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Essay: Graphic Design’s Use in Advertising to Influence Opinions, Behaviors & Attitudes Since Mid 20th Century

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How has graphic design within advertising developed since the mid 20th century with its use to influence opinions, behaviours and attitudes explored through the use of imagery and provocative language and the exposure of the male and female form.

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The purpose of my dissertation is to identify the issues behind manipulative design within the advertising industry and how specific imagery or language is used in order to coax the target market into becoming engaged with the graphic. To develop an understanding of how this can be used both in a positive and negative way to both entice for purchase or to encourage for good. This study has explored some of the ways in which design can exert power by looking closely at examples of graphic design that have influence opinions and attitudes over the last fifty years.  

  According to theorists such as Sut Jhally we live in an increasingly image saturated world. Explored through a consumer culture, Jhally comments how "everyone in this culture knows a "diamond is forever". It is a meaning that is almost as "natural" as the link between roses and romantic love. However, diamonds (just like roses) did not always have this meaning. Before 1938 their value derived primarily from their worth as scarce stones … In 1938 the New York advertising agency of N. W. Ayers was hired to change public attitudes towards diamonds" (Jhally.S 1990 cited in Dines.G 2003 p.249)

   This study explores how every day we encounter different graphics, everywhere we turn there is something being advertised using the skills of graphic design to convey a message or promotion. The purpose of graphic design is to catch the attention of the wandering eye, to provide bold advertising in order for consumers to purchase what they've seen 5 hours earlier. "The alternative to good design is always bad design. There is no such thing as no design.' (Judge, A. Cited in Jordan, C.)

However this essay sets out to explore when the manipulation behind the bold imagery is taken too far. Graphic design can cause people to have different emotions, to think differently and it can even influence people's behavior and the way they act.

Lucienne Roberts curated a show exploring the concept of graphic design being used to save your life. This exhibition at London's wellcome collective consisted of around 200 items which revealed that graphic design can be persuasive and shocking. (Dawood, S. Online article)

  I want to be able to explore how the influence that graphic design has can be both successful and unsuccessful and how we can convey a message through what we design and the fine line between conveying what was intended.

   Some argue that each aspect of a graphic that is created is completely detrimental and has to be in complete harmony with itself in order for it to look like a complete body of work and to be a successful influence in society and culture. Arguably for a piece of graphic design to become poignant to people's opinions and attitudes towards its representative, it needs to have a level of consistency and it would need to have strong attributes regarding its typography, colour and imagery. Opposing opinions discourse the powerful effect of contradicting design elements and breaking of set design rules to create bold statement designs that stand out from the ordinary consistent design work. "I'm not interested in relationships of colour or form or anything else…I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on… The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them…And if you…are moved only by their colour relationships, then you miss the point!"  (Rothko, M. cited report of conversation with Rodman, S)

    Graphic design has the power to convey the ideas when words aren't capable of doing so. Graphic design within culture is able to open up conversation and is becoming more and more relevant the more years that go by. Businesses need better designs in order to stand out in such a saturated market. More people than ever are finding their feet in the business world, with startup companies and inventive ideas coming to head, each finding their identity through design, and it becoming the fundamental aspect of the business as most often than not, it's what consumers will see first and consistently judge a book by the cover. "It is no wonder design has become more important to business than ever before. It's a vehicle by which brands can express themselves across an increasingly complex ecosystem of spaces. It's a mind-set to solve complex business challenges. And it is the means by which companies build emotional connections and stay on the leading edge of change." (Birdsall, C. online article)

   Graphic design is one of the most powerful forms of communication, as shown through the consistent use of it in our every day. Even down to the way that rather than choosing to use words to communicate with friends, we opt to use images to communicate how we feel as it performs acts as a clearer form of interaction. This sets forward to whole premise of what graphic design and visual communication is founded from.

  This dissertation shows how it can be used as an influential tool within both society and culture and how it can infiltrate our world in subtle and complex ways. George Orwell and F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1984 and The Great Gatsby both allude to how images and certain motifs can cause people to feel or behave a certain way. I will be exploring further into different literature, I will also be researching how people can be so easily influenced by certain images and how that makes them feel. Propaganda is one of the key aspects through time, being the most recognizable as being used to manipulate or affect attitudes. I will explore the subtlety of influential design as well and how it doesn't always seem to be obvious how the design affects society. Guilt centered imagery and language was frequently used during the early 1900's to persuade men to volunteer and to serve within the armed forces, commonly using emotional blackmail.

    This topic is worth researching into because this method of changing peoples view points and opinions is so widely used across the world, and the power that design has is shocking. If you showed even a young child the outline of a famous logo, chances are they will quickly realise what that means. My interest is how and why have we become such a logo centric society.

   Different aspects of graphic design, from typography to colour, can be influential to the way that someone reads and views a piece of design. Colour is one of the key aspects within design because it can affect emotions, it can stir up anger, sadness or joy. Just by using an underlying red image you can cause someone to become really passionate about what you are portraying. Colour not only has influence on human behavior and emotion but also has the power to influence colours. Less desirable colours become more impactful when combined with interesting colours, creating an interesting effect on the deisgn. "…challenges frequently encountered by designers, is the disappointment of a colour combination that yields undesirable results. Occasionally a colour does not appear the way it was intended because of other colours that are present… designs where a less desirable colour was made to look more attractive through the selection of colours used in combination." (Best, J. 2017 p250.)

The Power of Design

Different forms of design have been become more influential over the last few hundred years. Throughout both world wars, propaganda posters were used to convince people to change their way of life and to become one of thousands fighting within the war. Lives were turned upside down due to this guilt – inducing imagery of countries who needed them. The power of this image that we all know and can picture, is that it manipulated you to feel needed, to feel that you were the one who would change the course of the war. Although this is one example, there are many more that highlight the power of design. Design has and will continue to be all around us. It isn't something you can really escape, which as a designer is a huge benefit, with the fact that your work will be seen by many, yet as a consumer within the world, you might want the chance to escape front the branding and the exploitation of your desires. Your place within the war was significant and that you had a huge role to play. Pride was one of the nerves struck through this poster by the inclusion of children and your role as father and of one in the war. Whilst the son plays with toys that depict the war the father contemplates his role, just as this poster would have made every man who walked past it. (see fig 1)  Propaganda has the power to control and manipulate through using such imagery that is personal to the viewer. Within the context of this poster's release most men lead similar lives to the man represented with the imagery. 21st century propaganda is trickier to direct as men and women are become all individually different, so a generalised association of what a man/woman does or looks like becomes an offensive statement rather than an opinion changing voice. With the recent change of sociological standpoint on gender, propaganda has taken to changing how women are perceived within its context. However, men, tools of violence and bright colours continue to be the theme within even recent propaganda posters. "rational propaganda in favour of action that is consonant with the enlightened self-interest of those who make it and those to whom it is addressed…and non-rational propaganda that is not consonant with anybody's enlightened self-interest, but is dictated by, and appeals to, passion…avoids logical argument and seeks to influence its victims by the mere repetition of catchwords

…by the furious denunciation of foreign or domestic scapegoats…and by cunningly associating the lowest passions with the highest ideals, so that atrocities come to be perpetrated in the name of God and the most cynical kind of Realpolitik is treated as a matter of religious principle and patriotic duty." (Huxley, A. 1958 cited Lichfield, G. 2017 online article)

  Propaganda causes eyes to be caught, brains to start whirring and acts on the behalf of the outrageous. Communicating from powers that be, to make the system fall back into place. A modern day equivalent to what we picture propaganda posters of the 1920's to be is fake news. "Fake news is a big thing in the field of Social Media Journalism. Fake news can be as simple has spreading misinformation or as dangerous as smearing hateful propaganda." (Moreira, F. 2017) Modern propaganda now conforms to the new 'social media' world that we've fallen into. It doesn't appear as obviously as multiple plastered posters down the street, but it is something we see on a day to day basis through the time we spend online, billboards we drive by, in our supermarkets, on packaging. Something that used to be one small aspect of lives has now started to take over everything we see.

"What's changed since then is, of course, the internet, and the many new ways it creates for falsehoods to reach us. The power of populism today lies in its ability to combine 20th-century propaganda techniques with 21st-century technology, putting propaganda on steroids." (Lichfield, G. 2017. Online article.)

   Throughout an hour of watching a television show, you can be bombarded with up to 12 different products, if not more. Advertisements have begun to showcase more than one product within the broadcast of one ad, or use other products to showcase their own. Even when we spend some time on the internet, we search for a specific product within amazon, and then stumble across the same product when interacting without social media. It's appears the Internet is in cahoots with itself to try and make consumers buy more. This imagery that pops up, holding this product in high regard like a shiny new thing is the way we get reeled in. Most of the time we already know what the product is, because we've already tried to find the best deal for it, however when it is put within a well-designed image, we can't seem to resist. It makes the product much more appealing, and makes you want to buy it all the more. These 'God' like companies collect all our data, we hand it over on a silver platter and then become surprised when an unrelated site displays what we were just googling.

Male and female form

Within advertising the male and female forms are used in two very different ways. Berger dedicates a whole chapter in 'ways of seeing' to the stark truth of how the male and female form are used. Publicity and advertising images surround us, "all of us see hundreds of publicity images every day of our lives" (Berger, J. 1972. P123) At the time of the original publication of "The ways of seeing" it might have seemed that these issues would phase out over the next few decades. However, as much as society hates to admit, these issues are still as ripe in 2018 as they were in 1972, we're just much better at disguising it. The female form is consistently used to sell products, although the male form is used to equally sell products. Female forms continue to become an envy point for women "The spectator-buyer is meant to envy herself as she will become if she buys the product. She is meant to imagine herself, transformed by the product into an object of envy for others, an envy which will then justify her loving herself." (Berger, J.  1972. P128.) This leads to the discussion of glamour and how it is used to sell things alongside the female form. The notion of "Glamour is a modern invention. In its heyday of the oil painting it did not exist. Ideas of grace, elegance, authority amounted to something apparently similar but fundamentally different." (Berger, J.  1972. P140.) Berger speaks about grace and elegance and how it appears to be something to be strived after by society, mainly women. Oil painting being the equivalent of today's billboards photos was used as advertising, yet strayed away from using women and male forms in the sexualised way we see today. In the days of oil painting, the things that were strived for were more like wealth and talent rather than grace, elegance and more recently figure and beauty. "Mrs Siddons… is not glamorous, because she is not presented as enviable and therefore happy. She may be seen as wealthy, beautiful, talented, lucky. But her qualities are her own and have been recognised as such. What she is does not entirely depend upon others wanting to be like her. She is not purely the create of others' envy. " (Berger, J. 1972 p141) Berger raises the question here that the purpose of using the female form in today's advertising is to cause people to be envious of the product involved. When there's something involved with the publicity that you could acquire yourself, it all changes to becoming envious of the woman, rather than with "Mrs Siddons" where you aren't able to acquire what she has as it all belongs to her being and her own mind, so removes the need for envy. Berger sums this up clearly "Glamour cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion." (Berger, J. 1972 p142)

Commonly we see that the female form is used to endorse and sell where the male form is used to encourage and to enthuse adventure. In recent years these lines have begun to become blurred. The most common advertisement would be perfume adverts where the male and female form is used in a more sensual language to encourage the viewer to purchase the perfume, maybe in the chance that if they smell like the good looking celebrity, they'll look more like them. This is deception of advertising in the clearest sense. However the female and male form can also be used subtly within advertising but also graphic design. From type, layout, colour schemes and form these attributes have a tendency to seep through into design elements. As designers we have to carefully understand the ability to fall into the trap of using these effects for negative ways. They can be used positively. Designers aim to teach and to inform through their designs and the way that the male and female form still is being used for the same thing as it was 50 years ago should be bought more to light.



Dines, G. and Humez, J. (2003). Gender, race, and class in media.


Jordan, C. (2018). A Showcase of 100 Design Quotes To Ignite Your Inspiration – Learn. [online] Learn. Available at: https://www.canva.com/learn/design-quotes/ [Accessed 6 Mar. 2018]


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Dawood, S. (2017) Can Graphic Design Save Your Life? asks Wellcome Collection's new exhibition [online] Available at: https://www.designweek.co.uk/issues/28-august-3-september-2017/can-graphic-design-save-life-wellcome-collection-new-exhibition-healthcare/ [Accessed 27 Feb. 2018]


Best, J. (2017) Colour Design: Theories and applications


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Available at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/fabrizio_moreira_797988 [Accessed March 6, 2018]

HUXLEY, A. (1958)

cited Lichfield, G. (2017) 21st- century propaganda: A guide to interpreting and confronting the dark arts of persuasion. [online] Available at: https://qz.com/978548/introducing-our-obsession-with-propaganda/ [Accessed 3 Mar. 2018]


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(1914-1915)  Daddy, what did you in the Great War? The war office, British recruitment poster. British Library [online] Available at: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/daddy-what-did-you-do-in-great-war

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