Reading & Writing
175 x 120 / Essay
This is the catalogue text from the 175 x 120 street poster exhibition which was the first exhibition in the 'Idioms' exhibition series. (see 'special projects' section in main menu)

One of the most enduring forms of communication design is the poster. More than any other medium, the poster has always been viewed as offering the designer an opportunity of putting all their knowledge to the test. It is the classic amalgam of text and illustration or graphic symbol producing a single, integrated image.

Looking and seeing are not the same.
In our daily lives, as we move around our cities, towns and roads, we’re confronted with a vast array of visual information. Some of it is incidental, part of the fabric of the physical material world – colours, forms and textures – both architectural and organic. But there is other material too, conceived and designed to specifically draw our attention. Traffic and directional signs, public notices, shop and business signs and displays, commercial publicity, political propaganda, graffiti. Some of these things we look out for as the need arises, to direct or inform us, but much of it we pass by, paying little conscious attention or only doing so when our gaze is interrupted in a way we cannot avoid. Whether we see these things or not we nevertheless look at them every day, and whether we want to or not. They are part of the visual landscape we inhabit but do not control. Human as we are, there is only so much information we can process, and in the same way that discernible individual sounds can amalgamate into unremitting noise, so the visual landscape of signs and references can become an optic soup. And in order to cope with this information overload we often simply switch off the processor but we cannot switch off the receptor nor can we control the transmission which continues uninterrupted. It’s within this optic soup, sometimes tasty, sometimes not, that we find the subject of this exhibition. 

One of the most enduring forms of communication design is the poster. More than any other medium, the poster has always been viewed as offering the designer an opportunity of putting all their knowledge to the test. It is the classic amalgam of text and illustration or graphic symbol producing a single, integrated image. The history of poster design is a long one, encompassing examples that reflect a wide variety of styles and purposes and within the modern urban environment one of the most common and widespread examples comes in the form of commercial publicity and advertising. For sure, the commercial poster has a long history within the story of graphic design but despite this, visitors to the exhibition will see that there are no such examples on display. Instead, the focus of this exhibition is on a different kind of poster design, different not just in its subject matter but also in its approach to design communication. It draws on a history of concern with the social and cultural rather than the commercial applications of design. That said, the separation of design practice into areas of social and commercial application is not straightforward, nor clearly delineated. In reality it is no longer possible to find moral refuge in the once commonly held distinction between the two. Where commerce sells commodities as value, culture now sells values as commodities. Furthermore visual references and vocabularies are shared. Nevertheless there are distinctions to be made. 

Paramount in most commercial advertising is the struggle for brand identity and recognition. If the difference between brands of products is small, as is usually the case, then one of the things that becomes important is coverage - that your product is seen more than that of your competitors. Repetition and saturation coverage are therefore common practice. There is no need for clever ideas here, what matters is that you are present - everywhere. Another, more sophisticated way of differentiating your product from that of your competitors, is to imbue it with a special quality suggesting that its purchase will bring something to your life over and above the material and practical benefits that the product or service might alone provide. This involves concepts and strategies of association. In both cases slogans take on a particular significance in the building of desired emotional and cultural connections. And even though some commercial advertising posters are highly inventive in both their concept and graphic treatment, a drive around the streets of Porto, or any other town or city, will not reveal many examples of this kind. For the most part, however professional the execution, commercial publicity is a delivery system for an associative connection designed to fix product recognition and it could be argued that most street advertisements today are not really poster designs at all, but instead large captioned photographs. 

That aside, the intention of this exhibition is not to present a case for or against commercial publicity or to argue about whether or not it constitutes poster design. The aim is to draw attention to and explore a body of design work which is different and is concerned with public information but, because of the primary position that commercial advertising occupies, is often relegated to second plan within the urban landscape. The subject of these posters is essentially cultural - concerts, festivals, exhibitions, theatre, seminars and conferences and other arts and social events. Usually created by individual designers or small to medium size design studios rather than advertising and publicity agencies, they are amongst the most expressive examples of contemporary communication design. 

If it’s possible to generalise about commercial advertising design by saying that ‘association’ is a keyword and that image and identity building are core objectives, then perhaps a keyword for the sorts of poster on show is ‘interpretation’ and that ‘expression’ is a core objective. As might be expected, the visual language and vocabulary employed is strongly influenced by the nature of the subject matter, which in turn lends itself to expressive design. 

Of the specific considerations a poster designer must take into account, viewing distance and viewing time are among the most important. Both of these factors combine in demanding designs that manage to précis information to the essential, a process that involves careful and sometimes difficult editing as well as creative ‘story telling’. The difficulty arises because clients are often reluctant to exclude information which reflects the totality of an event or work that they may have spent months preparing but that may not be necessary for the purposes of alerting the public to its existence. The visual impact of any poster must be made within a viewing time of only seconds and at a distance of metres rather than centimetres which means that including detailed information is usually counterproductive. 

If the two basic components of any poster can be said to be text and image, then what these poster designs demonstrate is the variety of relationships that are possible between the two and the variety of ways these basic elements can produce meaning. Imagery gives context and meaning both intellectually and emotionally. Text is as much a graphic element as image and in many cases can itself become image. It is perhaps in this area of text treatment that these designs are most distant from commercial publicity. For the poster designer, text is not simply information to be presented with neutrality, it is a graphic visual form through which meaning can be expressed - an opportunity of choosing how to say what you say. There exist thousands of letter forms, more than any lay person is likely to be aware of, each one with its own character and style and each capable of giving a distinct nuance to the written word. Sometimes designers will carefully select from the huge range that already exist and sometimes they create their own for a particular work. Whatever the case, letter forms, whether mechanically produced or hand-drawn, are to the visible what dialects and accents are to spoken language and they become the voices through which a message is delivered. Changing the letter or type form changes the manner of speech and the way the message is perceived. 

Of the posters on display the single largest subject category is theatre with 32 posters, followed by music with 16, (7 of which are Jazz), 13 are related to exhibitions and shows, 5 to festivals, and the rest deal with workshops, conferences, dance, fairs and cinema. Notably absent are poster designs dealing with social issues and politics, due to the difficulty in finding any worthy examples. It’s also worth noting that political posters, which usually only appear at election time, are among the most banal and uninspired examples of design communication. One might have assumed that political issues would provide ample material and opportunity for creative expression of sometimes complex issues. Instead we get saturation picture portraits of slightly uncomfortable looking candidates. 

Although the posters exhibited adopt a wide variety of visual forms and languages and demonstrate a range of versatile visual solutions, what they have in common is their attempts to give expression to their subjects, to interpret an event or work that has a content of its own, and through the design of the information, express that content thereby adding to it and creating a unique visual identity. In doing so these works take on an additional characteristic, a documental component which serves as an historical record. 

175X120 however, is neither an historical nor a representative exhibition. It does not aim to cover the development of the poster as a medium in design history and it does not claim to show an accurate cross section of Portuguese poster designs. Instead it offers a small selection of contemporary examples in an effort to draw attention to an often neglected but creative body of work. It’s not often, if at all, that these works are able to be viewed within a different context and given the attention that such an exhibition permits. In their real environment they may be noticed without ever being viewed with care. They are part of the optic soup. Looking and seeing are not the same.

Andrew Howard / January 2006

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© Andrew Howard. Available from: www.studioandrewhoward.com