Social Justice Posters

Also at the Oakland Museum with the Daniel Clowes exhibition is an exhibition of Social Justice posters. The exhibition itself kind of skips a lot of historical context. Since it’s about local history, I was able to fill in the gaps. But I’d still like a bit more context as to what the poster is about.

What I found really interesting though was the craft and aesthetics of these protest posters.* In the 1960s and 1970s, the posters designs and graphic styles were mandated by the limitations of cheap printing technology—no screening, two colors, hand-drawn type, etc. Despite the fact that the printing world has completely flipped now to where process-color printing is super cheap, heavy-coverage spot-color printing is expensive, and everyone has more fonts than they know what to do with; the style of what protest posters are supposed to look like hasn’t changed much.

*Surprise surprise, I geeked out on printing yet again

That silkscreen is still a cheap point of entry for making personal posters helps a lot with this.* But more and more people have access to computers and laser printers now. I’m surprised and disappointed that I didn’t see any toner-based posters. It doesn’t seem unrealistic to expect people to be printing these on a Fiery at FedEx Office now.

*As does the fact that merchandising on tshirts is still alive and kicking.

Though at the same time, I’m not so surprised. The ease of access to printing has resulted in people who have no idea how to design being able to print anything they want. Whereas the higher barriers of entry required to create non-process offset of silkscreen work mean that those posters still look better.

There’s also the fact that nowadays, people are more likely to publicize an event on the web* than through postering a city.** I get the sense that the posters of today are more likely to be art pieces for purchase to support a cause than for any large-scale distribution. And that digital printing using cheap toner-based printers is not making it into museums yet.

*It’s been a dozen years since I was in college. Do people even flyer on campus now?

**Something Mark Bradford has noted as he has discussed how his raw materials are disappearing.

But enough about digital. The exhibition does show a lot of good silkscreen and offset work. I especially liked the blue on blue Earth Day poster which shows how much an abstracted globe still reads as home. It’s also always fascinating how few lines and colors you actually need to define faces and emotion. And it’s somewhat sobering to see that a lot of the protest posters are decades old and still as relevant as ever.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

2 thoughts on “Social Justice Posters”

  1. Pingback: 1968 | n j w v

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