Billboard blues

Michael Johnson fears a decline in the quality of poster design in the commercial and cultural arenas, as print skills are edged out by digital design. But there’s hope on the horizon in the form of strong Polish work – and nothing’s stopping us here in the UK, either. Yolanda Zappaterra reports

With the threat of public spending cuts and turmoil in the market and private sectors, the design community may not have much to look forward to in this year’s General Election, but one aspect of it is likely to engage us creatively, as it always does – the power of the poster to capture hearts and change minds. As the Barack Obama campaign in 2008 persuasively illustrated, the poster still has the raw power to incisively persuade a populace.

On this evidence alone, it is alive and kicking, and going great guns. But finding strong examples of the form in other areas it once dominated – advertising and marketing campaigns for cultural institutions, healthcare, public safety, films and a myriad of other cultural events and seasons – is harder.

Jerzy Skakun, one half of Warsaw-based design group Homework, obviously revels in the form. If you just looked at the visual puns and bold, illustrative strokes that make up the 50 posters he’s designed with partner Joanna Górska currently on show at London’s Kemistry Gallery, it would be easy to agree with his contention that ’the form of the poster is not in decline’. As he points out, ’Warsaw’s famous Poster Biennale attracts more than 3000 posters from around the world, and that’s just a tiny percentage of what’s being designed. Every play, every film and every festival has a poster. It’s like a cover for a book.’

While that may be true in much of mainland Europe, poster design in the UK is another matter. Michael Johnson of Johnson Banks, which has designed hundreds of posters, says, ’A decade ago, we were designing poster sets for all manner of people because that was a powerful way to communicate in classrooms, corridors or train stations. There seems to be much less interest now. Why spend £20 000 or more on a poster set, with its incumbent postage issues, when you can put the information on a website for half of that?’

The problem, as Johnson sees it, doesn’t lie just with the decline in the use of the poster. He discerns a drop in standards, too. ’We’re now surrounded by a dreadful standard of poster design wherever you look. On the Tube, endless “floating head” cinema cross-tracks stare back at us and cultural institutions seem just happy to blow up a picture of the artist’s work, then whack a logo in the corner,’ he says. Skakun agrees. ’I would like to see more diversity in movie posters, something that goes beyond the Hollywood style of big actor close-up or movie still,’ he says.

There are some happy oases of creativity in the desert of dross. Last year Manchester design group Music devised an engaging ’Big Four’ campaign for Manchester City Football Club, which adapts traditional music posters to turn matches against Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United into big ’events’ that connect the city’s football and music heritage. Creative director David Simpson is bullish about the future of poster design, saying, ’There will always be opportunities for posters that will be relevant, and people will always connect with a strong message, well told.’

But with the poster in decline as a delivery medium, are the skills that enable the message to be well told in danger of being lost? Simpson thinks not. ’Understanding the mechanics of posters, be it production or scale, is secondary to the idea. A great idea will work. If you have something interesting to say and an idea to communicate, you can write it in marker on a piece of scrap paper and it’ll do its job,’ he says.

Johnson, however, is less convinced. ’As the printed form becomes more and more rare, the time and budgets needed to design decent posters – and nurture decent poster designers – will inevitably diminish. I would imagine that some of the traditional skills will start to get lost. If you don’t practise, you never learn, let’s face it,’ he says. But the simplicity of good poster design could well save it, he adds. ’As a rule, posters were always most successful in their simplest form – two or three colours, simple design. That’s not a huge technical requirement.’

So will the ever-present desire for a strong message, cleverly and quickly delivered, see the poster through? ’I don’t think posters will disappear soon, especially those for cultural events,’ says Skakun. ’As long as there are theatres, galleries and cinemas there will be posters, because they’re an inexpensive way to attract customers, and they can include local character, which makes their positioning in a particular area very important.’

In design terms, Johnson sees a use for them beyond marketing. ’I keep coming back to the fact that all the huge identity schemes we do now are almost always applied to posters in the early iterations – it remains one of the quickest ways to see if a headline, a picture and a logo can co-exist in an intriguing and memorable way, ’ he says. ’Even if it only continues to exist as a hypothetical exercise, it’s an exercise worth doing.’

Homework: Modern Polish Poster Design is at Kemistry Gallery, 43 Charlotte Road, London EC2 until 17 April

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