Super size me

Giant graphics, such as billboards and pavement-embedded messages so large you have to stand back to take them all in, cannot fail to impress through their sheer scale. Big writing in the public domain can only enhance our cityscapes

Why are giant graphics good? They are cinematic. They fill the eye. You have to move your head to take them in; they have a drama that comes just from their sheer bigness. Even average things can look amazing when they are huge.

Paul Belford – a man with a cupboard full of D&AD Yellow Pencils – says scale ‘forces you to be simple’. It is a paradox. We dream about doing things bigger, that more room to do graphics in means more graphics. But in actual terms, the more space you have means that your work is in a street and is only going to be seen fleetingly. The design needs to be simple as pie. Abram Games said that a street poster should be understood by a man running past. Belford did a poster for the Outdoor Advertising Association covering the whole side of a building – it spread across 500m2 and all it said was ‘POW’. Up close, his Sony Playstation poster is a morass of PS symbols; it only becomes a picture as you move away from it – when you see it small.

Most graphic designers rarely get to go bigger than A1, maybe A0. It stems from the division in what clients ask us to produce. Designers work on logos and print (small). Art directors work on advertising poster campaigns (big). So, most really big posters, the ones we see every day in the street, are in the hands of the ad guys. The one area in which graphic designers can work large is on buildings. Paula Scher of Pentagram in New York, whose type is normally very big, goes architecture-scale when let loose on a client’s building. John Morgan worked with poet Andrew Motion to create granite paving typography for the BBC at London’s White City so enormous it can only be read from the top of the building. This kind of work has so much character, and – unlike billboards that change frequently – it lasts. It creates a sense of place, as effectively as the buildings themselves.

Probably the most important aspect of big graphics is that they are public/ we can all see them. This is good when it’s an image or idea that we laugh or marvel at, but it is awful when it’s one we hate. But then hate or love it, this kind of communication is part of an even bigger conversation that takes in the whole of society. Big graphics, combined with all the other lesser-scale material that appears in the public domain, are ideas that feed and shape us.

When Mario Testino’s Benetton ads appeared a few years back, they provoked very strong reactions. People seemed provoked to look at a picture of a new-born baby, covered in fat and blood, rather than the scrubbed-clean, several-days-old babies that get delivered in films and on television. I thought it was a great, stirring image: awful, but life-affirming at the same time. But the media was full of complainers, many of whom said that the miracle of birth made them feel ‘nauseous’.

There is an argument that the streets belong to all of us, and it’s appalling that they are used for commercial gain by a highly restricted number of companies while we cannot use them as we wish (it is illegal for you or me to use our own street in this way). It diminishes the range and nature of what society can see, and reduces all communication to commerce.

I couldn’t agree more. But then almost everything we have access to is commercialised. When it comes to the street, the best we can hope for is very imaginative design and advertising, like Benetton, that stretches us, gives us pause, and introduces something unexpected.

And are we so unlucky? I have been to places with next to no ads or signs, like the shanty cities of Cambodia and mining towns in Siberia, and they are places of unrelenting drabness. Billboards often mask a multitude of urban sins: views of flyovers, desolate land, boring buildings, car parks.

There is also a kind of street hierarchy. At the top are really big expensive giant billboards, then there are shop signs and windows, traffic signs and street signs. At small-scale, head-height, it is open season – home-made missing-cat posters, music flyposters, posters for Polish concerts in Polish, all those stencils and stickers. You don’t even need paper – you can write directly on to things: graffiti. It is a cacophony of communications.

One clever way of getting really, really big is projection. The cheekiest example was when a naked Gail Porter was projected on to the Houses of Parliament in London by FHM. This also has the huge advantage of disappearing when the lamp is turned off.

And surely this is where we are going. Several of the newest buildings in Shanghai and Hong Kong have gigantic screens several stories high stretched across them, showing pointless films of fish or exploding logos. Even though it is meaningless, it’s exciting; it’s huge and it moves. This could so easily be more meaningful – mini-movies or stories, thrilling ads or even live-action, reactive content. In New York’s Times Square they had a giant racing car game that you could play with your Bluetooth mobile. As this hardware becomes cheaper, you can imagine buildings eventually disappearing behind screens. Architecture gives way to graphic design. We aren’t far off Fernand Léger’s painted visions of the city made entirely of giant graphics and typography. l

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