The Humble Poster
I didn’t meet another graphic designer until a few years after discovering the profession. There I was heading towards a career that was largely unknown to almost everyone else I came in contact with in my suburban high school and I felt like I was constantly struggling to explain what exactly that meant to my family, to my friends, to my parents’ friends, to my dentist. “What exactly do you design?” was always the follow up question, to which I found the easiest answer was usually something simple like, “Posters and things like that.” Posters, to me, were the clearest form of communication my young mind could point non-designers to in an attempt to explain what I wanted to do with my life.
Posters were central to my design education, too: I made at least one poster every year of my undergraduate studies—culminating to an entire class (!) on poster design my senior year—and reflecting back on those years, I can’t recall a design class where there wasn’t a poster assignment1. I suspect this is similar to most students of graphic design. The humble poster is a cornerstone in design education programs around the world.
Throughout history, you could group posters into three purposes: to inform, to persuade or encourage, and to commemorate. Sometimes it straddles the lines between each of these, but the poster’s purpose must always involve one of them. “The poster,” Susan Sontag wrote, “aims to seduce, to exhort, to sell, to educate, to convince, to appeal.”
The poster was birthed from the public notice. The earliest public notice was discovered in the ruins of the ancient civilization, Thebes, and was a papyrus advertisement offering an award for an escaped slave. Public notices were posted to circulate news, events, and relevant information to a large population2. But the rise of the poster is intrinsically tied to the rise of technology. The first printed public notice was created by William Caxton in 1480. Caxton introduced the printing press to Europe in 1476 but as Sontag notes, printing alone did not make way for the rise of the poster. It would have to wait for the invention of another printing process—one that was far cheaper and allowed for advancements in color, form, and typography: lithography. The invention of the high speed press in 1848, allowed for ten thousand prints to be made in an hour.
Michael Rock said that “design is simply an elaborate form of writing.” Likewise, the poster is an elaborate form of the public notice. Where the public notice was neutral, simply communicating facts; a poster could be embedded with emotion, attracting an audience. A poster can be, quite simply, designed. Sontag continued:
Whereas a public notice distributes information to interested or alert citizens, a poster reaches out to grab those who might otherwise pass it by. A public notice posted on a wall is passive, requiring that the spectator present himself before it to read what is written. A poster claims attention—at a distance. It is visually aggressive.
Even as new mediums were born—the newspaper, the billboard, the internet—few rival the visual agression of the poster, few command attention in the way a good poster can. The poster continues to offer designers a convienent format upon which to share their messages.
Designers are frequently speculating the future of the profession—a lot has been written about the future of books and the death of album cover but the poster has largely continued unscathed. In 1971, Josef and Shizuko Muller-Brockmann wrote:
It cannot be seen whether, or for how long, the poster will have a future. Doubts regarding its future chances are justified when we consider the possible way of life of a post-industrial society with new technological resources in an environment planned according to human requirements.
Forty years later and the poster still endures; it’s future feels strangely secure. The poster persists thanks in part to a revival of old technologies and a nostalgic interest in letterpress, silkscreen, and woodblock printing as well as new technologies like print-on-demand services. Can new inventions still push the poster forward into the future? What is the future of the poster in the digital age3? Why does it continue to survive as a medium within a field that increasingly works in a digital space? And, perhaps most importantly, why is it still a central element in a design student’s education?
The poster, I’ve come to realize, is synecdochic of graphic design. It’s the truest form of the craft that we have—a clear example, as my younger self quickly learned, of form making and the merging of image and text. If we use the poster as our base, graphic design at large also aims to inform, to persuade, and to commemorate. Paul Rand wrote that the poster is an exercise in communication, form, and public relations. “What is the purpose of the poster? Is it to persuade, to sell, to inform, or to amuse?” he wrote, “Responding to such questions demands experience not only with history, design, and marketing but with the psychology of selling, the philosophy of aesthetics, and the drama of communication.”
Everything a designer should learn, they can learn designing posters—space, typography, heirarchy, visual/verbal synergies, legibility. The best posters are memorable images—becoming icons of sorts—yet they rarely live on their own. A poster in the world is constantly surrounded by hundreds of other images. The poster teaches the designer how to command attention and how to keep it.
The book jacket and album cover have traditionally functioned like the poster—merging image and text into a concise visual that represented the text or music contained within it. The reason designers speculate the future of book covers or album packaging is because that container is changing—books are being read increasingly on digital devices, changing the purpose of the cover and albums are now downloaded, sometimes song by song, leaving the packaging to a thumbnail we only see on our four inch iPhone screens. Distribution models are changing the way books and music are consumed, and therefore changing the role the designer plays in that process. The poster, however, is both the content and the container—it is defined by its form and its message. Returning to Sontag:
Posters have appeared increasingly interesting not only as points of reference, but as objects in themselves. Posters have become one of the most ubiquitous kinds of cultural objects—prized partly because they are cheap, unpretentious, “popular” art. The current renaissance of poster art derives its strength less from any more original type of production or more intensive public use of posters than from the astonishing surge of interest in collecting posters, in domesticating them.
Graphic design exists at the intersections—it lives between content and form, information and aesthetics, commerce and art. The poster embodies these juxapositions. The poster is perhaps the epitome of what we secretly want in all of our work: it exists in service to something else yet becomes an artifact completely of its own. What began as a way to sell a commodity has, itself, become a commodity. What better way to learn graphic design than to design the one medium that is wholly graphic design?
The poster has historically evolved with technology, from the public notice to the lithograph and it will continue to evolve but the poster’s undying relevance is due to the affection designer continually have for it’s form.
In his essay, The Persistence of Posters, Andrew Blauvelt writes, “The poster persists not on the basis of its useful value as a device to reach the masses but on its aesthetic and symbolic value.” We use it to teach and to learn, to communicate to commemorate. It’s both content and form. It’s art and design, for the public and for the gallery. It’s one of the first things we learn how to design. It is so simple. It is everything.
Sometimes when I’m asked what I design, I find myself unable to articulate everything I do. And then I think back to my younger self, just starting to design, and I can’t help but answer with the humble, enduring poster. ✖
The obvious exception were my four web design courses. ↩
I find it fascinating that we’ve adopted the word “post” for the way we share information online—blog posts, post to Twitter or Facebook, Craigslist post. Despite the new medium, the purpose hasn’t changed: we still post public notices to reach a larger population of people we’d ordinarily be unable to communicate with. ↩
In a talk on posters at RISD, Andrew Blauvelt was asked what the poster is online and he responded “the gif.”. ↩