The art of Abram Games
This April, a new blue plaque from English Heritage went up outside a house in Golders Green in North London. It is only the second blue plaque given to a graphic designer, marking the home and design studio of Abram Games, the only person to hold the title of ‘Official War Poster Artist’ during the Second World War.
While he may be graphic design royalty, you’d be forgiven for not being familiar with his name – although the chances are you will recognise his designs. From the ‘blonde bombshell’ displayed on the recruitment poster for the Auxiliary Territorial Service in 1941 to the famous red ‘G is for Guinness’ ad he created in 1956, his work is characterised by bold colours, simple messages, and a modernity that still inﬂuences communications today.
Indeed, like all communications professionals, his business was in changing behaviours, whether that was promoting the hygiene of soldiers – many of whom had come from working class backgrounds and had never owned a toothbrush, let alone used one – or demanding their silence to keep the secrets of D-Day.
This year, the National Army Museum has chosen to display more than 100 of his posters in a new exhibition called The Art of Persuasion. The museum has gone through a transformation in recent years, moving from its traditional chronological display (which spiralled upwards until the museum finally ran out of space) to grouping its exhibits into five themes: soldier, army, battle, insight and society.
The point of ‘society’, according to curator Emma Mawdsley, is to show that ‘everyone has a connection to the army, whether they wear a cardigan (named after the Earl of Cardigan who led the Charge of the Light Brigade) or a balaclava (named for the Battle of Balaclava itself) or even have just watched Blackadder. It has a relevance for each of us.’
‘Through our collections we preserve and share stories of ordinary people with extraordinary responsibilities,’ says the National Army Museum’s website.
Games is one such person. He was born in Whitechapel, the son of two Jewish immigrants and his school report, on display in the exhibition, shows that his drawing was considered ‘weak’ and his handwriting abominable. His teachers called him lazy, and later he would be fired from his job as his employers told him he should be more ‘humble’. His reply? ‘I am humble before God.’
Games was skilled at making two meanings become three
He had already created posters for the London County Council, and had come second in a competition for the Health Council, by the time he joined the army in 1939. He transferred into the War Office Public Relations Directorate, at the behest of his commanding officer’s wife. He did not leave until he was demobbed in 1946, despite repeated attempts to return to the infantry to do his bit for his country. Such was the strength of his talent in creating mass communications, it was felt that Games had become an indispensable part of the public relations office, and his time would be better served there.
But what made Games so effective at communicating key messages? He was a staunch advocate of simplicity. Even in later life, his daughter Naomi says he tested all his work on his children, asking them what they thought the message of a particular campaign was. If they didn’t get it, he would start again. He recognised that for the message to truly get across, it had to be simple enough to be understood by a child.
He summed up his ethos with the phrase Maximum meaning, minimum means. This was partly necessitated by the war, as rationing meant that posters often had to be smaller, and metallic inks were rationed. He got around this by using an airbrush – such was his dexterity with this tool that he would also use it to personal cheques – making his colours brighter and bolder than many of the more muted designs of the time. He also made sure that his posters would work in miniature before making them full-size, saying if they ‘don’t work an inch high, they will never work’.
Games was especially skilled at conveying meaning through images. As evidenced by his school report, his handwriting was not his strength, and he hated lettering on posters, which meant that he minimised the wording where he could.
But in all of Games’ work, the image is enough. One such poster, featuring the coffin of a child whose face can be clearly seen pointing down to a grenade, was so impactful that soldiers would tear it down from the walls of their barracks because it reminded them too much of the black and white pictures of their own children that they carried with them. The message was unmistakable: don’t leave your ‘blinds’ lying around. [A blind is a type of grenade.]
‘Games was skilled at making two meanings become three,’ says Malcom Clarke, in-house graphic designer at the National Army Museum, who, together with Mawdsley, put together the exhibition in just three months.
Clarke created bespoke RBG (red, blue, green) wallpaper, where changing coloured lights single-out and illuminate the various meanings of each poster. He also created the main graphic for the exhibition, featuring the red arrows that appear so often in Games’ work, with a single blue arrow pointing the opposite way to demonstrate how the designer stood out from the crowd.
It is the striking drama of his designs that set him, and his posters, apart. Games believed that posters should brighten up barracks, the walls of which were painted a delightful brown, and was thus ahead of his time. When Naomi Games took some of her father’s designs to Transport for London (who had previously hired him to create the swan at Stockwell tube station), they felt they were still too modern to be used.
But whatever anyone thought of his modernity, what it all came down to is his understanding of people. The ‘Blonde Bombshell’ poster created for the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), for instance, was discussed in Parliament amid claims by Conservative MP Thelma Cazalet-Keir that it was ‘not the kind of poster to encourage mothers to send their girls into the Army’.
ATS director Jean Knox likened it to a lipstick advert, and Games had to make two more iterations of the poster (the second was deemed ‘too Soviet’; the third too ‘English rose’).
But the poster worked. A photo from Games’ own scrapbook shows young women queuing around the corner to sign up to the ATS, which had previously been seen as dowdy and not as stylish as, say, the RAF. Mawdsley admits her mother was persuaded by the image of the beautiful, stylish woman to join the ATS at 17. Games clearly knew his audience.
This is most important. The exhibition has icons under every poster, noting whether it was aimed at civilians or soldiers, because Games would have been intensely aware of his audience. The child’s coffin poster, for instance, would never have been shown to the public; for soldiers, it helped the message hit home.
The Army is still aware of how important its audience is today. Mawdsley points to the similarities between the ATS poster and the British Army’s latest poster campaign, which addressed young people by their stereotypes as Snowﬂakes, Selﬁe addicts and Me me me millennials, only to turn it on its head and list the positive attributes that they could bring to the ranks.
Games chose to offer just one idea to his corporate clients in the years after the war, and declined to work with them if it was rejected
The posters were largely criticised on social media for being ‘insulting’ but applications to join the Army rose to a five-year high in the following months. Around 9,700 applications were received in the first few weeks of the year, nearly double that of the same period the year before. Clearly, like Games, the Army cared less about being divisive because, when it came to it, it understood who it was talking to.
What other lessons can we learn from Games today? If simplicity is one, be bolder is undoubtedly another. After suffering the many demands of the War Office, Games chose to offer just one idea to his corporate clients in the years after the war, and declined to work with them if it was rejected.
Another poster he created for the war effort, which showed the Finsbury Health Centre (a prototype for the NHS) as something worth fighting for, lest the alternative be a poor boy with rickets standing in the ruins behind it, was so intensely disliked by Winston Churchill that he demanded it be taken down for showing a false image of the country. Rickets was called the ‘English disease’ by most of Europe however, and these posters were, on the whole, incredibly effective.
‘The work of Abram Games as a graphic designer and British soldier in support of the causes of freedom and social justice during the Second World War is remarkable and inspiring, and we are proud to be showing the full body of his work as the Army’s poster designer,’ said Justin Maciejewski, director of the National Army Museum.