The Persistence of Posters
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The Gradient

The Persistence of Posters

“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.”
—Josef and Shizuko Müller-Brockmann, 1971

It is remarkable that the poster endures today, thirty years after Josef and Shizuko Müller-Brockmann speculated about its future demise. This prediction was the coda of their pioneering book, History of the Poster. By all rights, the poster should be dead. Its ancient role as a public proclamation, or posting, giving fair notice to citizens or passersby, was eventually supplanted by the newspaper, which became the official or unofficial mouthpiece of the state once the printing press was democratized. The poster was reborn in the emergent commercial contexts of the nineteenth century, advertising the multitude of new goods of the industrial age. While ancient forms of posting may have been unique messages tethered to a particular location, the modern poster was a product of the age of mechanical reproduction. The poster multiplied and spread throughout the city, with large and colorful sheets of paper posted on the sides of buildings and on street kiosks—the natural result of the advances made in large-scale reproductive technologies such as silkscreen, chromolithography, and photography connected to presses that can print thousands of copies per hour. Because of this capacity, we think of the poster today only as a multiple.

The role of the poster to sell the latest goods was eventually overtaken by printed advertisements in newspapers and magazines, which had a more intimate scale and personal form of address that befitted its audience as a collection of individuals rather than an undifferentiated mass–the culture of the street. The poster also lost ground to formats inspired by it, such as the billboard, which provided an even larger canvas to capture the attention of passersby, not on foot but in automobiles. The poster transformed the twentieth-century cityscape with a sea of messages, each competing with the other for attention.

This cacophony eventually spawned public concern about “visual pollution,” and with it restrictions such as no-posting ordinances and zoning regulations. The official regulation of posting started by legal decree that restricted where one could post, but later tightened through the consolidation of media companies and the outlets they owned, which denied access to those coveted locations. The culture of posting remains on the street in a more limited, ad hoc, and spontaneous fashion: the lost cat notice, rubbish sale signs, realty placards on bus benches, or the bus shelter ad. There is still a posting culture in pedestrian heavy zones such as college campuses, where the notices about social and cultural offerings abound: a meeting here, a concert there. This is the culture of the flyer: a pint-sized poster, constrained by standardized paper sizes and the machines that handle it: duplicators, photocopiers, laser and inkjet printers. Desktop publishing software enabled people to design their own flyers, and coupled with the convenience of printing centers such as Kinko’s, ensured a design culture for the zine and flyer that proliferated in the 1990s.

The contemporary cultural phenomenon of posting, putting your message out in the blogosphere, whether through online commentary or social media updates, is the opposite of the poster. These individual tweets and posts are personal expressions, often of a trivial nature, which are shared in the public and quasi-public sphere through services such as Twitter and Facebook. The poster is synonymous with public expression and creates an immediate sense of formality and authority. It is isolated, not connected, and its context cannot be reliably predicted; therefore it attempts to stand out by standing apart. As a method for giving voice, the poster retains its core function when used as a vehicle for messages about all sorts of social ills—against AIDS, homelessness, poverty, famine, racism, pollution, and global warming. In this capacity it mobilizes designers to act collectively to help visualize “the opposition.” In many cases, however, the problem is not one of production, but of distribution and reception: how do you circulate posters in a broad way in an age of fragmented communications or overcome compassion fatigue?

The poster offers a convenient format—the proverbial blank slate. It is graphic design’s equivalent to painting—a blank canvas. Sometimes the void is filled by self-reflexive exercises: a meditation on the medium and its systems of production and distribution. The poster is also kept alive through the revival of seemingly outdated technologies such as letterpress, woodblock, and silkscreen printing. The resurgent interest in these tools and techniques is both a backlash by designers against the immateriality of the screen and a testament
to the desire for hands-on production. The poster also partakes of new technologies and systems, such as inkjet, print-on-demand, or digital printing, all cheaper than offset printing and capable of producing small-run editions.

Created in workshops, exchanged through swaps, or purchased online, the contemporary poster thrives as a published edition of prints. The edition poster is akin to the autonomous work of art, a thing unto itself, which can be contrasted with the servile advertising function of the traditional poster. 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. This represents a surplus value of the poster—the contribution it makes to the culture at large as a reflection of an aesthetic impulse of a period or an artist—which exceeds or is in addition to the purely useful form it takes as a device to sell things. This kind of value is not new, as it can be found deeply entwined with the poster’s modern history. In its most obvious sense, value is granted by the artist himself, who has applied his signature style to a poster, thus giving it added cultural resonance and appeal. But this cachet or aura does not fully explain the devotion accorded to the poster by consumers who collect them or the status granted to the form by designers. Rather, the poster’s appeal is a product of both its absence—as a blank slate full of creative potential—and its presence as a physically autonomous, discrete object. Ultimately, and paradoxically, as Susan Sontag notes: “The poster, at its origins a means of selling a commodity, is itself turned into a commodity.”

The Müller-Brockmanns’ prediction regarding the future of the poster is remarkably prescient about the impending technological future, with descriptions of things such as videophones and the connectivity of something resembling the Internet. Despite the accuracy of their vision, technology did not render the poster obsolete as a means of communication. Instead, technology expanded the tools, methods, and systems of production and distribution, freeing the poster from its typical burden of representation while sentencing it to a different kind of future. Their sobering conclusion that “retrospectively, the poster will be judged as a temporary solution of questionable information value,” still leaves room for the poster to possess a greater symbolic value.

From the catalogue Graphic Design: Now in Production, Walker Art Center, 2011

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