Tom Eckersley was born on 30th September 1914 in Lancashire. His artistic training began in 1930 when he enrolled at Salford Art School, his abilities were soon recognised and he was awarded the Heywood Medal for Best Student. In 1934 Eckersley moved to London with the express purpose of becoming a freelance poster designer, he was accompanied by Eric Lombers (1914-1978), a fellow student and future collaborator on commissioned poster designs.
Eckersley-Lombers posters were both aesthetic and functional, therefore perfectly fulfilling advertisers' criteria. Eckersley-Lombers always supplied full size artwork with hand drawn lettering for their poster designs. Eckersley was involved not only in graphic design but in the teaching of it, he and Lombers worked as visiting lectures in poster design at Westminster School of Art. The partnership benefited from the cultural recognition of the poster as a design piece in the 1930s and from the fact that mass media was yet to explode, meaning that the poster was the only means of shouting a message to a mass audience. However, this was in turn restricted by tariffs that one had to pay in order to put up posters in authorised spaces, thus posters had to be memorable even to someone strolling past and therefore maybe only glimpsing it once.
The start of World War Two in 1939 effectively marked the end of Eckersley's partnership with Lombers, as they joined different military services and there was a decline in demand for commercial advertising. This led Eckersley to create posters for Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), aimed at workers in factories and industrial settings that often supported the military in someway. These posters are striking in their bluntness; with little text it is the illustration that catches the eye. Most use block colours and cut out shapes to form the designs. Having originally joined the Royal Air Force and being charged with cartographic work Eckersley was transferred to the Publicity Section of the Air Ministry, this allowed him to work from home and take commercial commissions again, for example from the General Post Office. In 1948 his contribution was recognised with the granting of an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to poster design. During the war the realisation of the posters ability to communicate complex messages was recognised, as propaganda messages were successfully conveyed by posters and mass media was developed.
After the war commissions for government posters reduced and, due to rationing and financial strain, commercial advertising was still restricted. However, Eckersley was able to gain commissions from new sources such as Gillette and old sources such as the General Post Office. He also did some work as a book illustrator for example; he illustrated his wife's book 'Cat O'Nine Lives' in 1946.
In 1954 Eckersley joined the London College of Printing (now named London College of Communication) in order to teach undergraduates. Here he established the first undergraduate courses in graphic design in Britain. He was Head of Design at the College from 1957 until 1977. Whilst at the College he designed posters to inform staff and students, for example one reminds students to return overdue library books. Eckersley also continued to complete commissioned work, adding The United Nations Children's Fund, the World Wide Fund for Nature, the National Business Calendar Design Awards and Cooks to his list of clients. Therefore, Eckersley was both a practioner and a teacher, thus allowing his designs and teaching to remain relevant to changing audiences.
Eckersley was one of the foremost poster designers and graphic communicators of the last century, who combined practice with education. In addition to poster making and book illustration he also produced magazine covers (for example for 'The Queen') and logos. His designs often employ an abstract like quality and collage to convey their message but whatever the technique Eckersley's designs have one common factor: they bring together text and pictures to relate complex messages in a direct way. The range of companies who commissioned both the Eckersley-Lombers partnership and Eckersley individually reflects the wide appeal of their/his striking designs: Shell-Mex; British Petroleum; the British Broadcasting Corporation; London Transport; the Ministry of Information (also named the Central Office of Information); the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA); Austin Reed; the General Post Office; Gillette; The United Nations Children's Fund; the World Wide Fund for Nature; the National Business Calendar Design Awards; Cooks; British Leprosy Relief Association; National Bus Company; London College of Printing; the International Wildlife Film and Television Festival; the Inner London Education Authority; City and Guilds; Imperial War Museum; and advertising agency, WS Crawford. He also designed posters for events and seasons for example, one for a seminar Eckersley gave at the Grafiska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden, in 1960.
Tom Eckersley retained copies of many of his posters and examples of his original artwork; these form the equivalent of sketches for the working poster maker. Eckersley used these when teaching, as well as a personal reference. The posters were kept at his home and as such formed a working archive. In addition to retaining examples of his published posters Eckersley also produced and retained posters that he had designed purely for personal enjoyment, such as a series of film posters that depicted the faces of Hollywood movie greats that were only published on a small scale for events like exhibitions of his work.
Eckersley died in 1995, a year after a retrospective of his work was exhibited at the London College of Printing (now called the London College of Communication).