Messages from a Pandemic: AIDS Graphic Communication

The HIV/AIDS crisis sparked a generative period of poster
design four decades ago, as individuals, organizations, and nations
struggled to comprehend and respond to a devastating virus and its impact on
global communities. This selection, drawn from The Wolfsonian’s collection of nearly
 4,000 posters
from around the world responding to HIV and AIDS, explores how posters imparted
life-saving information, lifestyle guidance, and behavioral expectations.
Organized around overt and covert messaging, these works also reveal the mores
and anxieties of their period. As an increasingly interconnected world faces
more pandemics in the future, this exhibition, co-organized with The Wolfsonian Public Humanities Lab, demonstrates the vital role of
graphic design in addressing global health crises.

Familia y SIDA (1993) by Marco Caamaño (Venezuelan, b. Chile)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University


Nationalism has a multitude of meanings. It has long been understood as natural or constructed: blood or culture. Either way, it reflects a collective sentiment of affiliation and support in the defense of, or in service to, a particular nation. Nationalism was also a key source of social and political tension, turmoil, and violence throughout the twentieth century, including when AIDS first entered the public imagination in the early 1980s. As these posters show, the political concept served as a subtle yet powerful lens through which organizations and designers sought to educate people during the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Some of these designs emphasize similarities and shared experiences through the prism of a unified nation coming together—often by invoking militaristic ideas of “combatting” or “mobilizing” against the disease. Others are more overtly ideological, reflecting a strong national identity and a sense of sovereignty alongside efforts for global cooperation to mitigate infection rates.

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness (1990) by Warwick May (American)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

This poster, which features two nude and fit men draped in an American flag, positions sexual intimacy—practiced with a condom—as an extension of the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as promised in the Declaration of Independence. The men’s race and physical fitness reflect stereotypes and expectations about desirability within the San Francisco gay community at the time.

Smart Guys Say NO to Casual Sex!, Smart Girls Say No to Sex before Marriage! (1990-1993) by Copperbelt Health Education ProjectThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

This pair of posters use the shape of the landlocked African nation Zambia to send different messages to its female and male populations. Though both visually connect personal behavior to national identity, the social expectations differ widely between genders: men are expected to avoid sexual promiscuity, while women must remain fully abstinent and rely on their friends to hold them accountable.

Familia y SIDA (1993) by Marco Caamaño (Venezuelan, b. Chile)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

This poster figures the traditional family—which includes a mother, father, and daughter flying a kite emblazoned with the Venezuelan flag—as a key component in the nation’s fight against AIDS. This theme appears in other posters from Venezuela as well, often with the heterosexual parents positioned as primary protectors against the virus.

Condoman Says: Don’t Be Shame, Be Game (1987) by Michael Callaghan (Australian, 1952–2012), Paul Cockram (Australian, b. 1951), and Redback GraphixThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Native superhero Condoman asks Aboriginal people in Australia to reject shame and instead practice safer sex through condom use.

Condoman wears a costume based on the Aboriginal flag, a symbol of unity and political sovereignty among Indigenous people in that country.

Your Nation Needs You. Your Family Needs You. Don't Let AIDS Drive YOU to an Early Grave. (circa 1998) by Āshraya AIDS Awareness and Counselling Centre, IMA Blood BankThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

In refashioning India’s flag, this poster warns viewers that AIDS can lead to premature death. It invokes a message of urgency and responsibility to its citizens, noting how the fate of both the Indian nation and family depend on AIDS prevention.

Portuguese Do It Better (circa 2000) by TBWA/LisboaThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Here a condom, which resembles a phallic missile, is emblazoned with the words: “Portuguese do it better.” Both a sexual joke and combative, competitive message, the poster’s militaristic imagery suggests the use of condoms as a patriotic duty that enhances the nation’s sexual reputation.

We Are Family. Kia ū, kia mau ki tō whanau (1994) by Matthew McKeeThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Family Values

The family—in its many formulations—is a powerful form of social organization across time and place. It can offer a sense of belonging and community or result in fracture and alienation. The family unit is not strictly biological, however. People have long formed their own familial ties and kin through established trust, care, and intimacy, though they may not share legal or genealogical traits. These posters reflect the varied ways organizations and designers employed the concept of family in the fight against AIDS. Some emphasize empowerment and resistance, and others encourage practices such as fidelity and reproductive heterosexuality. Harnessing emotions of shame around drug use and particular kinds of sex, some designs reinforce social stigmas while elevating the traditional family, particularly motherhood.

160 resdagar om året… Vi kan inte skydda dig. Men det kan du. [160 Travel Days a Year… We Cannot Protect You. But You Can.] (1995) by GarbergsThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

This Swedish poster presents a black-and-white portrait of a traditional family. Almost eerily normative, the image is upended by the text, which exhorts the father—who travels often for work—to resist sexual temptations and remain faithful while away for the health and safety of his family. It also empowers the mother to protect herself, mindful of the possibilities.

Wazazi wasipoonegea nasi kuhusu kujamiiana nani atafanya hivyo? [If Parents Don't Talk with Us about Sex, Who Will?] (1997) by Marco Tibasima (Tanzanian, b. 1974)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

In this intergenerational design from Tanzania, two young people stand at the center of the poster with a caption that translates to: “if parents don’t talk with us about sex, who will?” The message here is that families, especially parents, should guide children through sexual education to counter possible negative influences or misinformation.

We Are Family. Kia ū, kia mau ki tō whanau (1994) by Matthew McKeeThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

This New Zealand poster stresses the legitimacy of the “chosen family”—in this case, a multi-ethnic group sharing a house and making a home together. The timing of this poster was deliberate: the United Nations declared 1994 the International Year of the Family.

AIDS, Sex and Drugs”—Don’t Pass It On! (circa 1995) by New York City Department of HealthThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

This ominous poster, the rare reference in the collection to the dangers of drug use, finds a heterosexual couple embracing inside an intravenous needle. A fetus emerges from the needle tip as a reminder of the reproductive impact of risky behaviors such as the sharing of needles.

Derek Lost His Entire Family to AIDS. One Year Later, They're Still Not Talking to Him. (1991) by TBWA Holmes Knight RitchieThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

This poster for a London-based support organization subtly reverses the expected narrative of loss due to AIDS-related illnesses. Here, rather than losing a loved one to the virus, “Derek’s” family seems to have abandoned him upon learning of his HIV status. The story is ultimately uplifting, however: Derek is able to find community in the local organization promoted on the poster.

AIDS ist für uns alle da! [AIDS Is There for All of Us!] (1996) by Heike Zotz and Steigerdruck GmbHThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

This Austrian poster, which is reminiscent of Freedom from Want, Norman Rockwell’s painting of an American Thanksgiving dinner, combines text and image to suggest that AIDS can be intergenerational. The virus does not discriminate, the poster implies, and so neither should families.

Breast Is Best, Unless You Have HIV (2010) by New York State Department of HealthThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

This poster, created by the New York State Department of Health, focuses on HIV transmission through breastmilk. It urges women who are pregnant or planning to get pregnant to get tested for HIV to help them make informed decisions about future breastfeeding, a possible method of transmission.

The Family Facing AIDS (circa 2000) by United Arab Emirates Ministry of Health, Central Health Education DepartmentThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

This highly stylized poster, from the United Arab Emirates, defines the family as a united and necessary force in the fight against AIDS.

Europe Against AIDS (1995) by Info SIDAThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

The Condom

The Condom   Historically available but rarely used, condoms achieved widespread recognition during the AIDS crisis as the most common and affordable protection against HIV among sexually active people. The condom became a symbol of AIDS awareness and prevention in this period, used in different ways to promote distinct messages. Some posters sought to normalize and encourage its usage, while others made condoms sexy or attractive. Some designers chose to focus on the physicality of the condom as an object and shape for both serious and humorous ends. The vast majority of posters focus on the male condom rather than the less-well-known female condom, reaffirming cultural biases against their use.  

For Coming Attractions… Protect Yourself (circa 1995) by Jeffrey Chock (Trinidadian, b. 1943)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Many public health campaigns during the AIDS crisis focused on the condom as an erotic object. Here, the poster design places the condom at the center of a scene of sexual desire and anticipation. It is also notable for featuring a heterosexual couple—a nod to the fact that AIDS can affect any sexually active person regardless of orientation.

He lekker ding [Hey Good Looking] (1994) by SAD-SchorerstichtingThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

This design aestheticizes the condom while also emphasizing its circular form—a metaphor for safety, referencing a buoyant lifesaver thrown into the water when a person is drowning.

Europe Against AIDS (1995) by Info SIDAThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Illustrated in a style reminiscent of the popular novella Le Petit Prince, Europe Against AIDS presents a friendly, imaginative take on the condom. This cheerful design was created as part of a holiday-themed campaign that united European countries in their fight against AIDS.

Préservez-vous Du SIDA. C’est la prudence qui devrait etre contagieuse [Protect Yourself Against AIDS. Caution Should Be Contagious.] (1994) by Ministère de la SantéThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Here, a yellow condom stands out against the HIV virus cells crowding it. Both circular, the forms—condom and virus—have oppositional functions.

Vernunft im Verkehr [Sensible in Traffic] (1992) by Mark Stahel, Alfred Burkard, and Patrik HoffmanThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Published by AMAG, the Swiss Volkswagen importer, this poster cleverly plays on the popularity and visibility of VW advertising in the 1990s.

By advertising both safer sex and the newest VW Golf, AMAG promoted itself as an ethical, socially responsible company while sneaking in a joke about sexual partners. The 1990s and early 2000s saw companies embracing AIDS education as a cause, reflecting a dramatic shift in public opinion about the virus and the increased corporatization of public welfare.

Use Condom for Safer Sex (circa 1995) by AIDS Unit, Department of HealthThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Cartoonish and anthropomorphic, this personified condom reflects the more comical approach some designers took to the topic of safer sex. Other humorous approaches included the use of vegetables as a stand-in for genitalia.

Stop AIDS (circa 1995) by AIDS-Hilfe Schweiz and Federal Office of Public HealthThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

In this sex-positive poster, part of the prolific Stop AIDS campaign, couples use condoms in various sex positions and acts.

Circles are used to represent condoms, making for a provocative diagrammatic design that borrows from the visual language of public signage.

Si No, ¡No! ¡Protegete! (1993) by Leonardo, Fondo de Población de las Naciones Unidas, and Centro Nacional de Educación para la salud Ministerio de Salud PublicaThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

A cartoonish take on the story of Adam and Eve, this poster features a dismayed snake watching as Eve insists that Adam wear a condom if they are to have sex. The poster is published in collaboration with CENESEX, Cuba’s government-controlled body for national sex education.

The Drum Is Sounding a Warning. Hear the Call. Tell Your People about AIDS (1992) by Kathy Kato-Mackie, Sam Kimura, and Alaska Native Health BoardThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Indigenous Knowledge

While some posters designed during the AIDS crisis were meant for the broadest audience possible, others aimed at specific groups or demographics. Indigenous people in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other parts of the Pacific have distinct experiences with HIV, and overlapping historical and cultural forces—colonialism, racism, economic and educational inequities, among others—compound the impacts of the virus on Native communities. Many of these posters were published by Indigenous organizations themselves, arguing for Native agency in preventing disease and tying best practices around the virus to community pride and care, positioning AIDS awareness as an indigenous value.

In the Old Days it Was measles, TB, and Smallpox, Now It’s AIDS (circa 1995) by Feather of Hope Aboriginal AIDS Prevention SocietyThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

This design positions HIV and AIDS as a twentieth-century colonizer’s disease, with the ability to devastate Native communities in the same way that tuberculosis and smallpox initially had centuries before. Organizing against AIDS, the poster asserts, is anti-colonial activism.

2-Spirited People of the 1st Nations (1993) by 2-Spirited People of the First Nations and Ontario Ministry of HealthThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Designed and published by the Ontario Ministry of Health, this poster specifically speaks to Two-Spirit First Nations citizens. “Two-Spirit” is an anti-colonial term used to describe gender non-conforming or multi-gendered Indigenous peoples on their own terms.

“Two-Spirit” is an anti-colonial term used to describe gender non-conforming or multi-gendered Indigenous peoples on their own terms.

AIDS Kills Indians Too! (circa 1995) by Waylon Sequoyah and Cherokee Health Delivery, Eastern Band of CherokeesThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

A phrase that appears on multiple posters, “AIDS kills Indians too!,” attempts to correct a false belief that Native communities were somehow protected from or immune to HIV. The painterly, gestural strokes of a Native American man’s head in profile—a typical western art historical representation of Native people—capture the intensity of the call to “be aware.”

The Drum Is Sounding a Warning. Hear the Call. Tell Your People about AIDS (1992) by Kathy Kato-Mackie, Sam Kimura, and Alaska Native Health BoardThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Published by the Alaska Native Health Board, this poster was inspired by traditional drum designs made by Native peoples in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Like other poster designs, it makes a direct connection between Native cultural heritage and community protection.

Strength Comes from Knowing, Being Young, Maori, Gay and Aware (circa 1993) by Albert Sword (New Zealander, b. 1950) and Te Waka Awhina Takataapui TaneThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Reflecting intimacy and pride in traditional Indigenous practice and presentation, this poster invites gay Māori men to find support and information from a New Zealand AIDS hotline.

Queens of the Pacific. The Sistahood Stands Up to HIV & AIDS (1998) by Harold Samu, Mariano Vivanco (Peruvian, b. 1975), and Arjan HoeflakThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Aimed at gender-non-conforming people from the New Zealand Samoan, Cook Island, and Tongan communities—"the sistahood”—this poster celebrates a wide range of gender expressions and promotes safer sex practices and makes specific and actionable suggestions, including using condoms and water-based lubricant during sex.

Icke Wicasa Oayte Kin Woyanza sica Yuhapi Okihipi. Woyanza sica de Etanhan Unyutokecapi wanica [Native Americans Can Tet the AIDS Virus. We Are Not Immune from It!] (circa 1995) by Native American Women’s Health Education Resource CenterThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Hand-illustrated, this poster is urgent in its simplicity. Published by and aimed at Native American women, it is an example of the direct communication that can take place within a community.

TIÊM CHÍCH MA TÚY DẪN ĐẾN AIDS [Drug Use Leads to AIDS][SR1] [LLC2] [SR3] , (circa 1995) by Uy Ban Phong Chong AIDSThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Regulating Behavior

Some posters designed during the AIDS crisis
sought to change behaviors that were believed to contribute to the spread of
the disease. Advocating for these changes as a key component of HIV/AIDS
prevention, many of these posters used fear as a tool. Many convinced viewers
that their behaviors continued to put them and others at risk and could lead to
death. Some posters, however, took an approach that was more focused on public
health, instead emphasizing harm mitigation rather than moralist
arguments—those designs, which advocate for proactive action rather than
preventative behaviors, tend to be more positive in tone.

Published in Vietnam, this design features the personification of AIDS as the Grim Reaper, injecting heroin into an abstracted human figure. Bleak and dramatic, the poster warns about the deadly risk of sharing needles.

Stop the AIDS Spread (circa 1995) by Everald ClarkeThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

This poster from Trinidad & Tobago is one of many that aggressively pitched monogamy as a necessary tactic for avoiding AIDS.

Soignez les personnes qui ont le SIDA [Treat People with AIDS] (circa 1990) by Ministry of Health and UNICEFThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Many posters designed with the goal of changing behaviors around sex and drugs use fear as a motivating technique.

Here, however, public health organizations in Uganda focused on actions and practices that limit exposure to the virus, maintaining a non-judgmental and objective tone throughout.

He Didn't Use a Condom (circa 1995) by Renee Martin and Alfred UniversityThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

One of the most straightforward and fearmongering of public health designs, this poster references tagging dead bodies to make clear that sex without a condom will lead to death.

Règle Safer Sex no 1: Pénétration toujours avec préservatif... et pas de sperme dans la bouche [The Number One Rule of Safe Sex: Penetration Is Always with a Condom… and No Sperm in the Mouth] (1988) by AIDS-Hilfe SchweizThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Channeling Pop Art, this poster design humorously anthropomorphizes the established concept of “female” and “male” electrical plug components to suggest altering behavior around oral sex.

Abstinence Has a High Failure Rate (circa 2005) by Catholics for a Free ChoiceThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Catholics for a Free Choice—an organization committed to changing the Catholic position on abortion, sex before marriage, and same sex relationships—published this poster as part of a campaign to support the use of condoms in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. Here the behavior being changed is observance of religiously mandated abstinence, as the poster asserts: “people of faith use condoms.”

Credits: Story

This project is organized by The Wolfsonian–FIU and the Wolfsonian Public Humanities Lab, FIU, and curated by Dr. Julio Capó, Jr., Deputy Director of the WPHL, and Shoshana Resnikoff, curator at The Wolfsonian. The posters in this exhibition were donated to The Wolfsonian by Henry Hacker and family in 2011.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps