From pillar to poster

With the takeover of giant billboards, Adrian Shaughnessy laments the death of the poster and claims it has a central place in graphic design history.

With the takeover of giant billboards, Adrian Shaughnessy laments the death of the poster and claims it has a central place in graphic design history

Last May, I attended the International Poster and Graphic Arts Festival in Chaumont, North East France. It was a remarkable event – an invigorating celebration of graphic design, with the well-established poster competition as its centrepiece, and numerous supporting events.

For a few days each year, this little town plays host to the great and the good of French design, and is invaded by a determined army of students (the poster-tubes sticking out of their rucksacks look like rifles) who fill up the bars and cafés, and flock to the numerous exhibitions, talks and events.

My few days in Chaumont rekindled my love of graphic design, at a time when it was flagging – not to mention reminding me of my abiding affection for small French towns, French provincial cuisine, and, perhaps most surprisingly, French graphic design, a greatly underestimated phenomenon.

But I came away from this delightful event with a thought that has troubled me ever since. It was at Chaumont that I made the sad realisation that the poster is a dying art form. Arriving at the festival, the opposite seemed true. Here was an event – in fact, a whole town – celebrating the poster.

There were dozens of magnificent specimens on display – hardly surprising perhaps, since the competition attracts some of the best designers in the world, with entries from the US, Europe, Russia and the Far East (significantly there wasn’t a single British entry). The posters were beautifully displayed in a former army barracks, and their visual richness was dazzling.

Yet, on closer inspection, these glorious examples of the art of poster design were mainly done for arts organisations and cultural institutions. There were none that had been made for nakedly commercial purposes, or the conveying of public information – both tasks to which the poster is well suited. Beyond the world of the arts, the poster is dead – or so it seemed.

Further evidence for the demise of the poster can be seen in the current D&AD Annual. The 2005 edition boasts a thinly-populated section within advertising called ‘Posters’, but most of the examples on display aren’t posters – they’re billboards. The situation isn’t much better within Graphics. Here, posters don’t even merit their own sub-section, and amount to only a handful of examples. Why is this? Cost, I suppose. Not the cost of printing, but the cost of displaying them. Now that the entire urban environment seems to have been colonised by outdoor-advertising site owners, it’s simply too expensive to put up a poster, unless you are a big brand owner. And the big brand owners want billboards.

Sure, billboards can occasionally show a bit of wit and style, but, for the most part, they reduce communication to a single proposition, something that can be absorbed in a millisecond as we speed past in our cars on the way to the local supermarket. Posters are different. Their human scale allows for messages to be delivered with a proper regard for hierarchies of information. They encourage the viewer to linger, to absorb the message slowly.

Can you imagine graphic design history without the poster? It’s unthinkable. But posters that you might want to savour or pin on your wall may already be a thing of the past.

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