Education: Heritage Discovery Center

Johnstown Area Heritage Association

Building a better warning

One big challenge in having many immigrants on the job is communication. The members of a work team could speak five or six different languages!

You've seen some of the dangers lurking in the mines and mills. How could foremen warn workers of important safety rules if they didn't speak the same language? Cambria Iron and Steel solved this problem by posting this sign:

Safety sign in three languages

What's wrong with this picture?

Discuss the warning sign

  • How many languages does the warning sign use?
  • Read the warning out loud in English. What danger is it warning about? How easy is it to understand in English?
  • Why was this safety warning important?
  • How well did this sign work, do you think? Why? HINT: Think about the census lists you studied before visiting the museum.
  • What were some of the questions the census taker asked that would give us a clue about whether this sign did its job?
  • How many were not able to read? If some men could not read, how did they find out about this rule?

What makes a good poster

  • What is the goal of a poster?
  • Where are posters usually displayed?
  • What are poster viewers doing besides reading posters?
  • What is wrong about just typing up a message in large font and hanging it up, like the coal company did with its list of rules?

Poster masterpieces from the WPA

During the Great Depression in the 1930s when many people were out of jobs, artists, writers, musicians, and actors were really in bad shape. If people didn't have much money, they certainly weren't spending it on going to concerts and plays or buying a painting! As part of President Roosevelt's New Deal, the government hired some of these artists and writers to make its publications communicate better. It was a program called the Works Progress Administration (WPA for short). Some of the best posters ever made were designed by those artists. Many of them were job safety posters. The mill warning sign, though it was earlier than the 1930s, could learn a lot from the WPA!

Check out examples of the posters in the WPA Poster Gallery.

What makes the WPA posters work so well?

  • What helps these posters get noticed?
  • What makes them easy to understand?
  • Give some examples in the posters of images used to communicate.

A better warning

Using what you've learned from the WPA artists, brainstorm a better warning poster for Cambria Iron and Steel:

  • What images could communicate the message of the warning sign?
  • Write a one sentence summary of this warning.
  • Edit the sentence down to just a few words. Can you get down to just five words?
  • Imagine shouting your message as a warning to a new worker who is about to touch a live electrical wire. How well does it work?

Tackle another safety problem

Design a safety poster to tackle one of the safety problems you found in your inspection.

While designing your poster, remember to:

  • Decide what your message will be.
  • Think of an image that would communicate that message. If you have several ideas, try them out in miniature to see which works best (artists call these "thumbnail sketches".
  • Use large bold shapes that reach to the edges of the paper.
  • Choose just a few strong colors. You should have very little white paper showing through -- just parts of the design you need to be white, not the background;
  • Simplify! Make shapes big, lines few and bold, colors strong (really bright or really dark)
  • Use words only if you think your image-message alone won't be understood. If you do, keep it short -- no more than five words. Make them part of the design (bold shapes and colors, etc.).


About Us | Site Map | Privacy Policy | Contact Us | ©2013 Johnstown Area Heritage Association