The history of motivational posters

History of Motivational Posters

While motivational quotes have become a defining characteristic for millennials, in truth, motivational posters were invented as early as the 1920s. In this article, we look at the history of motivational posters and how you can create your own.

You might think that motivational posters are a result of the internet age—and with the sheer number of memes out there, we don’t blame you. But as it turns out, the history of motivational posters goes back further than that.

Motivational posters have been inspiring us to be our best since the 1920s.

But where did these motivational posters come from? How has their design evolved over the past century? And how can you design your own posters that motivate the masses?

Read on for more on the history of motivational posters.

The History of Motivational Posters Infographic

Spread the word and help get others motivated with this infographic about the history of motivational posters. Click to view the full image.

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Motivational posters from the 1920s

Motivational posters got their start in the 1920s. One of the most prominent producers of motivational posters from this era was Parker-Holladay. The print company’s most notable contribution during the 20s was Bill Jones, a fictional character that was developed to encourage the workforce to embrace positive habits—like punctuality, teamwork, and respect—and a positive attitude.


Bill Jones was the character used by Parker-Holladay to drive home a motivational message. Source: The Art of Manliness.

Parker-Holladay built a line of motivational posters around their Bill Jones character and sold them on a subscription basis to employers. These posters were all the rage in the United States until the Great Depression, when nearly one-quarter of Americans lost their jobs.

From a design perspective, the Bill Jones posters of the 1920s all follow a similar formula: A bold headline to grab your attention, accompanying text (typically towards the bottom third of the design) to drive the motivational message home, and a custom illustration to bring the message to life.

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More examples of Bill Jones posters from the 1920s. Source: The Daily Mail

For templates with a bold color palette and typographic elements try the Teal Purple Microphone Jazz Poster, the Coral and Navy Blue Hockey Quote Poster, and the Dark Green Stars Quote Environmental Campaign Poster. These will help bring the memorable style of 1920s motivational posters alive in your designs.

Motivational posters from the WWII era

The motivational poster industry took a major pivot in the late 30s and early 40s. With WWII in full swing, motivation wasn’t about getting people onboard with general concepts like teamwork, dedication, or punctuality, it was about getting people to contribute to the war effort.

The motivational posters of the WWII era were more political propaganda than office decor. Their message was clear: It was a civilians’ civic duty to support the war effort by any means necessary—whether by enlisting, going to work in the factories, or rationing resources to support soldiers.


Motivational postsers were used to encourage people to enlist. Image via Tuts Plus.

The most iconic motivational poster of this era is, without a doubt, the “We Can Do It” poster featuring Rosie the Riveter. The poster, which adorned the walls of factories across the US, was designed to motivate and inspire the women who worked in the factories during WWII (jobs that, pre-war, were traditionally held by men).


Rosie the Riveter. Image via Wikipedia.

Other popular motivational posters of the time also came straight from the military. The United States Armed Forces also used motivational posters as a way to inspire men to enlist and support the war effort overseas. The US government also released a series of motivational posters to encourage civilians to support the war effort domestically by doing things like buying war bonds and preserving gasoline by carpooling.

The design of WWII era posters speaks about what was going on in the world. The bright color palettes and bold typography lent an almost cheerful tone to the designs and were used to keep spirits high during a time fraught with uncertainty. The hand-drawn depictions of soldiers were meant to inspire awe and support for the troops overseas.

These motivational posters also used design to inspire a sense of patriotism. The use of red, white, and blue was almost universal—as was the motivational messaging about why it was important to rally together to support the war efforts.

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These posters tapped into viewers' patriotism with the colors and the message. Images from Tuts Plus and James Vaughn on Flickr.

For a poster template with hand-drawn or graphic-inspired illustrations try the Yellow Red Vintage Horse Show Poster, the Black and Beige Vintage Classroom Poster, or the Vintage Dark Blue Horse Rodeo Poster. They can help recreate the look and feel of WWII-era motivational posters.

Motivational posters from the 70s

One of the most iconic and recognizable motivational posters of all time comes from the 1970s. This poster was the “Hang in There, Baby” poster.

Originally designed and published by Los Angeles-based photographer Victor Baldwin, the designer first gained notoriety for photographing celebrity portraits (including Frank Sinatra and Ronald Reagan), but he had a passion for animal photography.


The original “Hang in There, Baby” poster. Image via Wikipedia.

In the mid-1960s, Baldwin did a photo shoot with his Siamese cat, Sassy. He shot photos of Sassy in a number of poses inspired by acrobatics. One of those photos, with Sassy hanging off a bamboo pole in a chin-up pose, would later be used as the basis for the “Hang in There, Baby” poster.

This poster marked a moving away from the illustrated design that motivational posters embraced in the 20s, 30s, and 40s and a moving towards designs based around photographic and text element (a design style that would continue in popularity throughout the rest of the 20th century).

The “Hang In There, Baby” also inspired multiple iterations. While the original black-and-white is the most well-known, thousands of variations with other cats, other photos, and other color palettes have flooded the market and become a motivational favorite in the years since.

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Images via Bad at Sports and Live Auctioneers.

Using a photo-centric poster template with a vintage-inspired filter—like the Brown Closet Fashion Poster, the Library Photo Classroom Vintage Poster, or the Brown Classy Trunk Antique Sale Yard Vintage Poster—is a great way to create a 70s-feel in your motivational poster design (adorable cat photo optional).

Motivational posters from the 80s and 90s

The 80s and 90s saw a huge rise in the motivational poster trend, particularly in classrooms and offices. And the biggest creator behind the trend? Successories.

Launched in 1985 by entrepreneur Marc Anderson, Successories created a design formula that carried across all of their motivational posters: A solid border and background (most often black or dark gray), a photo, a bold-text headline with a single inspirational word or phrase.


Image via Quartz

This formula, while not exactly innovative, proved to be highly effective. The consistent designs created an unmatched level of brand recognition in the poster industry. It also proved that when it comes to design, you don’t always have to reinvent the wheel in order to get results.

Successories experienced a huge level of success and their posters became a motivational staple across the globe; from the late 80s to mid-90s, you’d be hard-pressed to find an office or classroom that didn’t feature at least one of Successories’ designs.

The company is still around today, but its popularity has seen a significant decline; thanks to the wide availability of design tools, it’s easier than ever for brands and individuals to design their own motivational posters—instead of relying on an outside company for motivation and inspiration.


Images via Successories

For a poster template that brings together typographic elements and strong imagery try the Hockey Player Motivational Quote Sports Poster, the Motivational Quote Desert Mountains Poster, or the You Win You Learn Motivational Poster. They are a great way to leverage the best design elements of the Successories posters (without the 90s-inspired cheese factor).

Motivational posters: Today

Now that we’ve explored the history of motivational posters, let’s talk about where they stand today.

Thanks to technology, pretty much anyone can design their own motivational posters (or, in 2019, motivational posts). And while that means that there isn’t one specific trend or design style that dominates the motivational poster space these days, it also means that there’s a wide variety of creative designs out there to inspire and motivate the masses.

In 2019 motivational poster design, anything goes. If it’s well-designed and inspirational, it’s a go!

Want to design your own motivational poster? Get creative and experiment with different template styles, like the Texture Motivational Poster, the Purple and Turquoise Motivational Poster, or the Health Motivational Poster.

The History of Motivational Posters Infographic

Spread the word and help get others motivated with this infographic about the history of motivational posters. Click to view the full image.

Share this image on your site

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