Allied Powers in World War I—or the Allied Nations or the Axis powers in World War II—you needed to keep your war machine going. Common ways that governments helped to ensure this cause were by war savings, bonds and loans, war work (volunteering for your country on the home front), and fuel and food conservation. To encourage and push their citizenry to actually go along with all of these initiatives, some would call them actual sacrifices: governments came up with propaganda in the form of designs like posters. If you, for example, were to see various heroic-realism posters depicting the glory of working at a factory to make bombs to help your country win the war, you were more likely to do just that. If you saw propaganda posters showcasing the patriotism of investing in war bonds, then you were also more likely to go ahead with that contribution. Of course, perhaps the most direct form of propaganda graphic design was patriotic posters encouraging citizens to sign up directly to be combatants in the war—think of the traditional, memorable and classic, “Uncle Sam…wants you!” posters. Here are some breathtaking propaganda graphic design assets from our marketplace, so you can get an idea of how effective they can be:

Qualities of Propaganda Graphic Design and Heroic Realism

Based on the propaganda design assets in our marketplace, you can immediately see telltale characteristics that are common to all types of heroic realism, regardless of what country, cause or movement produces them. In short, they’re all about presenting things in a highly idealized fashion for maximum propaganda points.

Uprising Symbols

One of the most universally recognized symbols of resistance, rebellion or just power or strength is the raised or clenched fist. Peruse any number of propaganda graphic design offerings, and you’ll immediately notice this common bond among many of them. From a strict design standpoint, drawing a fist also makes for easy communication, as it cuts across cultural boundaries with the greatest of ease. Stylistically, it’s common to see the raised fist surrounded by other design elements to increase its propaganda impact:
  • Rays
  • Circles
  • Stars
  • Other symbols (for example, the hammer and sickle, for Communism)
Depending on the creativity of the designer or the purpose of the cause, the clenched fist can also hold an object for additional propaganda messaging.

Finger Pointing

In polite society, it’s rude to point, just as it is to stare, but in heroic realism, all bets are off! Continuing the theme of hand gestures in propaganda design, finger pointing is another common element of these posters. In particular, it’s the index finger on the right hand pointing at the person looking at the poster. Probably the most popular and iconic design of this nature is the American Uncle Sam poster, where the personification of the U.S. government is represented by an older man with white hair, a white beard, and wearing the red-white-and-blue color scheme on his clothing. Designed to drum up recruits and volunteers for national war causes, the poster was said to actually originate as far back as the War of 1812, though it was extremely popular in wide use during World Wars I and II. In this design, the messaging is emotive and direct, as the U.S. government is basically making a patriotic appeal to the cause of nationalism and pride in country to anyone who’d listen.

Idealistic Instead of Realistic

When the propaganda machine was in full swing during wartime, there was a need to produce designs that went beyond the ordinary and aspired to greatness. Hence, you’re going to see a lot of idealistic and very unrealistic depictions of people, places, and things. Governments, especially the totalitarian regimes of Communism and Nazism, would order their art to look heroic as a matter of policy. As a result, portraits of Communist leaders like Joseph Stalin were ordered to always be majestic, attractive, larger-than-life. In short…heroic. Interestingly, the Soviets in particular developed what’s known as socialist realism, a style of design and art that glorified communist values like state control, loyalty to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and the emancipation of the proletariat. Although called socialist realism, that’s something of a misnomer since the purpose of this art was to glorify the communist ideology, thereby necessarily depicting scenes idealistically instead of realistically.

Propaganda Graphic Design in Wartime

Let’s look at how propaganda graphic design has been used in the various great wars and also by totalitarian regimes throughout the 20th century.

World War I

World War I was a bloody war that lasted from 1914 to 1918 and resulted in approximately 20 million deaths, not to mention the many more severely injured people, both belligerents and civilians. It was a conflict between the Allied Powers of France, the U.S., Britain and Russia, to name just a few, and the Central Powers of the German Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and Austria-Hungary, among others. Design was the communication medium used to encourage more support, both in terms of manpower and money, for belligerents on both sides of the conflict. In Britain, the British War Propaganda Bureau or Wellington House was established in 1914 as a reaction, after the English discovered the Germans had their own propaganda bureau already in full swing. This office came up with memorable posters that ginned up public sentiment against the Germans by referencing German wartime atrocities. Popular posters included Is Your Home Worth Fighting For? and Remember Belgium, both of which strongly allude to aggression and atrocities committed as a way of encouraging more young British men to join their country’s cause in the war. Both posters use:
  • Slab serifs to make the message stand out loudly
  • Realism in art to make it more relatable
  • Color contrast
  • Asymmetry
  • An appeal to fear to psychologically motivate the audience into action
Over in the U.S., its own Committee on Public Information (CPI) produced propaganda designs to help the Allied cause. Unlike the European poster designs, the American versions were more illustrative (some would say cartoony) and gung-ho in style and communication. For instance, the poster titled Treat ‘em rough! Join the Tanks! for the U.S. Tank Corp. was a study of an illustration that you’d expect to see in the comic books. This more accessible style was an intentional way to broaden the appeal of joining the service for your country. The design exhibits:
  • Vivid colors
  • One obvious focal point
  • Sans serif headline fonts (Bubble letters)
  • Serif fonts for additional info

World War II

World War II, which lasted from 1939 to 1945, was an even larger global conflict with much wider mobilization. In other words, it was tailor-made for propaganda opportunities on both sides. This was the deadliest war in all of human history, with estimates of the total number of people killed ranging from 50 million to more than 80 million. It pitted the Allies (the U.S., France, the UK, Canada, Poland, Australia, and eventually the Soviet Union, to name some) against the Axis (Germany, Italy, and Japan, to name the principal belligerents). In a battle that spanned almost all corners of the globe, propaganda was a vital tool that could help turn the tide of the war in one direction. In the U.S., after the Americans joined World War II, the Office of War Information or OWI came to life, with the express purpose of spreading American wartime propaganda far and wide. This was part of a broad coalition including the State and War Departments. Thanks to these efforts, the U.S. has the distinction of producing the most propaganda graphic design posters during World War II. Posters focused exclusively on duty to country, tradition, and patriotism as opposed to ginning up hatred for the enemy. As a result, most posters featured inspiring messaging. One such example is O’er the Ramparts We Watch, a poster to encourage men to join the U.S. Air Force. Its poster features:
  • One giant focal point
  • Calm, cool colors
  • Visual cues (the pilot looking off into the distance)
  • Lyrics from the national anthem as the title
In short, it conveyed heroic messaging that struck just the right chord for patriotism. Other posters encouraged commitment, volunteering, and duty on the home front, so that even those not directly fighting in the war could still make a contribution. A notable example is the aptly titled Service on the Home Front poster, which featured:
  • A family
  • Bullet points advertising where people could volunteer
  • Bold, slab serifs to grab the audience’s attention
  • A solid-colored background
  • A message of unity (“a job for every Pennsylvanian”)
Over in Britain, propaganda was just a bit more balanced, featuring both designs to gin up animosity against the Axis and resolve at home and support for British troops. One such example of a propaganda poster directed against the Nazis was one appropriately titled Together, We Shall Strangle Hitlerism. The poster features:
  • White or negative space
  • Color contrast
  • Mockery of the enemy via caricature
  • Slab serif fonts for easy, impactful reading
  • Patriotic appeals by including the British and Soviet flags

Soviet Union

The former USSR deserves its own section as one of the world’s longest-lasting regimes, both for its own propaganda highlighting communism and its propaganda during World War II. Before World War II, the Soviet Union understood the value of propaganda to influence citizens. Propaganda graphic design posters helped further causes effectively. One of the earliest and most famous examples of this propaganda was in the 1920 poster, Comrade Lenin Cleanses the Earth of Filth. Ostensibly, the purpose of the design was to show Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, ridding the earth of the enemies of communism, which included the church, the merchant class (capitalism), and the monarchy. The poster features:
  • Negative space
  • Caricature illustrations
  • Slab serifs for easy reading
  • Minimalism (literally gets right to the point)
There was even an official state body called the Glavit, whose purpose was to put the proper ideological spin on every piece of propaganda. Another example of this was the design on the poster with the message, “To have more, we must produce more. To produce more, we must know more.” The purpose of this poster was to communicate how glorious working in the service of the state was. The poster features:
  • A clenched fist (this time, holding an object)
  • One of the symbols of communism, the sickle
  • A minimalist design
  • Slab serifs for legibility
When World War II rolled around, the Soviets joined the Allies against the Axis during the war’s tail end. Naturally, the Soviet propaganda graphic design of this era was focused on demonizing Nazis. A great example of that is this poster that proudly shows Soviet and British soldiers congratulating each other as a dead dragon with a swastika and its tongue hanging out lies at their feet. The poster shows:
  • Symmetry and balance
  • White space for framing
  • Easy-to-read sans serifs in the headline and description
  • Heroism

Propaganda and Design: A Natural Pairing

Propaganda is a form of communication, and so is design. As we’ve seen, propaganda graphic design uses art, illustrations, and symbols to easily communicate big ideas and concepts meant to support causes, countries, and belligerents in battle. From a pure design standpoint, propaganda is always interesting to observe and study, even though the motives behind the design deserve closer scrutiny.
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About the Author
Marc Schenker

Marc is a copywriter and marketer who runs The Glorious Company, a marketing agency. An expert in business and marketing, he helps businesses and companies of all sizes get the most bang for their ad bucks.

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