When most museums put on poster exhibits, they tend to walk viewers through the histories of different artistic styles, ranging from Art Nouveau to Bauhaus. So when the Smithsonian’s newly renovated and re-energized Cooper Hewitt Design Museum in New York took stock of its hefty collection of 3,000 rarely seen posters, it wanted to create a display that would explore the works as more than just ink on paper.

The museum’s veteran senior curator of contemporary design, Ellen Lupton, aimed to host a non-traditional but accessible exhibition explaining the principles of visual communications that designers use to create posters in the first place. How Posters Work is gem of a show that gives visitors an opportunity to learn the logic behind the format. The exhibit is organized around 14 key concepts, prompting visitors to consider why some images grab their viewers’ attention while others are forgettable.

“Posters are the only genre of graphic design that is explicitly created to be stuck on a wall,” Lupton told me in an email. “Many people are more comfortable displaying posters in their own homes or work spaces than they are with more formal or serious works of art. Posters are part of everyday life, so they feel approachable and real.”

Among the guidelines laid out in the exhibit is the unofficial “10-foot rule,” which demands posters must be legible from at least 10 feet away. Lupton pointed to Ivan Chermayeff’s 1977 poster, which features dozens of luggage tags collected from different airports. From a distance, the large initials on each tag instantly convey a global urban experience—BRU, OSL, SAO, TYO. Up close, the tags have all the technical detail and complexity required for tracking luggage. “The rich texture of many posters comes from the printing process or from building up complex forms out of tiny graphic elements,” Lupton said.

The exhibit’s curators came up with the 14 principles after studying the entire body of work at their disposal. The concepts aren’t exactly universal, but they encapsulate a broad range of methods for approaching a design problem, Lupton said. One example she points to are diagonals. Victorian-era posters largely used centered type, which dragged down the overall layout. Then modern designers made a simple, but surprisingly effective change, using diagonal lines and compositions to create depth, motion, and direct the viewer’s eyes.

José Bardasano Baos (Spanish, 1910–1979) for Army Health Service (Spain). El agua en malas condiciones produce mas bajas que la metralla [Poisoned Water Causes More Casualties than the Shrapnel], 1937. Lithograph. Collection Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Gift of William P. Mangold.

A Spanish Civil War poster, for example, designed by José Bardasano Baos features a giant glass of water canted at a diagonal. (The poster promotes the democratically elected government's success in improving public hygiene in Spain.) “This poster would be so boring if the glass were straight instead of angled, so I made an animated gif to demonstrate this simple transformation,” Lupton explained. “Of course, any physics-minded viewer will notice that the water in the angled glass should be parallel with the ground plane. The designer created dynamism in the poster but ignored the laws of gravity!”

Digging through the Cooper Hewitt’s collection, Lupton discovered lost treasures, like a pair of World War II posters published by the U.S. Office of War Information. Both posters sought to discourage soldiers and civilians from idle talk about troop movements, because such chatter could fall into enemy hands and cause Allied ships to sink. One poster offers a more detailed narrative of a sinking ship, while the other uses a single, striking image of a sailor about to drown, with just the headline “Someone talked!” It’s works like these that prove the value of posters in a design context—but that also crystallize the format’s place in the history of commercial, political, and public life.

Anton Otto Fischer (German, active USA, 1882–1962) for the Office of War Information (Washington D.C., USA). A Careless Word, 1942. Lithograph. Collection Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Gift of Unknown Donor.
Frederick Siebel (American, Austrian, and Czech, 1913–1991). Someone Talked!, 1942. Lithograph. Printed by Devoe & Reynolds Painting Company (USA). Gift of Louise Clémencon.