Poster graduates

Michael Johnson wonders why the art of the poster is so neglected in this country, and suggests we look overseas for proof that it can still be great. Michael Johnson is design director of consultancy Johnson Banks, which does the odd poster itself.

Say the word “poster” to most people and they go a little dewy-eyed and start talking about Toulouse-Lautrec. Or, worse still, Athena, where many a poster was purchased and plastered on the wall until the Blu-tack went hard and it fell off, taking chunks of wallpaper with it in the process.

Ask them to name a modern poster and you’ll be met with blank stares, particularly in this country. But poster design didn’t stop with

Milton Glaser. Every day posters are designed. You just don’t see them written about too often. Now, why not?

Is it because designers don’t like doing them? That seems a little hard to believe. Any designer who says they’re not interested in doing posters is either visually bereft or a liar. The chance to design something the size of a wall is an opportunity most will die for.

Some will have you believe the poster is dead. This is a fair point; before the advent of television the poster was king. Now the call for posters may be less, but it doesn’t mean to say they can’t still be great.

Perhaps the advertising community must take part of the blame. That ad on the side of your local bus shelter might make you buy more soap powder, but you’re unlikely to frame it and put it up in the front room.

But they can’t shoulder all of it. Think of Abbott Mead Vickers’ work for The Economist; any designer who can’t see the strength of such work is missing an important lesson in simplicity, clarity and good old-fashioned less-is-more. The old adage of “three words maximum” for poster headlines is brutally demonstrated by good agency posters and leaves many designer attempts at “communication” looking, well, just a bit thin.

The simple fact is that the British are just not very poster-aware. Elsewhere in the world graphic designers can earn a fair living just as poster designers – a specialisation close to commercial suicide in this country. In Germany, Uwe Loesch and Gunter Rambow have built awesome reputations and portfolios around posters. In Japan, it is still one of the great advertising and design mediums; just a quick skip through any of the Japanese design annuals or a look at Makoto Saito’s work will show you this. In the US, Paula Scher produces new poster designs at an awesome rate for the Public Theater which have brought the streets of New York alive again with strong, single images and the boldest, most brutal type.

Many poster historians recall the great times of poster power in the Sixties when there was a legitimate desire for agitprop posters. Fast forward 30 years and record promotion has replaced politics on the boarded-up shops that formed the bill-poster’s gallery. The default poster of a picture of the band and a big piece of type may hold sway, but that can’t stop Mark Farrow designing posters of such minimal beauty that even the Pet Shop Boys don’t want their mug-shots on them.

When you consider the strength of the work that has been done for English National Opera by CDT Design, it seems remarkable that many theatre companies still persist in going off to what looks like their local foundation course for some crummily put-together two-colour poster. If a visitor to this country formed a visual impression of us by the quality of our West End theatre posters (Grease, Five Guys named Moe et al), heaven help us all. So, what are we going to do about it?

What we really need is somewhere to celebrate the strength of posters. Perhaps a museum – or even just a room in a museum. Well, did you know that we already have one? And it’s a great collection – a national collection. But most people will never have seen it. It’s in two long rooms with high ceilings at the top of the Victoria & Albert Museum, and in these musty spaces nestles everything from the

Beggarstaff Brothers to Neville Brody, just hanging there, waiting for their time.

We must follow the example of other countries. Take the US. There’s nothing more powerful than a visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where at the top of the building is a mini-exhibition of classic posters of the century. As you crane your neck to look at the Mller-Brockmans and the Lester Bealls, it makes it all seem worth it again. You just can’t wait for the next chance to do a poster yourself.

Next year, we will all get a brief chance to see the V&A’s collection in an exhibition which will look at the history of the poster. And although this is a retrospective rather than a future-looking display, some sort of activity is better than none. And without a poster museum or even a common or garden biennale, what can we expect?

Unless of course, we were to create something of our own.

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