Why Soviet Union safety posters look the way they do

Why Soviet Union safety posters look the way they do

Big. Bold. Yellow. Red. Gigantic fonts. These are undoubtedly words that come to mind when you think about vintage Soviet Union posters. One quick look around the poster section on our website will prove you right: the beautiful, detailed drawings and impressive fonts of educational, propaganda, and work safety posters alike are quite remarkable. But why do these pieces of art look the way they do?

Striking imagery to prevent workplace accidents

The safety standards in the work environment were incredibly poor at the beginning of the 20th century. During the rise of industrialization, this was especially the case in Russia, where eleven-hour workdays were considered normal, and safety precautions were almost non-existent. Additionally, many laborers were still illiterate, this only changed after Lenin introduced multiple pro-literacy campaigns in the 1920s.

Because the government wanted to improve the working conditions as well as the literacy, multiple designers were put to work to create “Safety Posters” for the factory and land workers in the Soviet Union. The artwork needed to be clear, bold, and instructive because these posters were designed with a specific goal in mind: to educate the (sometimes still illiterate) workers on how to properly operate at work, so they would not hurt themselves and others, and therefore, the factory. Most of these posters had something in common: they were made to catch and hold your attention.

Right / Dangerous

Right vs. Dangerous poster from our collection. Notice how the design shows a clear division between right and wrong, immediately educating the viewer on the subject at hand. How handy!

Attention-grabbing horror

Attention-grabbing was one thing, but providing information was the actual goal of the posters. An older study done by Schultz and McFarland in 1935 highlights important aspects of independent studies done in the 1920s and 1930s. Schultz and McFarland explain that the poster designers in the earlier years of the Soviet Union thought that using shocking imagery was the perfect way to get their safety message across. The artist would use blood, horrible wounds, and explosions to explain to workers that if they used the machinery wrong, accidents could happen.

Work safety poster depicting an explosion

Work safety poster about a cluttered workplace leading to injury

Above: two rather graphic posters from our inventory, on top – depicting an explosion and just below – showing a horrible accident.

According to Schultz and McFarland, one study showed that the horrifying art did an excellent job of educating workers, but another study concluded that it was simple, informative posters that were the most effective. Lastly, there was a study done that had surprising results: researchers found that younger people paid more attention to the shocking posters, but older and more experienced workers preferred the plain pieces because they provided information that helped them improve their work.

Express yourself while educating others

The bright, flashy colors of USSR posters from the 1920s until the 1980s are meant to show optimism, as well as idealism in the places most important in the Soviet Union. However, the posters are also useful for something else. During the Soviet era, artists weren't always free to express themselves in any way they wanted, so these beautiful posters were a way for them to put new art styles and skills to the test. All be it in a sanitized, one-sided version of the reality the artists experienced.

Wait, there is more... 

For further reading on Soviet Propaganda graphics, check out this article about propaganda posters on Wallpaper.com, opens in a new windowFor awesome examples of gruesome workplace safety posters, go to this page on the SHP, Health and Safety Practitioner website about posters, opens in a new window.

Our website is home to many more of these stunning work safety posters, as well as movie posters, public health posters, and propaganda posters. Oh, and did we mention the medical posters?! Do look around if you are interested to see more of these works of art. 

The article was written by Julia Christiaanse

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We love old posters and little items from forgotten times. Or think about a children's book from fifty or sixty years ago. It's fun to look at and to imagine what people were doing and thinking back then.

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