Designs on Delivery
Design played a crucial role in promoting social progress and technological change across Britain between 1930 and 1960. The commercial poster reached cultural maturity during this period and became the most eloquent of the mass media. From the 1930s onwards the Post Office became a leader in the field of poster design, commissioning some of Britain's best artists and designers.
The development of Post Office design owes much to the appointment of Stephen Tallents as its first public relations officer in 1933. During the previous decade Tallents had worked at the Empire Marketing Board, which had been established in 1926 to promote trade between Britain and its Empire. After its closure in 1933, Tallents moved to the Post Office bringing with him experience of incorporating the techniques of commercial advertising into government service.
Publicity posters had been produced by the Post Office during the 1920s. Few in number, these tended to be designed by staff. Opportunities for advertising Post Office services in its public offices and other spaces were restricted from the early decade. In the post-war economic climate the financial possibilities had been recognised and an agreement with the UK Advertising Company prioritised the sale of space to commercial advertisers. The limitations of this agreement were addressed in 1931 when the Postmaster General, Clement Atlee, raised the subject with Tallents.
When Tallents moved to the Post Office he brought with him a method of working that had been established at the Empire Marketing Board. Leading figures in design and communications from other businesses were involved in a consultative capacity. A Poster Advisory Group composed of key people in the arts and business led the commissioning process. Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery, chaired the group which included Jack Beddington, publicity director of Shell-Mex and BP Ltd. Bloomsbury writer and critic Clive Bell was also involved. The Empire Film Unit had also moved to the Post Office and John Grierson, of what was by then the GPO Film Unit, also attended.
When the Poster Advisory Group first met in May 1934, posters were being defined by their objectives. Educational posters fell into the "prestige" category. These were sometimes intended as self-publicity or at creating goodwill among its publics. Posters advertising products and services were listed as "selling" posters, which also included posters providing the public with information about the correct use of services. In 1935 Tallents also suggested a wider objective, writing that the rich store of Post Office raw publicity material could make a contribution to the "picture of Britain".