David King, revolutionary graphic artist

David King's famous 1978 Rock Against Racism Carnival poster
David King's famous 1978 Rock Against Racism Carnival poster

David King, designer, activist, visual historian
By Rick Poynor
Yale University Press, 2020, 240 pp., $61.99

Anyone familiar with 1970s British left-wing movements such as the Anti-Nazi League (ANL), Rock Against Racism (RAR), the Anti-Apartheid Movement, the cover art of left-wing books of that era, or the art-style of the early punk movement is familiar with the work of David King, even if you don’t know his name.

King was a graphic designer, but his life and work demonstrate that a creative individual who unites with historically progressive forces can be raised to greatness. His mark was everywhere.

Beginning in the 1960s in the (pre-Rupert Murdoch) Times Literary Supplement, King carved out a unique graphic style that drew heavily on early Soviet era and German Constructivism. At a glance, you can recognise his work: heavy use of black lines, photographs cropped so that individual faces are super-magnified with colour washes, and block print headlines.

In his newspaper work, and later in his books, King used photographs in the same way that a movie director creates movement: a framing shot, an action shot to grab attention and photos of the consequences. Photos bleed off the edge of the page, there is little white space and the overall effect is immersion into the relentless pressure of the drama.

King was in contact with, but never joined, British Trotskyist organisations, such as the Socialist Labour League/Workers Revolutionary Party, the International Marxist Group and the Socialist Workers Party. He supplied graphic designs for the covers of books published by each of the groups on a completely non-sectarian basis.

He also designed the covers for Marxist volumes published by Penguin. If you have a copy of Capital Volume 1 on your bookshelf, for example, you own a David King design.

Where King really achieved distinction was when he volunteered his services for the ANL and RAR. He set about establishing what would now be referred to as the "brand" for the movement, which was engaged in a struggle against the growing danger of the fascist British National Front.

King devised images and motifs that could be used on stickers, posters and badges. He borrowed the distinctive arrow design from the 1930s German Iron Front.

All his designs were planned to suit activist technology: clapped-out gestetners, hand-printed screen prints and cheap print jobs. King created his own woodblock style Letraset for headlines, which was intentionally scrappy-looking, which lent urgency to the designs and compensated for bad printing.

The ANL and the RAR smashed the fascists and King’s work was vital in that. His stylistic flourishes and do-it-yourself philosophy leaked out into the punk movement and became a generalised fashion statement.

King began visiting the Soviet Union in the 1970s, collecting Soviet-era posters, magazines and paraphernalia, especially rescuing representations of Leon Trotsky. This grew into a massive archive and is now housed in London’s Tate Gallery.

King was able to compare photos obtained from sources outside of Soviet-dominated countries with those produced under Soviet Stalinism. These were the sources for his 1997 book, The Commissar Vanishes, a visual history of Stalinist falsification, in which Stalin’s victims were air-brushed out of photos.

He followed it up in 2013 with The Commissar Returns, about Leon Trotsky. In between those two volumes he produced Ordinary Citizens: The Victims of Stalin, in which secret police file photos of victims of Stalin’s purges stare at the viewer, alongside the false charges for which they were either murdered or sent to the gulags.

Through this work King was far more than a simple graphic designer. He was a historian, an archivist and a revolutionary activist. Those who toil in the virtual factories of today’s digital economy should stop and ponder his example.

King died of a heart attack in 2016, but this gorgeous collection of his life’s work with explanatory text is a great introduction and a fitting legacy.