The Silence=Death poster is one of the most iconic pieces of design to come from the LGBTQ movement in modern history. I’m far from the best, or for that matter the right, person to tell this story. But thankfully, creator Avram Finkelstein has written up a brilliant post recounting the story on the NYPL website:
We started a men’s consciousness raising group that met every week, loosely assembled around feminist organizing principles. We began each session by talking about our personal fears in the age of AIDS, but by the end of every meeting we were talking about the political crisis that was forming. I knew we couldn’t be the only ones who saw it.
And then I remembered: when New Yorkers need to talk to one another, there is always the street.
So I proposed we do a poster. […]
We realized any single photographic image would be exclusionary in terms of race, gender and class and opted instead to activate the LGBTQ audience through queer iconography. So we reviewed the symbols already in use. We felt the rainbow flag lacked gravitas. The Labrys might not be discernable to gay men. The Lambda had class connotations.
And while we initially rejected the pink triangle because of its links to the Nazi concentration camps, we eventually returned to it for the same reason, inverting the triangle as a gesture of a disavowal of victimhood.
It took us 6 months to finalize Silence=Death. We argued about issues, images and fonts. We pored over press clippings and source material. We studied the work of other collectives, like the Guerrilla Girls, who managed to compact complex messages into smooth one-liners.
We put the poster to bed in December of 1986. We started wheat pasting it in February of 1987, just weeks before the formation of the AIDS activist organization, ACT UP. We hoped the poster might stimulate some kind of collective action. But we were unprepared for what was actually coming.
The font they finally settled on was Gill Sans Bold Extra Condensed, a today often overlooked part of the Gill family that did not receive the remaster treatment of its kin. With an almost flared, upright cursive lowercase it is an oddball, but in an all caps treatment like this, that oddball has the most powerful voice in the whole world.