The Object Poster, the Visual Pun, and 3 Other Ideas That Changed Design

Five innovations that transformed our visual language.

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For the my new book, 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, co-authored with Veronique Vienne (Laurence King Publisher), we each chose 50 that we believe continue to make an impact. These are five of my selections adapted from the book.

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The Object Poster

With the introduction of chromolithography during the late 19th century, a major shift in advertising form and content altered the way graphic design was practiced. The ability to reproduce color images gave rise to a new popular art that not only persuaded but entertained. Posters were like grand canvases filled with fanciful figures, mirthful metaphors, cool colors, and artful letters. But artists, being artists, were not content to use one method alone, and their visual approaches evolved into numerous complex graphic styles. As a reaction to this complexity, a more simplified style emerged that was easy to "read" by passersby on crowded boulevards. In Germany this technique, known as Sachplakat or "object poster," took the advertising and design worlds by storm. It was the method of choice for the Plakatstil, or poster style movement.

Sachplakat's inventor, an 18-year-old German cartoonist who called himself Lucian Bernhard, entered a poster competition in 1906 sponsored by Berlin's Priester Match Company and Hollerbaum & Schmidt, Germany's leading poster printer/advertising agency. As the origin myth goes, Bernhard's first sketch was characteristically Art Nouveau/Jugendstil: It showed a cigar in an ashtray on a checked table cloth with dancing nymphets formed by the intertwining wafting tobacco smoke. Next to the ashtray were two wooden matches. When it was mistakenly taken for a cigar advertisement, Bernhard was forced him to rethink his composition and began eliminating the tablecloth, ashtray, cigar and smoke, leaving behind only two simple matches. He enlarged the matchsticks, made them red with yellow tips, and placed them against a maroon field. At the top of the image area he hand lettered in bold block letters the word "Priester." Voila! A new style!

object poster.jpgArt Nouveau met its demise not entirely because of Bernhard's invention, but because styles were changing to meet new commercial demands. The increase of vehicular traffic and the fast pace of everyday life required that advertisers compete furiously for the public's attention. Visual complexity no longer achieved the same contemplative results. There may have been other match companies in Germany in 1906, but once the Priester poster was hung on poster hoardings, no other brand entered consumers' mind. The object poster was best when hung in multiples, which created a rhythmic visual refrain: Priester, Priester, Priester.

The object poster was in vogue from 1906 to 1914 until the Great War in Europe brought commerce to a thundering halt. During the war, wordy slogans and complex renderings sold patriotism to the masses. After the war, advertising techniques shifted once again and new methods, including Art Deco, began to take hold. The Sachplakat lost its currency, but it was nonetheless influential. It prefigured the Pop Art celebratory parody of the consumed object. Eventually, it became just one of the tools in the advertising industry's kit along with more conceptual illustration and, later, photography.

Today's advertisements that feature one simple focal product are the descendants of Bernhard's invention. The ubiquitous Absolut Vodka campaign, which has gone through many iterations during the past two decades, has always maintained its object poster-ness. With the bottle as an anchor, many different yet tethered concepts—i.e. Absolut this and Absolut that—drive the mnemonic. Like with Priester, the title "Absolut" is key.


photomontage.jpg In 1917, the German designer and art director John Heartfield developed a dynamic, new visual technique for political satire. The photomontage was the manipulation of two or more different photographs to form a convincing new image. It was a mechanical art for the mechanical age that forever changed how left and rightwing propaganda was produced. Heartfield's anti-Nazi graphic commentaries in the Communist rotogravure periodical AIZ (Workers Illustrated News) were considered the most inflammatory leftist dissent. Photographically situating real people, like Adolf Hitler and his henchmen, in imagined yet plausible pictorial contexts opened them up to greater ridicule than through drawings and paintings. After World War I, Heartfield (whose real German name, Helmut Herzfelde, was altered to an English one as a protest against German nationalism) joined the newly formed German Communist Party (KPD) and produced many of its posters and periodicals.

The advent of photomontage intersected with the introduction during the late teens and 1930s of German bildjournalismus (photojournalism) that gained adherents around the world. The French periodical VU, founded in 1928 and edited by Lucien Vogel, a photographer, was one of the most innovative in terms of the picture essay. Vogel was more interested in politics than fashion and used the power of photography to document and critique current events. Graphic design was essential to the success of his magazine. VU's logo was designed by French poster artist A.M Cassandre, and the leading commercial and experimental foundry Deberny & Peignot set the type. Irene Lidova, a Russian émigré, was the first art director, and in 1933 her layout assistant was Alexander Liberman, who was smitten by photomontage and introduced plenty of it to the magazine as a visual commentary. He later moved on to become chief of Conde Nast.

The multi-language editions of USSR in Construction, which published monthly between 1930 and 1940, also employed this versatile art. Founded by Maxim Gorky, its declared editorial mission was to "reflect in photography the whole scope and variety of the construction work now going on in the USSR." Photomontage was used to juxtapose multiple images into a single, ideal, illusory fantasy. But no one had dominion over the process. It was an imaging tool that served needs of whichever master harnessed it.

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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