Off the wall: the enduring impact of the printed poster

The visual history of protest – and promotion – would be nothing without ink and paper

A t New York’s recently opened Poster House museum, three exhibits sum up the poster’s impact on life and culture. At one end is an ad by Raymond Savignac for French soap brand Monsavon. In the gallery next to it are hand-painted Ghanaian film posters – a rich tradition sadly falling victim to the lurid charms of digital printing. Downstairs is a display from the Women’s Marches in the US.

Despite the rise of digital media, posters have retained their popularity. We like their immediacy, simplicity, the tactile quality of ink on paper. They have nostalgic appeal and a link to important cultural moments. They are satisfying to make, and nice to put on a wall.

Take the near-ubiquitous Work Hard And Be Nice to People. Graphic artist Anthony Burrill created this simple but popular design in 2004 as a gift for friends and a self-promotional poster for prospective clients. He’d overheard the phrase in a supermarket. “An old lady was sharing the secret of a happy life to the checkout girl. It struck a chord and I thought it would make a memorable poster,” he once told design website It’s Nice That.

A 1996 poster for the video game Wipeout 2097, by Designers Republic.
A 1996 poster for the video game Wipeout 2097, by Designers Republic. Photograph: Designers Republic

Burrill has since sold thousands of copies, made up by a local print shop in Rye, East Sussex. Many more rip-offs have been sold and the poster appears in images of homes and workspaces worldwide; one fan even tattooed the design on her leg.

The history of the poster “is as much a history of printing as it is of design”, says Angelina Lippert, the Poster House’s chief curator. French artist Jules Cherét is credited as producing the first posters, in 1866. By refining the use of large-scale colour lithography invented in 1796 by the German Alois Senefelder, he enabled posters to be made cheaply and quickly. Cherét produced more than 1,000 designs, while artists including Toulouse-Lautrec and Alphonse Mucha, with their images of Parisian belle epoque cafe culture, made this a golden age for the poster. They also sparked some of the first debates about the commercialisation of public space.

Technological developments in the early 20th century meant photographic imagery could be used, and artists rejected decorative art nouveau for modern art deco. Other advances that would have an impact included hot-metal typesetting, dry-transfer lettering (Letraset), cheaper processes for reproducing photographs, desktop publishing and, eventually, digital display.

Beside this techno narrative, however, is a history of the poster as a visual record of the times. Take the woodblock versions so redolent of a certain stream of Americana. They were created to advertise travelling entertainments in rural America, but as public taste changed, so did their content, with country music and early rock’n’roll replacing the big tops. But 60s psychedelia and commercial pop made such styles seem hopelessly old-fashioned. Historical print shops such as Nashville’s Hatch Show Print seemed set to die off, until a younger generation embraced the authenticity of their simple production processes and the heritage of the materials.

A satirical poster from Led By Donkeys.
A satirical poster from Led By Donkeys. Photograph: Supplied

Later generations routinely reference posters’ styles. In the 20s, Soviet graphic artists adapted the look of western ads to create constructivism, a visual language deemed perfect for conveying the utopianism of the emerging communist state. Its use of photomontage and obliquely placed lines of type would, in turn, reappear half a century later on UK style magazines and record covers.

These designers’ 60s forebears, such as Michael English and Nigel Waymouth of Hapshash and the Coloured Coat, had already mined the art nouveau back catalogues of Aubrey Beardsley, Mucha and others to create contemporary psychedelia. Jump to the 90s and The Designers Republic are mischievously co-opting Japanese commercial culture to comment on western consumerism for Warp Records. Something similar has happened in visual cultures beyond Europe and the US. In Brazil, for example, the cheap and cheerful aesthetic of Lambe Lambe (“lick-it-lick-it”) hand-set letterpress posters, which once provided flyposted street advertising in São Paulo, has been embraced by an emerging street art scene. In Peru, the chicha music culture spawned a graphic tradition of the same name, characterised by handlettering and acid colours, which is now being discovered by young designers.

But while the poster’s role in popular culture has been rightly treasured – what would a western teenager’s bedroom do without it? – its impact in activism is no less significant. From the first world war on, the poster has been a key weapon in the propagandist’s armoury, enlisted by virtually every major political movement and once a mainstay of UK general elections.

A 1924 poster from Soviet Russia, designed by Alexander Rodchenko
A 1924 poster from Soviet Russia, designed by Alexander Rodchenko for the publishing house Gosizdat; the woman, writer Lilya Brik, is shouting “Books!” Photograph: Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Today, most “posters” are never printed at all but exist as Instagram posts –something that, for Lippert, removes their very essence. “A lot of people say they’ve created ‘posters’ on social media. What they’ve really created are memes or just images. These have value and reflect a societal moment, but printing is essential to the poster medium.”

Beyond the tactile beauty of ink on paper, there’s something in the act of making that adds to the impact of the poster, whether it’s the student protesters of Paris 68 turning out their revolutionary messages in the École des Beaux-Arts, Jeremy Deller flyposting his anti-Brexit protest around London or Led by Donkeys pasting their satirical repurposing of politicians’ embarrassing Tweets over official billboard sites.

“Posters are powerful because they have no barrier of entry,” Lippert says. Which is why they produce such memorable images; their howls of protest reminding us that, even in today’s screen-obsessed culture, when you want your voice to be heard, there’s nothing quite like ink on paper.

Patrick Burgoyne is CEO of the global creative industry charity D&AD.


Patrick Burgoyne

The GuardianTramp

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