Article from Commercial Art Vol 10, No 60, June 1931.
In minor printed matter we constantly meet the new typography, but it is relatively rare to find posters designed on the new lines. And yet poster-designing is a field where new typographical methods might be employed with great effect.
Starting with the simple printed poster people have hitherto been for the most part content to get a given text printed for better or for worse- -usually worse- from the ready-made wood type of some ordinary printing press. Or they have perhaps run to the other extreme and found an artist to make a lithograph in some fantastic script which is as illegible as it is extravagant. Even the up-to-date designer has usually employed simply the wood types of the poster printing press which, though clear, have no individuality of their own, and has relied for his appeal on the layout of the whole, which has of late tended to become stereotyped and has consequently lost its effectiveness. The old poster took over the traditional typography of the book title. This was serviceable enough as long as posters were of infrequent occurrence and people had plenty of time to peruse the placard at leisure.
The speed of communication is today so great as to demand the utmost economy of statement and layout. We are obliged to aim at setting out our facts more simply and clearly to ensure instant comprehension, and at the same time designing our type to be more attractive to the eye and yet full of variety.
When the pioneers of the new typography took the field, the old-fashioned letters of the 1880’s with their elaborate decorativeness, often verging on the absurd, had already been banished in favour of the simple block letters (so-called ”grotesque”). These bold attractive forms were, however, eternally centralised on an axis in the same monotonous way; they were also enclosed in a frame of the most varied description, whose only effect was to diminish the apparent size of the printing. The simple script by itself could make no further progress.
Against these antiquated methods the new typographic poster aims at : using existing type material maintaining simpler outlines of positive and negative plane surfaces which promote comprehension and
legibility ‘ in the fullest sense; consciously employing every possible kind of contrast and tone-variation to increase the effect (horizontal and vertical movement, large and small type, close and wide spacing, positive and negative, colour and monochrome, etc., etc.). The older poster was not unaware of these possibilities, but used them as decorative extras, which as a rule impaired both legibility and effect; the new poster evolves its form from the given data of type and the appeal of its content, working as it were from within outwards. The visual effect must bear direct relation to the inner meaning, it must not be an external art-and-crafty decoration. The form is, in fact, a product of clear thinking and vivid presentation.
Even in a simple printed poster, circumstances- such as lack of suitable type and of “negative” lines, etc.- -may make necessary some other printing technique than simple type-setting. The letters can then be drawn in clear practical form and cut, in linoleum perhaps, not in rough expressionist style but with the sternest avoidance of all “handwriting” effects. A good example is Dexel’s poster for the exhibition of ” Present Day Photography” (see illustration). The type designer of today needs, unquestionably, more imagination and more technical knowledge than that of old, if his results are to be both harmonious and effective.
The new typographical designer avails himself in printed posters of the impersonal block letter for his type, and similarly when he comes to picture posters he employs graphic impersonal representation: photography by preference.
In this connection the question whether photography can or cannot be “art” is otiose. If photography is justified anywhere it is in the domain of commerce. We feel an instinctive distrust and dislike of mere drawings for this work, a distrust based perhaps on the falsifications of earlier hand-drawn advertisements. The role of the photograph in commerce must not be ignored by the poster designer. It may be objected that photography has no place in design because you only need to take a photograph and cut it out and you have forthwith your prospectus or whatever you want. This pretext does not hold water for a moment. Anyone who has ever experimented will have found out the difficulties (the difficulty of utilising the photograph is no guarantee for the value of the result achieved). The problem of how to mount a photograph in a poster makes a higher demand on the artistic skill of a designer than any other kind of photo mounting, and the limitations imposed on him by the photograph are not to be more lightly dismissed than the freedom of the poster painter.
The art of a poster is not primarily quality in the same sense as in free art (i.e., picture painting, etc.) but the effect produced on eye and mind by clearness, arrangement, the intensity of colour and the like. A poster may thus become a communal work of art which quickens the visual instinct and creates in the widest possible circles a new vision. A most beautiful example of such art is Lissitzky’s poster of the Russian Exhibition at Zurich 1929.
In combining photography and printing in a poster, the designer must aim at making the letterpress an integral part of the whole, and not a regrettable excrescence. This distinguishes the modern poster from many of the older ones. The exact representation yielded by the photograph is usually allied with the clear block-lettering, whose simple uniformity makes an effective contrast with the rich monochrome variety of the photograph. When colour is used, it is generally applied in bright geometrical plane surfaces which similarly form an effective contrast to the type.
A technical point should here be noted. A photogravure is by far the best process for reproducing large photographic posters, for its velvety surface absorbs the light and gives, therefore, the greatest depth. “Offset” and lithography, though very nearly equal to photogravure for small posters-and in some cases even superior -are far inferior for those of larger size.
Trimming, combining and retouching yield certain possibilities. One method which is relatively seldom used is the “photogram.” It is common knowledge that a photogram is made without a camera by laying more or less transparent objects on sensitive paper, films or plates.
The plastic or model poster is not infrequently met with. We may quote as an example a work of Lissitzky’s for the firm of Günther Wagner. In this, the surface represents an imaginary space, and the object in the background seems to be actually moving forward towards the spectator. The contrast between natural and artificial structures and products (different woods, lacquers, mirrors, enamels, etc.) should be noted as especially typical. The principles underlying the plastic poster are the same as those which govern the typographical and photographic poster.