I love these GWR posters from the 30s and 40s.
The illustrations are beautiful, the type clean, clear and simple. They offer little snapshots of a bygone age when train travel was romantic and exciting – steam filled platforms with glamorous women melting into the arms of stoic men dressed in overcoats and trilbys.
Here’s the modern equivalent, taken from Penzance station earlier in the year:
I know that designers in the 1930s had fewer constraints than today. I know that there weren’t many other options than to travel by train so they were free to focus on selling the destinations by producing lovely illustrations. I understand that it was a simpler time with less competition, less restriction and less at stake.
Even so, did the current posters have to be quite so awful?
Firstly, there’s the floating pronoun. Who’s him? Because it’s the most prominent thing in the ad, I immediately assumed it was the fish – it took me a while before I noticed the silhouette of the boy.
Maybe I was being a little slow after a long train journey but that’s not the point. These posters are meant to be instant enough to leave you in no doubt what the message is, even when glimpsed momentarily from a moving train window. If you need to stand in front of the ad and re-read it over and over, it isn’t doing its job properly.
Here are some 1930s posters for the GWR services to Bristol:
Back then, the city was represented by the Clifton Suspension Bridge, ornate architecture and the grand entrance to the cathedral. In the 2012 ad, Bristol is represented by a big blue fish.
Why? Is the city underwater? Is the Giant Wrasse the national symbol of Somerset and Avon?
I don’t live there so I’m assuming that Bristol has an aquarium. As a train user and potential traveller to the city, I’m part of the ad’s target market – I shouldn’t have to assume anything.
Finally there’s the statement: ‘I’m just the guy who feeds the goldfish’. It’s a sad line, very poignant. I imagine it being said by a father who’s lost touch with his son. Perhaps he’s never there to play football with the boy because he’s working too many hours at the office in order to afford train fares.
But, if all you are to your son is the person who looks after the pet, if you’re less important to him than his goldfish, I’d suggest that there are some significant issues that need to be addressed – the sort of issues that can’t be solved by a simple day-trip to Bristol.
If the old GWR posters are evocative of the 1930s, I hate to think what the current ads say about us as a society in 2012. According to them, we’re muddled, vague and disconnected from the people around us.