Atelier Populaire

1968 Paris Protests

My favourite of the posters created for the 1968 Paris Protests

In May of 1968, Paris, and France at large, underwent a period of strife where the working population and the idealistic students stood up against President Charles De Gaulle’s suppression of civil and working rights in the country. Many types of protest were held — occupations of public and private buildings; riots; and — what we’ll be looking at, posters. These posters were created by a group known as Atelier Populaire founded by students from the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts, a fine art school in Paris. The students wanted their message to be clear, accessible, and cheap — this gave birth to their distinctive single-colour style which was produced in great speed and number by their ‘home made’ screen printing process.

Unlike most political campaign posters — if you don’t mind me calling them that — they were not necessarily trying to convince anyone to a certain point of view, they were much more about communicating how they felt as a group, how they were oppressed, and how they were upset with the way of things. It was another form of protest against the government that they had grown to resent. These posters are the embodiment of expression in graphic design — pouring out their hearts into their work to show who they are and what they want from the world. They did not do this because they liked Corby’s beard, or hated Theresa May’s laugh, they did this because they found fault with the current political system and decided that there had to be change. They weren’t hired by a Spin Doctor to increase voting percentages in the youth, or paid by an advertising company to get a message out there; they did it because they believed an injustice was being done that they had to mend.

A veriety of posters pinned up in one of the printing rooms

What is the purpose of a Graphic Designer? Is it to influence, to express an opinion — even if it’s someone else’s? Or is it to pick the right colour of purple to entice the greedy to buy that deliberately placed bar of chocolate? The Atelier Populaire knew what they wanted to do, and they did it. Some of their work isn’t every good — some of it is awful — but some of it is truly remarkable and astounding. A French police officer, looming over you — ready to beat you into submission with the lightning bolts of “SS” inscribed on his shield. SS being the abbreviation of the Nazi Schutzstaffel. The ‘Stormtroopers’ (as the word translates — George Lucas, I see what you did) are a symbol of oppression and the very worst parts of history. To force such attributes onto a person whose job it is to protect a population is incredibly telling to how the French people must have felt that history was repeating itself.

I had never heard of the Atelier Populaire, or indeed had any knowledge of the events of Paris in 1968, however I’m certain that I will be bringing this up in many conversations and debates over the coming years — with designers and not, alike. Atelier Populaire have shown that Graphic Design does not need to be complex to be attractive, or attractive to be effective, just that the right message at the right time can literally change the world as we know it. Milton Glasser could be credited from saving New York from going the same way as Detroit; Whoever designed the ‘Brexit Bus’ livery could be credited with ending the world as we know it — we’ll just have to wait and find out on that one; but Atelier Populaire can certainly take credit for having a tremendous impact on the evolution of Graphic Design, and on French culture and politics.