The inclusion of the graphic posters of James Victore in Watching Hands acknowledges the contemporary blurring of distinctions between fine art and design. His participation is a nod to the importance of good design in public health communications, and a challenge to public health communicators to consider how effective, cutting-edge graphics can be used to message to the general public.
Health posters have been around since the early 20th century. Technological advances in the late 19th century led to the production of posters, films, brochures, and exhibits for widespread distribution. Taking a cue from the world of commercial advertising in the early 20th century, social activists began to develop coordinated mass media campaigns in order to tackle pressing public health issues of the day, such as tuberculosis and venereal diseases. Early on, the organizers of these campaigns learned the power of using visual images combined with language, storytelling, and an array of communication techniques to encourage, cajole, entertain, scare, and annoy their audiences in order to influence their behavior. As the decades advanced, the public health campaigns of the 1930s and 1940s became increasingly sophisticated— drawing upon the most talented designers and communicators of the times. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was another renaissance of the public health poster as design responded to the urgency of the AIDS epidemic.
A self-declared independent designer based in New York, Victore considers poster making his “preferred tool.” He believes that the poster is the “simplest, bluntest format in which to work (not to mention that it’s often the biggest)—like a large spiked club.” Over the years, Victore has produced work for important causes, including AIDS and human rights, as well as created graphics for commercial clients—including a memorable TIME Magazine cover in 2008. His studio practice is distinctive: in this era of computer-generated graphics, a Victore design always reflects the hand of the artist (although his graphics, by definition, are ultimately computer-generated). In other words, his work is always personal. In a world saturated with visual culture, his work stands out precisely because it is so direct and visceral.
For Watching Hands, Victore accepted our challenge to design a series of four posters, which have been produced on a dramatic five feet high scale. Somewhat secondary to the visual images, the text on each poster declares “Washing Hands: The single most important means of preventing the spread of infection.” Each poster features a hand of an adult man, an adult woman, an old person, or an infant, overlaid with bubble images of various pathogens that can be transmitted by not washing one’s hand, such as influenza and E. coli. Harking back to an era when health posters often incited anxiety, the posters are motivating because they tell you exactly what the consequences of not washing your hands may be. Lastly, in a serendipitous moment and in the midst of designing the poster, one of his studio team members actually contracted Salmonella from handling raw chicken—reinforcing why we must all adopt healthy habits!