The Daily Heller: Can Posters Have Muscle?

Posted inThe Daily Heller

When the editors of Posters Can Help asked me to write a foreword for their new book, I relied on my hardwired notions about design for social activism to fill the page with words and thoughts. When I received the book in the mail, I realized that I over-wrote what I wanted to say and, therefore, did not say what I intended in an economical, accessible manner. Fortunately, I have this venue, where I have a second chance to fine tune. The following is a shorter, and I hope breezier revised way of stating why this is a valuable collection and worthwhile book, that I urge you to purchase since its sales will help ARTHELPS and MSF—Médecins Sans Frontières.

Posters are tools of both commerce and society—and sometimes the two goals intersect. They advertise everything from food and fashion to cars and computers—in fact, everything we consume—they inform and entertain on themes as broad as art, music and lifestyle. Just as important, posters advocate, protest, caution and educate on such topics as the horrors of war, the serenity of peace, the dangers of climate change, the norms of community, the gift of hope, the fear of authoritarian rule.

If the design and content grab attention, elicit response, challenge perception and infiltrate the mind of the receiver, posters can help augment thought and stimulate ideas.

Not all posters, however, function at the same level of useful intensity. Self-indulgent design will be a liability. Over-stylized imagery will dilute a message. Yet legibility and readability are not, however, always the requisite for effective posters. Often the surprising visual impact of abstraction is more motivational than realistic representation; chaos can be more relevant than a pristine fine design. The designer’s emotional response to an issue is sometimes best when counter-intuitive.

In these frenetic times there are many positives regarding static representations. As we experience culture today there is expectation of movement, motion and change. Time for contemplation has been reduced to seconds as AI bots become increasingly more powerful. Yet posters, even those that are designed on and for the screen, are essentially lasting. They can be animated if the designer so chooses, but they can also be printed out and hung on surfaces. The benefit of the semi-but-not-entirely-hybrid poster (those that are made for and reside on internet sites) is how they are used, which is an agreement between the designer and the viewer (or user).

Posters for social (including among other issues, gender and sexuality), political (including issues, rights, law and freedom in general) and personal concerns (whatever they may be at any given time and place) can be accomplished as quickly as the creative (or polemic) mind can conceive them, produced and distributed in large numbers around the world.

The golden age of the poster has long been considered the pioneering turn of the century, then the modern mid-20th century, then the psychedelic ’60s, and so on through the decades, in Europe, the US and Asia. Today is another golden age. It is the digital golden age. Can posters really help? Yes!