During the 1930s, posters were the most prolific and effective forms of public marketing and communication, and it was a medium that graphic designer Tom Eckersley excelled at. His vivid, upbeat, and minimalist designs would lead many to credit him with creating a unique identity for graphic design as a professional form of communication; one that was very different from commercial art.
Eckersley was born in Lancashire, England in 1914 where he spent many childhood days drawing and reading. At the age of sixteen, he started attending Salford Art School where he quickly became one of the top students thanks to his natural artistic abilities. During his time at Salford, Eckersley became friends with fellow student Eric Lombers, and the two of them moved to London in 1934 to attempt a living as freelance poster designers.
According to Eckersley, the early thirties “made a strong and lasting impression” on him and helped shape his attitude towards graphic work. He remembers this period of his life as “that stimulating time when certain artists, supported by enlightened clients, saw opportunities to use their art and their vision to solve communication problems. They began to realize the many exciting visual possibilities that could be derived from the major art movements taking place in Europe between the wars.”
The duo of Eckersley and Lombers quickly became some of the most sought after artists, assembling a client list that included Shell, BBC, London Transport, and fashion retailer Austin Reed. Their designs often used a constant set of solid colors and simple shapes to convey an explicit message. Eckersley made sure his audience only saw exactly what they needed to see and nothing more; his posters were often pared down to just a few essential visual components along with minimal text that communicated maximum meaning.
When the Second World War erupted, Eckersley joined the Royal Air Force while Lombers joined the Army, ending their design partnership. But Eckersley continued to produce artwork while enlisted, and created some of his best-known work for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. These powerful posters encouraged industrial employees to “stack safely” and “think of the man below” with playful yet direct imagery.
Eckersley’s contributions to British poster design were officially recognized in 1948 with an Order of the British Empire appointment. By this time, his posters could be seen just about everywhere, and his ingeniously simple and often humorous style was instantly recognizable by the public. But the United Kingdom wasn’t the only place his works were praised; his influence had spread around the world and in 1950, he was elected member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale, the graphic design industry’s most elite club.
In 1954, Eckersley created the very first undergraduate graphic design course in the United Kingdom at the London College of Printing (now known as the London College of Communication). In just three short years, he became Head of Design at the College and held this position until 1977. While teaching at the college, Eckersley designed informative posters, for both students and staff, and also took on private clients like UNICEF and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
Working in his later years proved to be an interesting time for Eckersley. There’s at least one account where a high-profile client rejected a design claiming that “it was not Eckersley enough,” and academic types often asked him why he didn’t do any more work reminiscent of his early poster designs. Of course having already had a decorated career, he just shrugged it off and kept doing what felt right to him.
Tom Eckersley passed away in 1997 leaving behind a tremendously influential body of work leading many industry insiders to call him the originator of modern graphic design. His archive is under the care of his alma mater, the London College of Communication and still remains a relevant topic of study to this day.