In her seminal 1970 essay on posters, Susan Sontag begins by making a distinction between the poster and the public notice. “Posters are simply not public notices,” she writes. “Both posters and public notices address the person not as an individual, but as an unidentified member of the body politic. But the poster, as distinct from the public notice, presupposes the modern concept of the public—in which the members of a society are defined primarily as spectators or consumers. A public notice aims to inform or command. A poster aims to seduce, to exhort, to sell, to educate, to convince, to appeal.” There are many tools in the poster designer’s arsenal to create the appeal Sontag describes, and the very rise of the poster as a form is tied to the rise of a technology needed to produce this appeal: color lithography. Implicit in Sontag’s argument, though, is a claim about the form of information itself. The information the public notice offers arrives pure, unvarnished, unadorned. The information the poster offers is designed, decorated, expressed. One’s form is neutral and the other’s is inflected. But is information ever formless? Can it ever be delivered without some influence from its carrier?
The public notice as an object presents us with a challenge: Where does seeing stop and reading start? Where does information end and design begin? As we witness the rise of a sober new Helvetica age, the public notice’s flat language and style shows up more and more in contemporary design. Here’s a look at some of that work, some earlier artistic predecessors, and some of the issues that arise from working with language as a medium in art and design.
Freeman Dyson writing in the New York Review of Books on William Nordhaus’s idea of the “future discount” as it applies to global warming: “If we can save M dollars of damage caused by climate change in the year 2110 by spending one dollar on reducing emissions in the year 2010, how large must M be to make the spending worthwhile? Or, as economists might put it, how much can future losses from climate change be diminished or ‘discounted’ by money invested in reducing emissions now?” I’m just beginning my research for my contribution to the Green Patriot Posters campaign, which seeks to mobilize citizens for energy independence and awareness of climate change by taking as its inspiration some of America’s most iconic WWII-era posters, including Rosie the Riveter and many more. The campaign’s first initiative is a bus advertising campaign in Cleveland by its multitalented native son, Michael Bierut.
“The Center for Urban Pedagogy’s new series of fold-out posters uses innovative graphic design to explore and explain public policy. Making Policy Public is published twice a year, and each poster is the product of a commissioned collaboration between a designer and an advocate.” Apply by June 16th.
Charles Moseley is dedicated to developing a quality archive of Cuban posters over at his blog. While I agree with Susan Sontag that there are certainly some meaningful problems presented by collecting posters of this kind, it is nonetheless wonderful to see so many extraordinarily inventive and beautiful Cuban posters all in one place. A nice resource for designers and historians alike.
The now online-only Premiere magazine offers a list of the 25 Best Movie Posters Ever. Saul Bass dominates this list, and justifiedly so, but for something a little different, check out Erik Nitsche’s great poster for All About Eve, Steve Frankfurt’s fantastic (though uncredited) poster for Rosemary’s Baby, or Frankfurt’s restrained black-and-white poster for Downhill Racer.