Design Analysis: IBM Safety Poster

Published September 13, 2017

A few years ago, I stumbled across a series of reference manuals in my uncle’s (electronics /computer) workshop that had been published by IBM. These manuals (for BASIC, DOS and the like) were housed in small cloth-bound binders which were themselves housed in cloth-bound hard dust-cases.  On these outer cases was printed the IBM logo and various bits of information about the version of BASIC, DOS, etc. that it supported:

IBM Refence Manuals

http://www.vintage-computer.com/

What struck me most about these manuals was nothing to do with the (unbelievably dense) technical content, but the care that had obviously been put into their construction and visual design.  A far cry from the poorly formatted PDFs of Terms & Conditions / liability information to be found with nearly any physical or digital product today, these reference manuals were meant to accompany and be constant companion to whomever was using BASIC, DOS, etc.

So for the first assignment in our course on Visual Language, I chose to analyze the design of another piece of IBM design, an internal safety poster created by Ken White in 1969.

https://www.loc.gov/item/2015646138/

This poster was published internally at IBM along with several others created by Ken White in the late 1960’s, several of which are available on my very favorite government website: the photo gallery at the Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/search/?fa=contributor%3Awhite%2C+ken). Many of these early “motivational posters” were part of an internal campaign at IBM to promote innovative thinking: (https://www.cooperhewitt.org/2014/05/23/a-bright-idea/).  This particular poster is not about innovation, but a very simple and important message: Wear Safety Shoes.

This poster presents a black background with the IBM logo on the upper-left hand corner. Occupying the bottom half of the page is a photo of a plaster-cast foot on which is written, “Wear Safety Shoes.” I appreciate two things most of all about the poster: the fact that it mixes photography with graphic design, and the fact that the message of the poster is written on the cast rather than anywhere else on the poster.

This poster adheres strictly to the principles of design as set out in class – clarity, consistency and simplicity – in its clear and simple message (“Wear Safety Shoes”) and the fact that it fits within the larger aesthetic of these internal IBM posters specifically and IBM Corporation design generally.

Examples of other IBM Posters from 1960s-1970s.

Use of color, grid, and typography:

Color: Although the other posters in this series use color in interesting ways, I suspect the choice to leave this photo in black and white was dictated by the content: a white plaster cast.  Adding unnecessary color would be an indulgence and take away from the message.

Grid: The poster is sparse, with only two elements taking up space: the IBM logo far in the upper-left hand corner and the photo of the cast foot taking up the lower half of the image. The placement of the cast in relation to the poster as a whole would feel somewhat unbalanced were it not that it follows the story.  Because the foot is oriented sole-out, rather than in a standing position, we assume the owner of the foot is sitting – perhaps in a wheelchair – and holding their leg out.  The orientation and placement of the foot follows the story-line it is trying to tell: if you fail to wear safety shoes, you will end up injured.

Typography: There are two typefaces in the image. The IBM logo is cast in the “City” font as specified by Paul Rand who lead their design team to later adapt this logo into the more iconic striped logo (https://qz.com/461040/how-to-design-an-enduring-logo-lessons-from-ibm-and-paul-rand/). The second font is not a font at all, but a handwritten message on the cast in a neat non-cursive handwriting: “Wear Safety Shoes.” Because the photo of the cast is superimposed over the rest of the poster, it runs the risk of feeling very separate from the message of the poster. By putting the message of the poster directly on the cast, it brings the two elements (poster and photo) together nicely, rather than simply presenting the photo as an example of a workplace accident.  Also, by placing the message on the cast, it adds an element of humor to the otherwise pretty banal topic of workplace safety gear: we are imagining someone actually writing “wear safety shoes” on the cast of someone who has recently broken their foot in an industrial accident — an incredibly insensitive but nevertheless humorous thing to do.