The Evolution of the Campaign Poster

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In a few short months, campaign posters will be everywhere.

The gamut of Republican White House candidates will roll out the commercial artwork they've chosen to augment their presidential ambitions. Iowa and New Hampshire will be festooned.

The modern campaign poster is a slick thing, with message-tested taglines and occasionally trendsetting design. But it's nothing like its early forebears. As an element of political culture, the campaign poster has taken a long road to its present form.

John Quincy Adams became the first presidential candidate to widely use posters in 1824, according to the University of Virginia's Miller Center, but the oldest American campaign poster in the Library of Congress's digital file promoted presidential candidate William Henry Harrison in 1840.

In the 1800s, posters were more detailed than they are today. Early campaign posters featured etched portraits of the candidates looking statesmanly and were printed using wood or metal plates, sometimes inked in color. Extensive text sometimes accompanied the portraits (see the Garfield/Arthur and McKinley/Hobart posters above), and in some instances text was the poster's main feature (see the two Lincoln/Johnson posters).

"It was harder to reproduce images than to reproduce text," said Steven Heller, a design expert and former New York Times art director who blogged about campaign posters for the Times in 2008 and who now contributes to The Atlantic. "They wanted to inform the public, and the public at that stage was fairly literate, so there was more of an emphasis on the word. As you get further into the 19th century, it gets easier to reproduce things with wood engravings, and toward the end of the century through halftone ... There wasn't a camera, so you were reliant on likenesses from wood or steel engravings. By the end of the century, the camera had come into being and you could see a photo of U.S. Grant, and you could see a photo of Abe Lincoln earlier than that, but photography became more accessible, photo reproduction became more doable, and so the printing technique kind of conformed to that."

By the middle of the 20th century, a new design scheme came to dominate: black-and-white photographs with color backgrounds and large text. Big, block-letter slogans and candidate names replaced the lengthy cursive script seen in the etched prints of the late 1800s, and primary colors replaced their dusty olives and sun-yellows.

Offset printing, in which ink is transferred to a rubber cylinder, became the dominant commercial-printing technology in the 1950s, and color photographs, along with full color layouts, supplanted black-and-white by the time Richard Nixon ran for president in 1972.

While candidates (and their advertising, design, and printing firms) now mass-produce color-photography posters in every election year, printing advancements haven't made campaign posters more complex, per se. The most widespread style, to this day, is the block-lettered rectangle (see the Dole/Kemp and Bush/Cheney posters above). Using only the candidates' last names, and perhaps a brief tagline, these signs hang on countless walls and populate countless front yards every four years.

Which tells us printing capabilities don't change the design imperative. Simplicity now rules.

Other technologies may have popularized the stripped-down design: With mass electronic media, candidates don't need or want to deliver platform information though posters, and the long scripts and grandiose portraits of the late 1800s would now look ridiculous. TV commercials have taken over the function of higher-level messaging and image creation.

Today, posters just remind us what the candidates' names are. Aesthetics and mnemonics are left mostly to font and color scheme.

Poster images via the Library of Congress, RonWadeButtons.com, and Lori Ferber Collectibles

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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