The Art of the New Deal

Rediscovered WPA posters pack a potent visual punch

| September-October 2008

Imagine if you took today’s best graphic designers and set them to work producing not advertisements or marketing brochures, but propaganda to promote American values. Starting in the mid-1930s, during the Great Depression, that’s precisely what happened when the federal government tapped the nation’s unemployed commercial artists for the Works Progress Administration poster division. Working out of nearly 20 regional workshops, they designed posters to promote safety, good health, community involvement, and other social values. Workplace safety never looked so good.

Of more than 35,000 poster designs, only a couple thousand have survived, and nearly 500 of them are reproduced in a new book, Posters for the People (Quirk Books, 2008), edited by Ennis Carter. While many of these posters are in the Library of Congress archives, Carter unearthed more than 100 additional images from private collections and regional public archives for the book. Even more images will go online this fall at Carter’s related project, the WPA Living Archive (, which will include all known poster images as well as photographs showcasing the inner workings of the poster division itself.

The posters include a dynamic range of visual styles and approaches. In the early years of the department, when the posters were painted and copied by hand, the aesthetics reflected the individual tastes of the designers. In 1935 Anthony Velonis, an artist trained at New York University’s College of Fine Arts, joined the division. He had been experimenting with silk screen processes, which until then had been used primarily for fabrics and signmaking. He introduced the technique to the poster division in one of the first and broadest artistic experiments with the medium.

More than any artistic vision, the screen print method (along with the period’s ink shortages) helped define the WPA poster aesthetic—one that has shaped virtually all subsequent graphic design. In screen printing, simple and bold graphic images translate better than intricate designs, and the colors are inked in successive layers. Thus, the graphic artists in the poster division honed a style of strong lines, carefully balanced compositions, and judicious placement of spot and secondary colors.

Carter, 42, was working as a young organizer for the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group in the late 1980s when she found herself, out of necessity, making her own posters for events and rallies. It was the age of Kinko’s, and Carter mastered the art of photocopy-style guerrilla poster-making. Along the way, she became captivated by the power of graphic design to communicate social messages and gradually shifted the focus of her work in that direction. In 1996 she founded Design for Social Impact, a low-cost graphic design agency for public interest organizations.

When she first discovered the WPA posters, “they just blew my mind,” Carter says. “There was so much parallel to what I was doing as an organizer, and what these WPA guys were doing. I fell in love with the style.”

Joyce Hardin
8/20/2008 6:43:08 PM

The art of the New Deal era included films. music and public art. I was a child and teen in this era and remember in awe the marvelous creative talents to which we were exposed in school and elsewhere.