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!

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Art 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.

Photomontage was not just a political medium. It was also perfectly suited to commercial use. It transformed realities by introducing elements components that were not there. Although it is still used in some politically satiric contexts, the vast majority of contemporary photomontage (now easily achieved through Photoshop) is the tool of choice for a bounty of tasks—from advertisements to book and record covers to science-fiction images, and so much more.


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The International System of Typographic Picture Education (ISOTYPE) was introduced in 1936 by Vienese political economist Otto Neurath (1882-1945) and his wife Maire Reidemeister. They were intended as a set of pictographic characters used "to create narrative visual material, avoiding details which do not improve the narrative character," wrote Neurath, about his desire to improve visual literacy. The ISOTYPE was originally designed as an alternative to text, a starkly graphic means for communicating information about locales, events, and objects, on the one hand, and complex relationships in space and time on the other.

Neurath believed that ISOTYPE, otherwise known as pictogram, icon, and symbol, was the world's first universal pictorial language. And it was designed to transcend national borders. Neurath's Vienna School was rooted on a simple graphic vocabulary of silhouetted symbolic representations of every possible human and mechanical form, from men and women to dogs and cats to trucks and planes. This litany of symbols was a mix-and-match kit of parts for displaying information or statistical data. Neurath's illustrators, the Dutch Gerd Arntz, and the Viennese Augustin Tschinkel and Erwin Bernath, created hundreds of simplified characteristics that distinguished, say, laborers from office workers, brides from grooms, soldiers from police officers and other professions. The neutral silhouette was preferred because it eschewed subjective interpretation.

Neurath was keen on objectivity and ordered the artists to make silhouettes from cut paper or simple pen-and-ink drawings. Yet Arntz somehow injected warmth and humor through gestures in the way a figure held a newspaper or carried a lunchbox. Neurath's work influenced cartographic and information graphics of his day and today's data visualization.

Neurath's theory of "statistical accountability" allowed that these symbols could represent quantities and thus be accountable. In addition to conveying quantifiable data, the ISOTYPE foreshadowed today's common pictorial sign symbols. Neurath's colleague Rudolf Modley's Handbook of Pictorial Symbols (Dover Books, 1976) and industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss' Symbol Sourcebook (McGraw-Hill, 1972) are key references for their inclusive compilation of symbols. Otl Archer's event symbols for the 1972 Olympic Games take the basic icons in a more streamlined direction. And the American Institute of Graphic Art's system of 50 symbol signs, designed by Roger Cook and Don Shanosky, a collaboration with the U.S. Department of Transportation, has provided the standard pictograms in airports and other transportation hubs and at large international events.

Visual Pun

A visual pun is an image with two or more meanings that yield a single yet layered message. Dan Reisinger's 1969 "Let My People Go," referring to the Soviet Jews who were prevented from emigrating to Israel, is a memorable visual pun for it spells out the message while provoking a secondary level of understanding—and emotion. Using the hammer and sickle as a G indicates that the Soviets are the antagonists. Using Moses' demand of the Egyptian Pharaoh adds drama to the missive. So the pun enters the consciousness through different mental windows.

Not all puns are humorous in a slapstick way or witty in a cerebral one. In Visual Puns in Design (Watson Guptil, 1982) author Eli Kince notes puns have a "humorous effect" and an "analytical effect." The former is a mental jolt of recognition that creates a comedic "spark" that releases tension in the form of a smile or a laugh. The later provokes comparison between one idea and another.

Then there are puns that use pictures, letters, and words, like Reisinger's. There are more complex puns where letters and words are fused together, including Herb Lubalin's Families, where the letters "ili" are transformed into ciphers for mother, father, and son; likewise his Mother & Child has the ampersand nestled inside the letter "o" of mother suggesting a fetus in a womb. These puns appear easier than they are. Transforming the "ili" into a family required keen perception. And making the ampersand fit so perfectly in the womb demanded typographic skill. For Lubalin, each of these elements were keys to the doors of perception. For another designer, "ili" or "o" might just have been letters.

Purely pictorial puns may seem easier than typographical ones, but are not necessarily so. Milton Glaser's 2004 Olympic poster, a Greek column with Olympic rings being thrown over it like at a ring toss, may trigger an ah-ha moment of recognition, but conjuring the pun takes a keen wit. Then there are suggestive puns, made by combining two or more unrelated or disparate references, sometimes as a substitution for a more literal reference, conveying two or more meanings.

Trade Mascots

The rudiments of the trade mascot or trade character—an ideal visualization of a human, humanoid, animal, or combination of all three—began during the industrial revolution. With the rise of mass-produced products, the advertising field developed to sell an abundance of wares. An obvious way to differentiate competing products was through the brand name. But adding a symbolic face to the name further etched the product onto the consumer's conscious and subconscious. Mascots were fixtures of commercial culture from the late-19th century to the present.

One of the most successful mascots was designed for Michelin, the French tire company founded in 1888. Its trademark Bibendum (also called "Bib the Michelin Man," among other nicknames) created by French artist "O'Galop" (a pseudonym of Marius Rossillon) was introduced at the Lyon Exhibition of 1894, where the Michelin brothers displayed their wares. André Michelin commissioned this friendly, bulbous figure after his brother, Édouard, observed that a stack of tires looked similar to a human. At the time, lesser-known (and ultimately less enduring) commercial characters were also comprised of product packages, tins and boxes.

During the late 19th century, pictures were not entirely shunned, but words were certainly preferred in most advertisements. With advancements in low-cost black-and-white and color printing, reproduction of images precipitously increased in many nationally circulated periodicals. Businesses that had relied solely on brand names and clever slogans sought new visual icons for salvation. Older pictorial trade characters evolved into contemporary mnemonic logos. Industry turned to signs and symbols, some abstract and others representational, to get the public's attention—and loyalty

By the early 1900s, advertising pundits had devised pseudo-scientific theories derived from psychology and sociology to convince industry leaders that this innovation would forever change marketing strategies and increase profits. "Signs and symbols rule the world, not words nor laws," Clayton Lindsay Smith quoted Confucius as saying on the title page of The History of Trade Marks, a 1923 booklet exploring the origins of some commercial icons, meant to validate the as-yet-unlabeled "branding" profession. Trade mascots were validated time and again by the most successful characters, RCA's dog waiting to hear "His Master's Voice," or the Gold Dust Twins, two black slaves that worked wonders for housewives (only decades after emancipation were they discontinued), The Armour Meat Man and, of course, Aunt Jemima.

When it came to branding, fact and fiction were irrelevant. Fictional trade mascots were given complex historical narratives, underscoring the origin of their species. Their value to sales was never underestimated and their virtues were legally protected, at all costs.