Oddly, it was the American government that set the most compelling example of a marketing campaign aimed straight at average people. The WPA Federal Art Project hired numerous designers to promote a variety of government-sponsored arts opportunities for Americans. Over 4000 murals and 35,000 posters were produced (DeNoon, 7). These were all designed to be seen from public walls and to appeal to anyone and everyone.

As a program of public outreach and moral uplift, the WPA Federal Art Project campaign brought a degree of legitimacy to the practice of marketing that it had always desperately sought. The scale of the program and the tenor of the era made it seem plausible that advertising could be the tool for social improvement that its proponents always claimed it could be. The patriotism that the WPA project inspired explains why so many Americans become nostalgic and misty when they see old advertisements; they were part and parcel of a time when favorite brands inspired national pride. And these posters' particular blend of the fine and practical arts, of American and European, shows a more developed sense of an American pictorial identity than any of the campaigns constructed before. By the time World War II arrived, a number of designers had become completely comfortable using imported ideas to present an American sensibility.

In this wartime example, the dominant red lines and accompanying negative white space reflect the influence of European ideas, and yet they are components that together create an American flag. It is an instructive example, because it shows quite explicitly the new assurance of the designers. The poster is incredibly dynamic, but also very structured. It draws heavily from Russian constructivism, and yet it has a kind of energy and exuberance that is new. It boldly seizes modern ideas and employs them as both the form and substance of American patriotism.

The WPA project was not the first government foray into poster production, however. WWI had also seen a great investment in advertising and public relations by federal agencies. As a result the evolution of poster design between the wars is a useful index of how American graphic design was changing. In the examples shown here, one can see both a traditional poster and an example more influenced by modernism, both from WWI. Notice in the example from 1917 that the illustration is very traditional, the type dominates the image on the page, and the image itself is fairly staid. The example from 1918 is a much more sophisticated design. Note that the lines are much more expressionistic, the woman's head pointing dynamically left as though to suggest motion. The soldiers in the background are a cubist collection of lines and matte colors, and the typography is much more integrated into the image. Americans quickly learned from the Europeans that a dominating central image and integrated typography were key features of professional work.

Two decades later, the most noticeable change is the use of color -- bright yellow, blue, and red -- all primaries. This is a very American signature. The elegant subject with patrician features has grown more comfortable in improbable clothes. Whereas the debutante in her soldier's outfit looked truly ridiculous, the woman from the WWII era looks like she might actually be at home in a factory, even in her heavy make-up. One can easily see from these examples how American designers and illustrators had come into their own by the second World War. European notions of refinement and of line had both been dropped in favor of a colorful, dynamic, and fully Americanized modernist sensibility. By the late 1930s, American design fully integrated the class image into its working-class audience, dissociating beauty and virtue from social position and sustaining the notion that vitality, grace, and respect are secured through careful product selections and social choices.

Bibliography