Making change

“Graphic Advocacy” reaffirms the value of posters at Lamont Gallery

Posters are accessible and ubiquitous, more likely seen in a dorm room or alleyway than in an art gallery. But therein lies the potential. An image with wide appeal and mass distribution can make a big impact.

Or at least that’s the hope of socially conscious designers who feel compelled to help bring about awareness and change in the best way they know how.

More than 100 examples of effective socio-political posters are on view in “Graphic Advocacy: International Posters for the Digital Age 2001–2012” at Phillips Exeter Academy’s Lamont Gallery, through Feb. 27. It’s the third in a series of traveling exhibitions curated by Elizabeth Resnick, chair of the graphic design department at Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

In the digital age, posters are often created on a computer as well as distributed online, some never even materializing. The idea of a pixel-only poster seems contrary to its definition as an object, but a protest poster’s intent of mass communication is made easier by boundless technology. And, since many of the serious issues we’re confronting are on a global scale, it makes sense to use the Internet to spread encouraging messages across borders. So poster-making remains viable and popular, despite having long passed its golden age in history.

The digital age also makes it easier than ever to pay attention to conflicts and tragedies worldwide. “There is no excuse today for not becoming aware of the pressing issues facing our world; you choose either to ignore them or to do something to help,” says Michael Thompson, one of the featured designers in the show, in his statement.

The posters in “Graphic Advocacy” advocate for inclusive politics, social justice, and environmental protection. There are posters addressing economic disparity, civil rights and gender equality, free speech, human trafficking, global warming, and species extinction. Some show solidarity and encourage support after natural disasters, such as the devastating earthquakes in Haiti and Japan in recent years. Others are critical of events, such as oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico or the government’s lax response to Hurricane Katrina.

The passion and consideration behind these posters is overwhelmingly uplifting, despite the difficult topics covered. Many of the designers say they felt compelled to respond immediately and create spontaneously, without consideration of compensation. Some were sold and some won awards, but the motives seem sincere.

“So often, I feel powerless when something on this scale occurs, and it is now obvious how my skill can be of assistance,” wrote John Foster, of “The Hurricane Project Poster,” which raised funds for Red Cross. His painterly design stands out, with alligators circling in the floodwaters beneath someone on a roof. In small letters, there is the Kanye West quote, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

With a similar sentiment, Kwang-Su Kim, the artist of “Help Japan,” wrote, “I might not be able to help the victims directly with this poster, but I believe releasing it to the larger community may move public opinion and inspire international aid.”

It’s not unrealistic to think a poster could make real change. They can be very persuasive, like Shepard Fairey’s Obama “Hope” poster. They can even be manipulative, like the propaganda of notorious dictators. In this collection, the work is all of a progressive or peaceful mindset.

These posters give voices to those kept quiet or without words. They speak directly, efficiently, urgently, and irresistibly, so that the message is conveyed whether you’re strolling or scrolling. Communication is at the heart of graphic design, and these designers care about what they’re saying.

The function and relevance of the protest poster relies on immediacy, made more capable through technology, but the form can be timeless.

In response to the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, Giulia Spanghero painted “Bleeding H,” which depicts one hand rising up, exposing the broken heart of the nation, protected in the palm. The colors of Haiti’s flag are used symbolically, red for the pain and blue for hope.

“Our hands are the first to react to everything that happens, even before our reason. It is instinctive: When something tragic happens, our hands take the leading role,” Spanghero explains in his statement.

The artists in this exhibition are also activists, extending a hand, in their own way.

 “Graphic Advocacy” is on view at the Lamont Gallery, 11 Tan Lane, Exeter, through Feb. 27.