Posters have been used to promote products from
shoes to soap to typewriters to tires. They have been
employed in the service of war, peace, and propaganda,
as well as theater and musical performance.
Today, we can view posters for current movies, along
with bus shelter and billboard posters. Posters are
an expression of economic, social, and cultural life,
competing for our attention in the cluttered urban
landscapes of modern life.
Graphic designers are in a unique position to
spread messages to the masses, and posters are often
their medium of choice. CalArts faculty member
and graphic designer Caryn Aono says, “I recall
Tibor Kalman saying many years ago that the poster
was the most desirable format designers liked to
work in—big, multiples, though not sequential like
a book, and maximum impact—but it is a format
designers rarely get to work in.”
Designers seem to make posters because they love
them—in the face of many other options, including
online, broadcast, and other print vehicles—for disseminating
their messages. Michal Johnson, creative
director of the London-based design firm Johnson
Banks agrees. “I’ve thought for a while that the call
for posters has been declining. We still do quite
a few, but then, I’ve always loved posters and will
do almost anything to make sure that posters are
included in a project.”
In the service of causes, posters can be compelling
advocates. Placed in public environments, posters
can be very effective in speaking directly to lots of
people. High-impact graphics, usually with a single
metaphorical image coupled with minimal type, tend
to stop passersby and draw them into the world of
a particular cause. Most poster designers admit that
it is not enough to do a great job on the creative; a
poster must be placed well to fully do its work.
In Europe, there are more official placement locations,
with standardized sizes, to accommodate and
even encourage the display of posters. In the U.S.
we tend to associate posters with big cities like New
York, where pedestrian traffic allows for visibility
and effective urban communication. Major U.S. cities
are often settings for guerilla-style wild postings,
usually illegal postering on construction barricades,
traffic light switching boxes, and telephone poles.
As creative director Stephen Doyle of New
York’s Doyle Partners says, “Posters are part of the
social dialog of any civilized town.” Yet he concedes,
“T-shirts are America’s alternative to the poster, especially
to political posters. It is sad and it is tragic, but
more and more Americans are big enough to have
full-size posters mounted on their bodies.”
Despite their identification with print, posters
are now often delivered online. AIGA’s recent “Get
Out The Vote” series of posters for the 2004 U.S.
presidential election was designed by members, each
representing a local AIGA chapter. This venture
found its forum mostly online. The website www.
anotherposterforpeace.org is another online public
display, in this case for antiwar posters. Once again,
advancing technology is affecting the art and delivery
of posters. Interestingly, we find that the content is
much the same as in the past.
A persistent medium
Be it in the physical or the online environment,
posters can be very effective, and of course, offer
great visuals for public consumption. Los Angeles
designer Riley Swift says the medium has staying
power. “With so much media [out there] today, I
think posters are a very relevant art form. Posters
stand out as static statements in a culture of moving
images … a minority that stands out against
the majority, especially if they utilize a reproduction
process besides four-color offset printing.”
Screenprinting can be used to great advantage in
posters, particularly for designs with large blocks of
rich color. Letterpress for smaller-format pieces lends
a hand-hewn beauty to posters. Whatever the printing
method, the main goals for the poster designer
remain visibility and clarity. Attention must be given
to refining the message to the simplest and most
elemental visual expression of the idea—single image,
few words, and high impact colors still work best.
Posters are mirrors and visual records of our culture.
Los Angeles designer Victoria Lam sums it up
when she says, “It may be one of the few democratic
forums left.” Beyond their many noble roles, posters
are simply beautiful and collectible objects.