A brief history of the poster design and printing

The Poster design was one of the earliest forms of advertisement and began to develop as a medium for visual communication in the early 19th century. They influenced the development of typography because they were meant to be read from a distance and required larger type to be produced, usually from wood rather than metal. The poster quickly spread around the world and became a staple of the graphic design trade. Many artists as well, such as Henry Toulouse-Latrec and Henry van de Velde, created posters.

They were used to promote various political parties, recruit soldiers, advertise products and spread ideas to the general public. The artists of the international typographic style of design believed that it was the most effective tool for communication and their contributions to the field of design arose from the effort to perfect the poster. Even with the popularity of the internet posters are still being created every single day for all sorts of reasons.

The Birth of the Lithographic Poster design (1880 – 1895)

The process of lithography print was invented in the year of 1798, however for decades it was a sluggish and expensive for any sort of poster production. During these period posters used to be of simple wood or metal engravings with little color or design. This changed around in the year of 1880 with Cheret’s stone lithographic process. This was a breakthrough which allowed artists to achieve every color in the rainbow with as little as three stones – usually red, yellow and blue – printed in careful registration.

Cheret’s process nevertheless still demanded superb artistry and remarkable craftsmanship. The result was worthwhile –  a remarkable intensity of color and texture, with sublime transparencies and nuances impossible in other media (even to this day). The ability to combine word and image in such an attractive and economical format finally allowed the lithographic poster to usher in the modern age of advertising. An extremely gifted artist as well, Cheret ushered in that age by creating more than 1000 posters over a 30 year career.

Jules Cheret, Eldorado (Courrier Francais edition), 1894

Jules Cheret, Eldorado (Courrier Francais edition), 1894

Insets of Italian cities, with floral border; orange, green, pink, blue

Cussetti, Paris Lyon Mediterranee – Italie, 1895

Musicians and a festival scene with moon in the background; red, blue, yellow, orange, red

Jules Cheret, Musee Grevin (before letters), 1900

1890 – 1900: The Belle Epoque & Art Nouveau

In 1891, Toulouse-Lautrec’s extraordinary first poster, Moulin Rouge, elevated the status of the poster to fine art and touched off a poster craze. During the 1890s, referred to as the Belle Epoque in France, poster exhibitions, magazines and dealers proliferated; the pioneering Parisian dealer Sagot listed 2200 different posters in his catalog!

Just three years later, Alphonse Mucha, a Czech working in Paris, created the first masterpiece of Art Nouveau poster design. Bearing multiple influences including the Pre-Raphaelites, the Arts and Crafts Movement, and Byzantine art – this flowering, ornate style became the major international decorative art movement up until World War I.

In each country, the poster was used to celebrate the society’s unique cultural institutions. In France, the cafe and cabaret was omnipresent; in Italy the opera and fashion; in Spain the bullfight and festivals; in Germany trade fairs and magazines, in Britain and America literary journals, bicycles, and the circus.

Despite cross-pollination, distinctive national styles also became apparent – Dutch posters were marked by restraint and orderliness; Italian posters by their drama and grand scale; German posters for their directness and medieval influence.

Shadowed man in top hat with can-can dancer in background; red, yellow, black

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Moulin Rouge, 1891

A half clothed woman on a sofa with a finished champagne glass while a lover fondles her; red, black

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Catalogue d’Affiches Artistiques / A. Arnould (Debauche), 1896

Robbed woman on a road; red, green, blue, yellow

Louis Rhead, The Sun, 1894

Devil like figure holds head, nude woman lights matches; yellow, blue, green, black

Adolfo Hohenstein, Fiammiferi Senza Fosforo (small), 1895 ca.

Blonde woman with paintbrush, woods and vase behind; blue, black, yellow, green

Alfred Mohrbutter, Kunst Austellung – Crefeld, 1897

1900 – 1914: The New Century & Early Modernism

By 1900, Art Nouveau had lost much of its dynamism through sheer imitation and repetition. The death of Toulouse-Lautrec in 1901 and the abandonment of poster art by Mucha and Cheret (who both turned to painting) left a void that was filled by a young Italian caricaturist named Leonetto Cappiello, who arrived in Paris in 1898.

Strongly influenced by Cheret and Toulouse-Lautrec, Cappiello rejected the fussy detail of Art Nouveau. Instead he focused on creating one simple image, often humorous or bizarre, which would immediately capture the viewer’s attention and imagination on a busy boulevard. This ability to create a brand identity established Cappiello as the father of modern advertising. His style would dominate Parisian poster art until Cassandre’s first Art Deco poster in 1923.

Meanwhile, artists working in Scotland’s Glasgow School, Austria’s Vienna Secession, and Germany’s Deutscher Werkbund also were transforming Art Nouveau’s organic approach. These schools rejected curvilinear ornamentation in favor of a rectilinear and geometric structure based on functionalism.

A key outgrowth of these modernist efforts was the German Plakatstil, or Poster Style, which was begun in 1905 by Lucian Bernhard in Berlin and in Munich by Ludwig Hohlwein. Minimalized naturalism and emphasis on flat colors and shapes made their work the next step towards creating an abstract, more modern visual language.

Street scene with everyone reading newspaper; black, yellow, blue
Polya Tibor, Mindenki Az Uj Nemzedeket Olvassa (Everyone Reads The New Generation), 1910 ca.
Man's hands playing Hofbauer brand piano; black, blue, red, gray
August Fischinger, Hofbauer Klavier – Fabrik, circa 1910
Crowd of gymnastics athletes in position; brown, red, blue
Eduard Renggli, 56. Eidgenossisches Turnfest in Basel, 1912

Man and woman in evening dress; red, yellow, black, green

Leonetto Cappiello, Mele: Novita Per Signora (Green), 1903

Woman in wild feathery dress smokes cigarette, uses breath freshener; green, yellow, red
Leonetto Cappiello, Cachou Lajaunie, 1920

1914 – 1919: World War I & the Bolshevik Revolution

World War I meant a new role for the poster: propaganda. The war ushered in the biggest advertising campaign to date, critical to the wartime communication needs of every combatant: from raising money, recruiting soldiers, and boosting volunteer efforts, to spurring production and provoking outrage at enemy atrocities. Utilizing contemporary Madison Avenue techniques, America alone produced about 2,500 striking poster designs and approximately 20 million posters – nearly 1 for every 4 citizens – in little more than 2 years.

The lessons of brilliant American advertising in WWI posters were not lost on the Bolsheviks, who turned to poster art to help win their civil war against the Whites. Lenin and his followers proved to be the pioneering masters of modern propaganda, and the poster became a weapon of choice throughout the century in both hot and cold wars everywhere.

Soldiers climb hill towards explosion; red, black

Stoner, Official United States War Films (Infantrymen), 1917

Metal workers at railroad yard factory; red, black
Dimitri Moor, 1 May – an all-Russian Voluntary Workday, 1920
American eagle guides flotilla of American warships; red, yellow, blue, green
James H. Daugherty, Send the Eagle’s Answer, 1918
Soldiers hoist rifles with helmets, heraldic flags; blue, red, black
Vojtech Pressig, Czechoslovaks! Join our free colors!, 1918

1919 – 1938: Between the World Wars: Modernism & Art Deco

After World War I, Art Nouveau’s organic inspiration became irrelevant in an increasingly industrial society; the modern art movements Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, and Dadaism became chief influences.  At the same time, the first graphic design courses were launched in France, Germany and Switzerland, a key moment in the transition from illustration to graphic design in advertising.
This shift was quickly felt in the Soviet Union, where Constructivist art arose to help create the new revolutionary, technological society. The Constructivists developed an “agitational” style of poster composition, marked by strong diagonals, photomontage, and jarring color. The Constructivists’ aggressive stance, as  seen in the work of El Lissitsky, Rodchenko, Klutsis and the Stenberg Brothers, would have a major impact on Western poster design, primarily through the Bauhaus and de Stijl.
By the mid-Twenties, these often disparate modernist approaches would coalesce into a major new international decorative movement called Art Deco. In this machine age style, power and speed became the primary themes. Shapes were simplified and streamlined, and curved typefaces were replaced by sleek, angular ones that would reflect the jazz age. Ever eclectic, strains of Art Deco would also manage to incorporate the exotic arts of Persia, Egypt and Africa.

The term Art Deco is derived from the “Decorative Arts” Exposition of 1925 in Paris, which proved to be a spectacular showcase for the style. In Paris, the caricature style of Cappiello gave way to the geometric, intellectual images of A.M. Cassandre, who popularized air brush techniques that lent a machine-like surface to his images. His towering posters of the Normandie, Statendam and Atlantique ocean liners became icons of the Industrial Age. Art Deco, like Art Nouveau before it, spread quickly throughout Europe and to the U.S.

SBGW Young Man with suitcase travels the glove; blue, orange, yellow
Mikhail Dlugach, The 2nd All-Union Aviation and Chemistry Lottery  (Osoaviakhim), 1927

Train streams down the track; red, black, & blue

A.M. Cassandre, Nord Express, 1927

Centaur holds up automobile Fiat 509 with Lingotto factory at bottom; red, black
Plinio Codognato, Fiat 509, 1925
Close-up of stacks of ocean liner; yellow, gold, gray, black
A.M. Cassandre, New Statendam For Real Comfort Holland-America Line, 1929
Man holding apple in foreground, three women pose like classical sculpture; yellow, purple, black, brown, orange
Georges Barbier, Le Jugement de Paris (from Falbalas et Fanfreluches), 1925

1938 – 1950: World War II & the End of Stone Lithography

The poster design again played a large communication role in World War II, but this time it shared the spotlight with other media, particularly radio and print. By this time, most posters were printed using the mass production technique of photo offset, which resulted in the familiar dot pattern seen in newspapers and magazines. The use of photography in posters, begun in the Soviet Union in the Twenties, now became as common as illustration. After the war, the poster declined further in most countries as television became an additional competitor.

The last gasp of the lithographic poster occurred in Switzerland, where the government heavily promoted the printing industry and poster excellence. Appealing to the Swiss sense of precision, the Sachplakat, or Object Poster Style, developed in the Twenties but blossomed during WWII and the early Fifties in the Basel area. Its artists delighted in making everyday objects into giant icons, utilizing spectacular Swiss printing to create wonderful trompe l’oeil effects. With roots going back to the Plakatstil of Lucian Bernhard and the Surrealist movement, visual elegance was often matched by gentle humor.

Bent danger sign; red, blue, black

Herbert Leupin, Trink Lieber Eptinger! (Drink more Eptinger water!), 1947

Tuxedo with shirt and bow tie; red, peach, black, white
Peter Birkhauser, Durable, 1951
Hitler's head squeezed in large Soviet pincers; black, red, brown
Kukryniksy, Three Years of War (TASS Window #993), 1944
People of all ages, all types worshiping; cream, brown, gray
Norman Rockwell, Save Freedom of Worship – Buy War Bonds (large), 1943

1945 – 1965: Post-World War II & Mid-Century Modernism

Despite the looming tensions of the Cold War, the end of World War II ushered in a baby boom and a new consumer society with the arrival of television, jet travel and global brands fueling the way.

Advertising methods shifted to adapt to the times. A veritable “poster boom” occurred in the early 1950s, driving forward two distinct styles, one consumer and one corporate. The first, which we have labeled the ’50s Style, was brightly colored and whimsical, while the second, called the International Typographic Style, was more rational and orderly.

Posters designed in the ’50s Style used vivid colors and playful motifs to appeal to a broad audience. Artists like Herbert Leupin and Donald Brun in Switzerland, Paul Rand in the US, and Raymond Savignac in France exemplify the style’s lighthearted qualities. The ’50s Style was applied to consumer services as well as products. Ever present were marvelous airline campaigns by David Klein, Stan Galli and others which sought to attract travelers to destinations like Disneyland, New York, Las Vegas, and Paris.

The International Typographic Style, or Swiss Style, was also perfectly suited to the increasingly globally connected world.  Highly structured, systematic designs granted order and clarity to everything from highways and airports to product instruction manuals.

Influenced by the Bauhaus and Tshichhold’s New Typography, this style developed in Switzerland in the late ’50s and ’60s. It employed basic typographic elements with strict graphic rules and often replaced illustration with stark, “modern” photography. The concert posters of Josef Muller-Brockmann represent the classical apotheosis of this style – cool, elegant and systematically abstract. On the same level was Erik Nitsche’s “Atoms for Peace” series of spectacular posters for the first International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy.

Glamorous woman half in evening dress, half in bathing suit; black, yellow, red, blue

David Klein, Las Vegas – Fly TWA (Constellation), circa 1955

Typographical; black, gray, red, white
Josef Muller-Brockmann, Der Film, 1960
Twin "Glass House" skyscrapers designed by Mies van der Rohe with Lake Michigan and sailboats in distance; green, yellow, blue
Stan Galli, Chicago – United Air Lines (Mies Building), 1955
Moon with toothbrush and tube of toothpaste; blue, yellow, white
Herbert Leupin, Bianca … abends und morgens, 1946

1965 – 1972: The Sixties & the Art of Rebellion

The orderliness of the Fifties would yield to a more chaotic and revolutionary tenor by the mid-Sixties. A new illustration style, one which borrowed freely from Surrealism, Pop Art and Expressionism, was more relaxed and intuitive and the first wave of a Post-Modernist sensibility. A famous example was Milton Glaser’s 1967 Bob Dylan record album insert. Glaser crystallized the musician’s counter-cultural message by portraying his long hair as a rainbow of richly flowing waves. Glaser’s Push Pin Studio was matched in creativity by a dynamic school of poster art in Poland from the ’50s through the ’80s. The Polish School became known for a sardonic and gut wrenching variety of Surrealism in promoting the State-controlled theatre and cultural organizations.

The excesses of the drug culture and political alienation led to a brief but spectacular Psychedelic Poster craze in the U.S., which recalled the floral excesses of Art Nouveau, the pulsating afterimages of Op-Art, and the bizarre juxtapositions of Surrealism. And the French May Day protests generated a school of propaganda poster design that harked back to the Soviet poster and cartoon art.

Psychedelic portrait of John Lennon; red, purple, yellow
Richard Avedon, John Lennon – Look Magazine, 1967
Three businessmen have paid off French politicians with bags of money; black, white
d’apres Kamb, S’abstenir c’est agir contre la Reaction (French Communist Party), 1969
Moscow Kremlin wall with five space rockets flying above; blue, red, white
I. Kharkevich, History will not forget the Vostok Program!, 1964

Bob Dylan with rainbow colored hair; black, red, green, blue

Milton Glaser, Dylan, 1966

1970 – 1989: The Seventies & Eighties – Post Modernism

The International Style spread beyond Switzerland rapidly and became the leading graphic design style worldwide in the Seventies. By the early Eighties, the style began to give way to the Post Modernists, who sought to break the formal and dogmatic rules of the Swiss Style.

A young teacher in Basel named Wolfgang Weingart led the palace revolt which ushered in today’s predominant graphic style loosely known as Post Modern design. Weingart experimented with the offset printing process to produce posters that appeared complex and chaotic, playful and spontaneous – all in stark contrast to his elders’ teachings. Weingart’s liberation of typography was an important foundation for several new styles, from Memphis and Retro, to the advances now being made in computer graphics.

An eye, a bee, an "M"; black, blue, orange, green

Paul Rand, IBM (Rebus – 1st Printing), 1981

Woman wrapped in fan with leaf above; purple, green
Christian Coigny, Grieder Les Boutiques, 1986
Black staircase and graphic lines; black, red, pink, white
Odermatt/Tissi, Euridice, 1980
Photograph with modern graphic overlay; blue, black, white
Wolfgang Weingart, Herbert Bayer – Das kunstlerische Werk 1918 – 1938, 1982

1990 on: The Poster Design Today

The role and appearance of the poster design has changed continuously over the past century to meet the changing needs of society. Although its role is less central than it was 100 years ago, the poster will evolve further as the computer and the worldwide web revolutionize the way we communicate in the 21st century.

poster design
Ralph Schraivogel, B Vier – Albin Uldry, 1994
Claude Kuhn-Klein, Tierpark Dahlholzli, 1937-1997, 1997
poster design
Bruno Monguzzi, Botta/Cucchi – The Monte Tamaro Chapel, 1994

Ralph Schraivogel, Newman – Filmpodium, 2001


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