It’s time to learn a thing or two about the science of the poster
When most museums put on poster exhibits, they tend to walk viewers through the histories of different artistic styles, ranging from Art Nouveau to Bauhaus. So when the Smithsonian’s newly renovated and re-energized Cooper Hewitt Design Museum in New York took stock of its hefty collection of 4,000 rarely seen posters, it wanted to create a display that would explore the works as more than just ink on paper” writes The Atlantic’s Steven Heller on the exhibition that will have any poster obsessed individual beg for more. Featuring more than 125 works from Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s permanent collection, the exhibition “How Posters Work” shows how dozens of different designers—from prominent pioneers like Herbert Matter, Paul Rand, Philippe Apeloig and M/M (Paris), to lesser-known makers—have mobilized principles of composition, perception and storytelling to convey ideas and construct experiences.
“A true visual feast, ‘How Posters Work’ features 14 principles of how designers look at the world” said Caroline Baumann, director of the museum. “This exhibition reveals the design techniques behind some of the most iconic and beloved posters in the museum’s collection, from the hard-edged designs of Ladislav Sutnar to the ever popular psychedelic posters of the 1960s, which epitomize sensory overload” she added. From selling a product or promoting an event to arguing a point at a moment in history the history of poster is rich and versatile. Curated by senior curator of contemporary design Ellen Lupton, the show is organized into 14 subsections, concepts “that aren’t exactly universal, but they encapsulate a broad range of methods for approaching a design problem”, including “overwhelm the eye”, “overlap” and “use text as image”. The latter, for example, is about how typography is often used in poster design, to enhance or obscure a message through the size, style and arrangement of letters.
“Nearly every poster in our exhibition uses typography” Lupton told us in an email. “Sometimes type is used to telescope a message to achieve maximum emotional impact, as in the poster “Someone Talked”, published by the US Office of War Information during World War II. This poster uses powerful language and minimal type to bring home the message that a sailor is about to drown because the enemy overheard idle chatter about troop movements. On the opposite end of the spectrum are posters by Ralph Schraivogel and Michiel Schuurman, which use type to embroil the eye in a complex and disorienting experience”.
“Nearly every poster in our exhibition uses typography. Sometimes type is used to telescope a message to achieve maximum emotional impact. On the opposite end of the spectrum are posters which use type to embroil the eye in a complex and disorienting experience”.
To increase accessibility, visitors can explore the collection on seven digital tables throughout the museum with the Collection Browser. The largest tables allow up to six users to simultaneously explore high-resolution images of collection objects and select items from the “object river” that flows down the center of each table. Visitors can zoom in on object details and learn about its history and related objects, which are organized by design theme and motif. Visitors can also draw a shape that will bring up a related collection object or try their hand at drawing simple three-dimensional forms.
The exhibition, which is on view at Cooper Hewitt from May 8 through Jan. 24, 2016, is accompanied by a 224-page catalog, published by Cooper Hewitt, which serves as a rich primer in visual thinking and demonstrates how some of the world’s most creative designers have mobilized design principles to produce powerful acts of visual communication. At last posters have the high-design moment they do deserve.