Top five: 20th century British poster designs

For masters of visual communication, the poster is the ultimate test: You only get one shot. In a single still image, the very best in the business of poster design can prompt action and provoke reaction; weave visual stories, create tension, and show the passage of time.

Through fast, functional visual storytelling, it's an artform at which we Brits have excelled. The great archive of great British posters gives a unique perspective on our history. And today, in our digital and increasingly visual world, the ability to communicate with the clarity of a poster has never been more useful.

So, in praise of this very British visual medium, our Art Assistant, Pearl Law, selects her top poster designs of the 20th century.


"Keep Britain Tidy" by Hans Unger

Scriberia Top 20th Century British Poster Designs Hans Unger Keep Britain Tidy

This very British poster was, in fact, designed by a German painter. This classic, by Hans Unger, was part of a campaign led by the Women's Institute in response to mounting piles of litter in the mid-1950s, caused by new-fangled plastic packaging.

The design suggests an all-seeing figure, jabbing a giant finger of scorn at someone caught in the act of littering; its authority, firmly rendered in heavy brush strokes. Delivered in a distinctively utilitarian style, the poster was perhaps inspired by Unger's time in Germany's 1930s art scene.


"Would you be more careful if it was you that got pregnant?" by Alan Brooking

Scriberia Top 20th Century British Poster Designs Alan Brooking Pregnant

In the 1960s, when the public discussion of contraception was still taboo, this Saatchi poster tore up the rulebook. And by deploying these shock tactics, they opened the door to conversation around the important issue of unwanted pregnancy. It's iconic, memorable and responsible for genuine social change. Job done.


"Be First Not Last. Travel Early Shop Early Post Early" by Tom Eckersley

Scriberia Top 20th Century British Poster Designs Eckersley Post Early

Who said poster design can't make you laugh? I'm a sucker for witty design and that's exactly what attracted my eye to Tom Eckersley's 1951 poster for the General Post Office. With the help of a visual pun that makes me laugh every time I see it, it's fun and functional. 


"Face on-coming traffic" by Leonard Cusden

Scriberia Top 20th Century British Poster Designs Leonard Cusden Face On-coming Traffic

From crossing the road to working the railways, every conceivable danger was accounted for with with a public service poster campaign in post-War Britain. I particularly like Leonard Cusden's series of posters for the British Railway in the 1940s, which have an almost cinematic quality. A limited colour palette and use of gradient are very much of their era, and create an effect of drama and intrigue. The composition, too, cleverly creates tension - forcing the audience to imagine for a second, how different things would be if the railwayman had been on the other track. 


"Hue and Cry" by Edward Bawden

Scriberia Top 20th Century British Poster Designs Hue and Cry Edward Bawden

I had to include a poster from one of my favourite British illustrators of the 20th century, Edward Bawden. The film poster for the 1947 Ealing Studios comedy satire, 'Hue & Cry', is trademark Bawden. The pared back palette, the ingenious simplicity of the characters, blocked in black and white. And the sparse styling leaves room for complexity in the storytelling - at first glance looks like a parade scene, brimming with joy. But look a little closer, you'll find violence erupting stage right.