How Posters Work
Exhibition TextThis is an exhibition about how designers see. How Posters Work shows the ways dozens of designers from around the world have used the principles of composition, perception, and storytelling to convey ideas and solicit sensations. Some works focus our attention on a single message, while others send the eye on a meandering journey. Graphic designers use form, color, image, and language to seek out simplicity and complexity, flatness and depth, singular moments and stories that unfold. Some designers strive for maximum clarity, while others challenge the viewer to uncover a hidden message. How Posters Work features over 125 pieces from Cooper Hewitt’s permanent collection, dating from the turn of the twentieth century to the present.
Why posters? Over the last century, posters have served both as utilitarian communication and as design discourse. Today, posters still appear on city streets, but they are no longer a dominant form of mass communication. As posters circulate through both print and social media, they continue to be a crucial medium for inventing and sharing new visual languages. How Posters Work uses the medium of the poster to explore principles of visual thinking that extend to many forms of design, including branding, packaging, book covers, websites, and motion graphics.
See all the objects in this exhibition.
Focus the Eye TextMany posters have a clear and obvious point of focus. In each of the posters shown here, a familiar object dominates the composition (a typewriter, a glass of water, an empty plate of food). The designers use line, color, contrast, and placement to emphasize these dominant objects.
Notice that none of these posters is completely symmetrical, even though each one has a strong focal point. Pushing the main object off-center or adding diagonal elements creates a sense of drama.
“The eye is attracted by the dark disc and has no way of escaping.” —Bruno Munari, 1966
Bruno Munari’s 1966 essay “Posters with a Central Image” pokes fun at the commonplace design solution of putting a big circle in the middle of a poster. Designers today continue to use this compositional device, either as an easy and effective design solution or as a point of creative departure.
See all the objects in the Focus the Eye section.
Overwhelm the Eye TextSome designers seek to lead the eye on a restless journey. The psychedelic posters of the 1960s employ swirling lines, repeating forms, and competing colors to keep the viewer’s eye in motion.
Artist and designer Josef Albers studied how colors interact. Two colors that have sharply different hues but are similar in value (light and dark) are said to “vibrate.”Psychedelic posters were inspired in part by his studies.
Designers in the twenty-first century—inspired by doodles, graffiti, mass media, and automated drawing processes—have created warped and layered spaces.
See all the objects in the Overwhelm the Eye section.
Use Text As Image TextEvery letter is a visual image, yet readers rarely stop to notice the physical presence of text. Indeed, well-designed type can become invisible, playing a supporting role to content. In posters, however, typography often becomes an assertive visual element that we see as well as read.
See all the objects in the Use Text As Image section.
Overlap TextOverlapping two or more elements is a simple way to simulate depth. By partially blocking one shape with another, designers produce an imaginary space between figure and ground. This effect can be achieved by pasting one piece of paper on top of another, or by creating shapes that appear to occupy separate planes because their edges align.
See all the objects in the Overlap section.
Assault the Surface TextBurning, bending, or ripping an image points to the artifice of the work. Such techniques create mental friction as we acknowledge the image as both surface and representation. These works often call attention to edges, borders, and backgrounds in order to reveal how design actively frames our attenti
See all the objects in the Assault the Surface section.
Cut and Paste TextCombining fragments into a new whole is a basic technique of graphic design. Before the digital era, designers pasted diverse elements (halftone photographs, high-contrast prints, strips of typeset text) onto boards called paste-ups. Digital software turned this production method into simple key commands, allowing designers to endlessly recompose blocks of image and text.
See all the objects in the Cut and Paste section.
Simplify TextDesigners often simplify an image in order to focus attention on a message or product. Stark silhouettes of objects became a hallmark of modern poster design. In the 1960s and 1970s, Polish designers created remarkable film posters that advertised popular American films, yet performed outside the conventional language of Hollywood promotion. Working with available materials, Polish designers drew on personal experience to tell the story of the films. Poignant details bring these minimal illustrations to life.
See all the objects in the Simplify section.
Tell A Story TextMany posters tell stories. A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Stories often begin by telling us where we are and who the protagonist is. The story also establishes a point of view. Will we see events through the eyes of the protagonist, or from the outside view of an omniscient narrator?
When telling a story with just one image, designers choose a single point in a narrative to suggest the larger story, and they choose details that illuminate the situation and setting.
See all the objects in the Tell A Story section.
Amplify TextTo amplify means to boost the intensity of a signal. Designers amplify messages by scrawling, stenciling, enlarging, underlining, slanting, angling, or framing texts. Lowercase letters can seem calm and conversational, while uppercase letters can project anger, agitation, or authority. Listen to the posters in this room; many of them are shouting at you.
Words make sounds inside your head, and so can pictures. We use our faces to communicate with other people and with ourselves. Smiling can make you feel happier, even when you have nothing warm or funny to smile about. Graphic designers use images of screaming mouths to trigger visceral responses in viewers. A scream can be loud even when you can’t hear it.
See all the objects in the Amplify section.
Say Two Things at Once TextDuring World War II, the U.S. Office of War Information (OWI) used phrases such as “loose lips sink ships” to discourage idle talk about ship movements that might expose naval forces to attack. A Careless Word depicts a lifeboat loaded with distressed and wounded sailors pulling away from a burning ship. As viewers, we put ourselves in the boat with the sailors, seeing the devastation from their perspective. Someone Talked! pulls us in closer, bringing us eye to eye with a sailor who is about to disappear forever into the deep. The designer has focused our attention on a single human experience—and he holds us responsible for the event we are witnessing.
See all the objects in the Say Two Things at Once section.
Communicate with Scale TextShifts in scale are signals of depth. Larger objects appear closer to the viewer and smaller ones appear farther away. Designers often exaggerate scale differences in order to amplify the illusion of depth. Designers also use shifts in scale abstractly, to create visual tension among elements, and symbolically, to suggest narrative relationships.
See all the objects in the Communicate with Scale section.
Exploit the Diagonal TextVertical and horizontal lines are everywhere. Vertical trees and the horizontal ground plane pervade our view of nature, and gridded structures dominate the built environment. Most writing systems employ horizontal or vertical lines of text. Designers use diagonals to interrupt the static regime of the vertical/horizontal grid and to create a sense of motion and depth.
See all the objects in the Exploit the Diagonal section.
Make a System TextDesigners devise systems for organizing information and creating a recognizable series over time. A typographic grid is a set of invisible guidelines for aligning elements; a grid can become a strong visual element in its own right. Designers today create systems that allow surprising forms to emerge from a problem or situation.
See all the objects in the Make a System section.
Make Eye Contact TextEyes are powerful attractors. Eyes looking out of a poster challenge the viewer to look back. Eyes can be as compelling in their absence as in their presence. Blocking the eyes implies physical and emotional violence or states of denial, desolation, or emptiness.
See all the objects in the Make Eye Contact section.