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Visual Literacy

Posters and Broadsides-A Visual Literacy Primer for Decoding Design

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.

1. Message
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.

Seven rough pencil sketches on a single sheet of white paper

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Figure 1
Six rough pencil sketches on a single sheet of white paper

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Figure 2
A rough pencil sketch on white paper of three people holding tools and leaning forward. Text at top and bottom

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Figure 3
Colour poster with illustration of a male soldier and factory worker and a female farm worker, in a lunging position holding a gun, an industrial tool and a hoe respectively. Title split between top and bottom

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Figure 4

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


2. Typography:
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.

Rough pencil sketch on white paper of three soldiers charging forward from a trench

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Figure 5
Rough pencil sketch on white paper of a soldier waving his arm for others to follow him. Text at top and bottom

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Figure 6
Rough pencil sketch on white paper of three soldiers running. The lead soldier's hand is up in the air. Title at bottom

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Figure 7
Pastel sketch of two soldiers running forward. Title split between top and bottom

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Figure 8
Detailed pencil sketch on white paper of a soldier in fatigues holding a machine gun and waving an arm for others to follow him. Title split between top and bottom

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Figure 9
Colour sketch on cream-coloured paper of a waving soldier. Test colours at left

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Figure 10
White lettering on clear plastic

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Figure 11
Yellow lettering on clear plastic

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Figure 12
Red lettering on clear plastic

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Figure 13
Colour poster with illustration of a soldier in fatigues who is yelling and holding a machine gun while waving his other arm to signal others to follow him. Title in red and black at bottom

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Figure 14

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


3. Graphics:
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.

Rough pencil sketch on white paper of a merchant marine holding up his left arm

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Figure 15
Black-and-white watercolour of a merchant marine on the deck of a ship with left arm raised. In the background, another crew member fires his weapon at planes on the open sea

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Figure 16
Rough layout sketch of a merchant marine in the foreground with raised left arm. In the background the crew on the deck of a ship fire their weapons at planes on the open sea. Title at the top. Text at the bottom.

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Figure 17
Colour poster with illustration of a merchant marine with megaphone at sea observing an air battle. Another crew member is firing on a plane which has been hit and is going down. Title at top and text at bottom

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Figure 18

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.


4. Colour:
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.

Five rough pencil sketches on white paper of a soldier running and one of a helmet. Text is placed within the sketches.

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Figure 19
Rough pencil sketch on white paper of a soldier climbing over an embankment waving his arm for others to follow. Title at the bottom

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Figure 20
Rough sketch on white paper of a soldier's black silhouette running forward

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Figure 21
Pastel sketch in green, black and brown of a soldier running. Title at top, text at bottom

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Figure 22
Colour poster with illustration of a soldier holding a machine gun and running. Title in black and brown at top, text in brown on green background at bottom

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Figure 23

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


5. Presentation:
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.

Pencil sketch on white paper of a pilot in a cockpit, sitting at the controls

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Figure 24
Pencil sketch on whiter paper of a double-engined plane diving and strafing a ship with machine gun fire

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Figure 25
Pencil sketch on white paper of a plane in flight over ships, divided in four panels

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Figure 26
Watercolour design of a pilot in the cockpit of a plane with his left hand raised to his mouth. The plane is attacking a ship below. Cockpit view is angled down and to the right

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Figure 27

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


6. Layout/Composition:
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.

Johanna Mizgala
Curator, Exhibitions and Interpretation
Library and Archives Canada
Portrait Gallery of Canada