The UK’s theatres may be best known for their sterling performances and intriguing sets and costumes, but the power of graphic design to entice visitors to their shows cannot be underestimated.
This is the basis of a new exhibition at London’s National Theatre, which showcases the company’s graphic design history through posters created to advertise the theatre’s past productions.
The National Theatre was founded in 1963, and for 13 years was based at the Old Vic Theatre in Lambeth. In 1976, the company moved to its own dedicated building in Southbank, and since its beginnings, has produced over 800 plays.
Chronological posters from the last 54 years
National Theatre Posters is a hand-picked selection of the company’s vast play history in visual form. Displayed chronologically, the exhibition reveals the different graphic styles adopted by the five creative directors who have led the theatre’s in-house graphic design department for the last 54 years.
The exhibition has been curated by Rick Poynor, professor of design and visual culture at the University of Reading, and conceived by the National Theatre’s current creative director Ollie Winser, who heads up the 10-strong in-house graphic design studio. The space was designed by the theatre’s exhibitions team.
The organisation is unique in that it has always put emphasis on the importance of having graphic design experts rather than commissioning work out externally, says Poynor.
“There is tremendous continuity to the theatre’s approach in producing graphic imagery,” Poynor says. “It has always had an in-house graphic department. It’s unusual for cultural organisations to work like this – normally they have a high turnover of collaborators.”
Though the odd National Theatre poster has been designed by the likes of Neville Brody, the show focuses on the work of the in-house creative directors – the late Ken Briggs, the late Richard Bird, Michael Mayhew, Charlotte Wilkinson and current head Winser and his team.
Swiss modernism to illustration and photography
Based within the theatre’s Wolfson gallery, the exhibition features 32 original, printed posters and a digital slideshow of over 100 posters.
The visual timeline demonstrates the five designers’ individual styles, from Ken Briggs’ typographic, Swiss modernism and Richard Bird’s painterly, illustrative take, through to Michael Mayhew’s consistent, black-and-white imagery paired with coloured typography, and Charlotte Wilkinson’s focus on photography and art direction.
Visitors will also see key transitions in the format and branding of the posters, as full cast lists were dropped as well as the classic “NT” logo, which was replaced with the theatre’s full name in the 2000s.
“I wanted to highlight the key approaches, including typographic, illustrative, photographic, art-directed, and those posters with an emphasis on branding,” says Poynor. “It was a careful curatorial process, of choosing certain posters that linger in the mind longer and are more powerful, but also choosing those that work together in small groups.”
“A theatre poster should make you want to find out more”
A particular favourite for the curator is a Richard Bird poster designed in 1981 for William Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure.
“Like so much of Bird’s work, it doesn’t look like the other ones he did,” Poynor says. “He just had that versatility. This is pre-digital, but he has managed to create a photographic effect on the title, where the letters have been distorted and they appear as if they are rippling across the sky on a flag.”
“The photography looks like it has been taken on a tropical island,” he adds. “It’s a warm-looking poster with a Caribbean feel, unlike what you would expect for Shakespeare. It intrigues you and makes you want to find out more – which is exactly what a theatre poster should do.”
Design processes revealed
Alongside the array of final designs, there are three display tables at the exhibition which illustrate the “process stories” of three key posters from the theatre’s history. These include various iterations and rough workings that led to the final piece.
The exhibition also features a film showing interviews with present and past National Theatre creative directors, and a reading area where visitors can flick through an accompanying exhibition book.
The 250-page book, entitled National Theatre Posters: A Design History, has been published by Unit Editions and features an extensive selection of the theatre’s graphic prints.
The graphic design of the exhibition space itself also borrows from the rectangular, poster motif. Titles, text and captions appear on posters of varying sizes, which are stuck directly to the walls in different colours and finishes.
“The ‘double crown’ poster size of 20” x 30” (51cm x 76cm) is still something we use around the theatre building today,” says current creative director Winser. “It made sense to celebrate the famous ratio by using it as a backdrop and information carrier for the exhibition.”
“Talented designers who are not well-known”
Through presenting both beautiful pieces of finished work and also explaining the process of how designers got there, the show is aimed at theatre-goers and design-enthusiasts alike, says Poynor.
“For a non-design audience, it will provide something educational, pleasurable and interesting,” he says. “For visual artists, this exhibition will show that the National Theatre’s archive is a significant body of work, with hundreds of posters created by talented designers, some of whom are not well-known.”
National Theatre Posters runs until 31 March 2018 at Wolfson Gallery, National Theatre, Upper Ground, Southbank, London SE1 9PX. Entry is free. The exhibition is accompanied by a series of talks throughout October and November, which cost £3-£7. For more information, head here.
The book, National Theatre Posters: A Design History, is published by Unit Editions and available for £35 from Unit Editions online.