David Bernstein: Send a mixed message

What happened to poster design? Are companies diluting their offer because of globalisation and branding concerns? David Bernstein thinks it’s time for a rethink

I will be criticised for taking a hammer to a nut, biting the hand that feeds me and resurfacing as the Victor Meldrew of Design Week. No matter. Here goes.

I was not impressed with the Design Week cover story (DW 31 May), featuring four pages of political designs elicited from designers asked to “create promotions for any of the three main parties”.

A clear enough brief. But who stuck to it? The feature’s author (unnamed), referring to one collection of images, said, “It’s hard to tell from the outcome which party the Springpoint duo is aiming to promote.” The same criticism, however, could be applied to almost all of the entries. They were jokey – and some of the jokes weren’t bad. They used familiar images, like, for example, two washing powders and William Hague with demon eyes. They were mostly negative. It’s much easier to bang your opponent than your drum. But, most heinous of all, they were virtually all unbranded.

With the parties themselves converging, establishing an identity is crucial. Neat, critical graphics may amuse, but they are self-defeating if the reader can’t tell who is being critical. Springpoint’s slogan “New Labour cuts”, beneath a pair of scissors cutting up a map of Great Britain, though a clever swipe at devolution, was unattributed. The map was green – was the party? Mind you, Labour’s own campaign contained an ambiguous visual message also using scissors, open to form the Y in “Tory cuts”. I wonder how many voters thought it was a Tory promise rather than a Labour crit?

The most intriguing design was Intro’s pastiche of Orange: “The future’s right”, juxtaposed with the word “Labour” in a square of red merging into blue. This was presumably a subtle comment on convergence on a par with the Economist’s eve-of-poll cover “Vote conservative”, captioning a picture of Tony Blair in a Margaret Thatcher wig. But could you see Labour running it? It might adopt Johnson Banks’ image of Hague in a dustbin, the word His (red) Tory (blue) and the injunction (red) “Don’t turn the clock back”. Presumably (again that word) supporting the Labour Party, if the colours are a clue.

But overall what a missed opportunity, especially when the feature is introduced with the words, “Politics have traditionally spawned great designs”. As mild satirical comment this isn’t bad but as promotions? When voters find it difficult to distinguish between the claims of the individual parties you would hope that professional designers from the field of identity would make it easier for them.

But it was only for fun and only Bernstein took it seriously Meanwhile, in the real world, my mentor Jeremy Bullmore, addressing the UK Outdoor Advertising Conference in Barcelona last month, took poster designers to task. “A poster no one can decipher has to be the ultimate waste of money,” he said.

It’s not simply a matter of “Who’s it for?”, but also “What’s it saying?”. I saw my share of these this month at FEPE’s annual International Outdoor Advertising Congress in Taormina, Sicily. The examples veered between the banal and the opaque. The opaque are often self indulgent, speaking to some inner elite. As for banality, it’s one downside of globalisation when the need for universality of message blurs the distinction between the simple and the simplistic and the medium is used merely to remind, rather than involve.

However, the familiar global brands rarely leave you asking which product they are promoting. (Neither, incidentally, did the great poster campaigns of old.) The brand is clearly the hero. Have you ever mistaken a McDonalds, Nescafé, Colgate or Coca-Cola poster for that of a competitor?

These brands never fall into the trap of picture plus caption with the brand name featuring (if that’s the word) in the bottom fifth of the design. For the brand to act as hero the design needs to be integrated, a fusion of image and words. This is the creative challenge of the poster which the masters of the medium rarely ducked. These designs were not adapted print ads. How could they be? The viewing experience is dimensionally different, in time and space. Readers see print ads at their own pace – and see them whole. Pedestrians at an Adshel bus site might also do so, but car drivers and their passengers might not.

Nor, it might be said, do most members of audiences at conferences. At FEPE delegates were straining to decipher a caption, to capture a brand name. Branding is the bottom line – but not literally.

Latest articles