Health and safety posters

When it comes to health and safety messages, effective graphic communication can save lives. Since the beginning of the 20th century, campaign groups and governments have used posters as a tool of mass public communication to draw attention to messages designed to protect individuals, and the population at large, from disease and injury.

Posters in the V&A collection illustrate how the issues and understanding of public health and welfare have changed over time, as well as the different graphic strategies that have been used to educate, coax, and sometimes scare people into changing their behaviour. Although broadly conceived in the public interest, health and safety posters have frequently proved controversial. They have been criticised for intruding coercively into our personal lives and for acting as sticking plasters over underlying problems. Sometimes their imagery has reinforced the moral panics and social prejudices of the day. In other cases, poster campaigns have consciously pushed social boundaries and prevented deaths.

Background image: Ignorance = Fear, Silence = Death, screen print poster, by Keith Haring, 1989, USA. Museum no. E.82-1996. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London