• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: Can the World Be Changed by Posters?

A title is not always a precise representation of a book's content. Titles can be metaphoric, symbolic, poetic, and some are ambiguous, confusing or just plain wrong. With book marketing focused on online commerce, publishers are increasingly pressured to put search words into titles that optimize the click potential, particularly with nonfiction books. This results in more literal primary titles and/or lengthier subtitles. Like writing snappy tabloid newspaper headlines, there is a craft to devising SEO-friendly book titles.

The title is one of the problems I have with this book, Colin Slater's 100 Posters That Changed the World (Pavilion/Rizzoli).

Readers love lists. So, book titles [Editor's Note: and articles, for that matter] that include numbers often get a good consumer response: 10 Ways to Make Love 10 Times Better, 50 Extinct Marsupials, 75 Recipes for Rice Crispy Treats, the 100 best or worst this or that. Books of lists must provide readers with the number promised in the title. Yet not all numerically categorized books are as specific as the title suggests. For example, a book titled 100 Best Musical Comedies will not list every musical comedy ever produced; rather, it derives from a curated selection of 100 entries that the reader may agree or disagree with. The content is determined by the author unless otherwise indicated, which is fair.

Slater's 100 Posters That Changed the World might be afforded curatorial license were it not for the hyperbolic second half of the title. Although the selection here is largely the author's particular tastes, biases and definitions, the inclusion of That Changed the World puts more weight on his decisions and demands more authoritative justifications than are currently given. The larger question of whether or not a poster can actually (not simply wishfully or even metaphorically) change the world is left unanswered—and why these particular posters.

This book is part of an ongoing series that includes 100 Speeches That Changed the World, 100 Children's Books That Changed the World and 100 Diagrams That Changed the World, among others. One can argue that some speeches, a few children's books and a diagram or two did, in fact, alter the way we experience the world, but that is a far cry from changing it. The end of slavery changed the world, but posters advocating and announcing it were only the messengers—important yes, but … remember the Emancipation Proclamation and 13th Amendment. Likewise, the "I Am A Man Poster" (below) is iconic—a powerful affirmation—but not the engine for changing the civil rights laws in the U.S.

The Emancipation Proclamation changed America. Anti-Slavery Campaign (1788–1865)
Martin Luther King: I Am A Man (1968) poster. Alamy

There are many posters covered in this book that are interesting to have documented. Yet I fail to see how this famous photo of Albert Einstein (who indeed changed the world) that was made into a "personality poster" (below) that hung on many a dormitory wall, should get such a laurel as "world-changer." Most of the posters included are fairly well-known, so a more apt title could be 100 Recognizable (or even Memorable) Posters.

Albert Einstein (1951).

I agree that a single poster definitely can have an influence on many people over time by virtue of various contexts and appearances in collections of this kind (posters like the UK's "Keep Calm and Carry On," Milton Glaser's "Dylan" or Shepard Fairey's "Hope" are classics, if not also innovative). Yet this does not mean that they literally or figuratively "Changed the World." Woodstock was a "generation-defining" event but the poster is a souvenir. It may seem like splitting hairs, but words have meaning, especially on most posters. The measure of accomplishment for any poster is that it makes an impression.

To complicate matters of categorization, the "100" do not exactly add up to 100 separate posters but rather represent 100 categories of poster content (e.g., Circus posters, Buffalo Bill posters, Temperance posters and Enhanced Color Travel posters), some of which are either too general or technical in scope (litho posters) or obscure. In addition to themes (which is a valid organizing principle), there are also posters for specific products (e.g., Lucky Strike and Chesterfield cigarettes, Coca-Cola's robust Santa Claus, the movie poster for Jaws). Not all the posters fall strictly into the definition of a poster (an amalgam of type and image that contains a message, informs and/or entertains, and can be posted outdoors or indoors, and more often these days, on a screen). A few here are newspaper and magazine advertisements, letter-sized flyers or painted stencils. Finally, not all the themes are understandable. For instance, "Farrah [Fawcett]: Red Swimsuit," which was a popular "personality poster" pin-up aimed at teenage boys—but as a genre all its own, it doesn't float.

Even if one buys into the conceit that these 100 posters are what is claimed, there are doubtless a hundred more that go ignored. It is not useful to list them here, but there are scores of poster anthologies, monographs and histories from the 19th to the 21st centuries that include work that fits into this book's buckets.

The real question for the student and aficionado is this: Will 100 Posters That Changed the World provide fresh insight? I think not.

It is stretching to call this ad for Lucky Strike Cigarettes a poster. Alamy

Emily Harding’s poster shows the stark inequalities of university-educated women having the same status as lunatics and criminals, while at the same time making the viewer uncomfortable at seeing a woman locked in a cell with two men. Alamy
WPA: See America posters (1936–1943). Library of Congress.
Jaws movie poster (1975).
Woodstock (1969) poster. Designer: Arnold Skolnick. Alamy
Obama: Hope (2008) poster. Designer: Shepard Fairey.

All posters courtesy Rizzoli