Posters are a relatively new phenomenon that started in the late 19th century. Mass production made it possible to create posters cheaply for commercial and artistic purposes. Eventually they have become a staple in our everyday lives after only a few decades.
We’ve gathered a few successful posters that we consider are some of the greatest ever. What goes into the decision for making the list? Impact, creativity, innovation and lasting appeal on viewers. If you want to learn more about designing a great poster, please check out our blog and if you want to learn how to find a designer, click here. We know we’re probably missing some good ones so feel free to leave a comment at the bottom with some of your favorite posters.
Most Successful Posters in History
Towards the end of the 19th Century posters began to look like what we know them as today. They were small enough to hang on the street and not too large to hang on your wall at home. Artists started to see industrialization and mass production as a way to distribute their art to the masses and get noticed as well for their commercial work. Artists like Alphonse Mucha used this relatively new medium to sell luxury goods like make-up and liquors as well as to leave his imprint on the art world in the relatively new medium. He created a genre of successful posters that mixed fine art and advertising that is still highly regarded today.
The Works Projects Administration of the 1930’s was tasked to get americans back to work after the great depression. One of the goals was to get artists working again and get more americans stimulating the economy by visiting and creating more interest for the national parks. As a result a series of amazing futurism posters were created that got the tourism industry kickstarted again in the US. To see the full series, follow this link.
NASA revisits the WPA posters
If you liked the WPA posters from the 1930’s, in 2014, NASA released a series of themed posters. The original WPA posters in mind to get the public interested again in space travel. They might not get you to visit Mars or Europa but the spirit of the original WPA posters lives on.
If you spent any time in a classroom or in an office in the 90’s. You’ve probably come across a few posters of sunrises or mountaintops with simple black borders and a concise motivational message underneath. These successful posters were everywhere for most of the decade and still have a lasting effect on people today. The posters were attributed to the company Successories. Founder Mac Anderson says that during the peak they were shipping over 2,000 posters per week to customers.
The term “pin-up” poster started in the 1940’s. This type of poster is documented back to the 1890’s when burlesque performers would advertise themselves to customers. The pin-up poster that comes to mind wasn’t as popular until WWII and was usually in a magazine or newspaper that could be cut out. The images also appeared in calendars and continued to be part of popular culture until the 1970’s.
What list of great posters wouldn’t be complete without a movie poster or two? Maybe it’s the bias of growing up with this poster but every time we look at this, it has something to teach us; that simplicity can still be very powerful. This movie was groundbreaking for its special effects so the easy choice would have been to put a CGI dinosaur on the poster and scare kids but Universal Pictures chose to take the difficult route and create something simple and lasting for viewers. The image of the t-rex fossil in profile with the simple black background has a lasting effect recognized by people who have and haven’t seen the movie alike. Can you guess what other movie poster made our list?
Da Dum! Da Dum! The highly successful poster from the 1975 film is the second movie poster on our list. This simple design is a master lesson in visual storytelling that has been copied and honored in the years since release. The poster tells the story of the film in just one look; a person innocently swimming in the water and a huge shark coming right for them. What also makes this poster is the composition; there is simplicity here that draws the eye right to the middle of the frame, which is the nose of the shark going directly for the swimmer. The poster is a great example of how something so simple can affect audiences and the lasting effect it can have in popular culture.
Lord Kitchener wants you
This powerful poster was distributed originally in 1914 to get young men in Great Britain to sign up for the war. The year it was introduced is important because before 1916, there was no draft in Britain. Lord Kitchener was one of the most decorated military officers of Great Britain. At the time and the poster had a way to connect with young men where immediately after the poster was published, Britain saw its highest number of volunteers. This image still lives in popular culture in Britain and has spawned similar posters around the world.
The blacklight poster
Not this poster specifically, but the blacklight poster of the 1960’s and 70’s. Blacklight posters make our list because they were such a part of the hippy and psychedelic culture of the late 60’s and early 70’s.
Keep calm and carry on
Unknown to most, this successful poster was created during WWII in the UK. To keep civilian morale up during the devastating German bombing of London. Though more than two million copies were produced during the war, this poster was rarely distributed to the public. And almost completely forgotten if it hadn’t ended up resurfacing at a bookstore in the year 2000. The owners of the store framed and hung it up. It attracted so much attention that people copied and distributed them enough to become a major part of popular culture in the recent years.
Hang in there
Believe it or not but in the 1970’s a poster of a cat hanging onto a beam with a motivational message became wildly popular. This image spawned from photographer Victor Baldwin’s passion for animal photography. In 1970, the image was published in his book “The Outcast Kitten”. Fans of his work requested copies of the print. He decided to sell the image as a poster. And sold about 350,000 copies, making it one of the emblematic successful posters of the 1970’s.
Rosie the riveter
As American men were leaving home to go abroad and fight, the American War Council needed a message to get women to join in the fight. Rosie the Riveter was part of the campaign that got more women into the workforce and specifically into factory jobs to support the effort. Most of the campaign appealed to people’s sense of patriotism and that if more women were working in factories, it meant that they were playing an active role in ending the war as soon as possible. Today this is still one of the most recognizable images and successful posters in the United States.
Uncle Sam wants you
For americans, this is the image that probably comes to mind when thinking of historical posters. Not many people know that this design was actually modeled after the Lord Kitchener poster mentioned before. While Kitchener was a real person people recognized. Uncle Sam was a blend of fiction with the businessman Samuel Wilson, who lived during the War of 1812. The successful poster was originally created in 1916 to get more recruits for the war. And was so popular that it continued being used in WWII and is still a part of american culture today. The artist, Alfred Leete was a famous cartoonist. Who was known for his ability to connect with the public through simplicity.
Those are just 13 of the posters we think are the greatest in history. A few things that they have in common are their creativity, lasting appeal. And also the ability to get their message across to the viewer. We’re sure that we are missing some good ones from over the year. So please leave us a comment with a link to your favorite poster.