The (dark) future of poster // Interview to Foundland and Rick Poynor

We propose hereinafter two interviews, conducted via e-mail between October and November 2011 with the Dutch collective Foundland and the graphic design historian and critic Rick Poynor. The interview is part of the research carried out by Andrea Facchetti for his Master’s degree dissertation in Multimedia and Visual Communication.

The proposed questions try to investigate the general condition of graphic design and more specifically of the poster within contemporary society, touching the themes and the critical points taken into consideration in the research. Starting from the condition of visual communication and its social mediation function, the interview considers the poster and the advantages derived from its territorial character, its capacity to give life and form to collective narrations, and the limits of the elitist turn that the manufacturing of poster has taken today within the graphic designers’ community.
As it will be shown, the resulting answers describe two divergent possible scenarios as regards to the future of the poster. The Dutch designers at Foundland still place great hopes on the poster’s capacity to assume once again an important role within urban public communication, which explains the many projects and works they have carried out making use of this medium. However, their hopes are raised also by specific socio-urban conditions, those of the Netherlands, which are particularly favourable to the development of public forms of communication – supported by a valuable graphic and typographic tradition, the poster in Holland is still an artifact trusted by clients (very often institutions or public bodies), designers, and the urban public itself.
The same cannot be said for the United Kingdom, which explains why the British critic Poynor describes a much more somber future for the poster. As a matter of fact, within the British urban landscape the clients as well as the public of the metropolis are investing on and entrusting themselves to the new technologies, even in the form of electronic posters on which different digital images follow one another, while the poster survives in the streets under the form of commercial billboards.

Foundland

Andrea Facchetti: Considering the graphic design community, we can argue that its own social role’s awareness is stuck between two opposite attitudes: the modernist one (design as a neutral and objective instrument) and the postmodernist one (designer must act as an author). But thinking of graphic design’s social function, these two ideas have the same outcome: “the role of the designer [exists] in creating an absolutely stable environment. Before introducing anything new, designer must first protect the status quo” (Abraham Moles, in Jan Van Toorn, Design’s delight, 010 publisher, Rotterdam, 2006, pag. 28).

Do you agree with this analysis?

Foundland: Yes, to a degree, the designer with the intention to engage with a broad public is compelled to be aware of the boundaries, or “status quo” of the medium in which he would like to speak- and thereby should consider which is the best way to subvert or use this medium in a way which enables him or her to insert a personal message, perhaps of critique. I would not agree, however that this implies upholding a “stable” environment, as a I think much of what is taking place in commercial marketing and advertising, which currently inhabits most of our public space is precisely aimed at an element of surprise or instability, think of pop-up stores, guerilla marketing, Facebook advertisements, bloggers as product endorsers. These strategies which marketing adopts makes it increasingly difficult to infiltrate with what is named a “new”, “postmodernist” message by Van Toorn.

AF: Nowadays, is it possible to transform graphic design into a practice capable to open new public spaces up, conveying a critical thought into the collective imagination about social, political and public issues?

F: Yes, we believe that there is still space for this. As an example of ‘experiments’ in public space, I would like to use two very different examples from the Foundland portfolio (www.foundland.org). For the project entitled “Sunshine is the best disinfectant” we used existing quotes of hate speech used by right wing politicians in Holland, and transformed them into quotes related to gardening or the weather. This campaign was used in public space in Amsterdam and other cities, occupying advertising space, as a counter campaign during election time. Another project I would like to mention is “Cardboard Monument” project which occupied a completely different role within in public space, also within a very different context of South Africa. This engagement with a monument in public space was done on a more local level, working with a school in the area, and local organizations, to create an event based public space intervention. Both these projects had a very different relation to public space, but you could say that both initiate a platform to discuss think further about social/political issues. Interesting too, is that both projects have an additional online presence, which is a crucial part of message distribution.

AF: Television first and then internet have made urban physical space lose his primacy as the really public communication space. The poster, as the main medium into the urban landscape, has been hit by this transformation. Today poster’s main function is to advertise and promote, communicating private interests only.

In the face of this privatization of public space is it still possible to think about the poster as a democratic medium?

F: Within the confines of Europe and most certainly in Amsterdam, public space and most certainly the space that the poster is officially allowed to occupy has been largely regulated. Meaning that it is very expensive to print and distribute posters using regular routes. I would say, cynical as it sounds, that our regulated public space is no place for the “democratic poster” which you mention- that does not mean there are no alternative spaces for counter messages.

AF: The Counter-campaign project could be read as an attempt to transform the passive political billboard’s viewer into producer capable to comment the received messages, becoming active subject into the public and political arena. Can you explain the project and tell us what outcomes has been reached?

F: In Amsterdam, special election posters are erected before upcoming elections (again, a regulation of space intended for non-commercial messages) During a workshop, we investigated ways of using political communication materials to infiltrate these delegated spaces. The act of placing our alternative messages into public space was an intervention, which lasted a few days in public space. The most valuable outcome of the project, was the investigation with the workshop group of the different visual elements used in Dutch campaigns and how this relates to examples from other political contexts.

AF: With television and, in a different way, with internet the center of communication and information has moved away from the physicality of the city and from printed paper into private living room or the Net virtuality. I think the material nature of the poster can still be seen as an advantage in comparison to new technology, when this nature transforms posters into a real medium between people (citizens) and their territory (the city).

Do you think that poster’s physicality still represents a weapon for the public and urban communication? How much is this potential actually used by designer?

F: I think the major change which has come since the Internet is the way information is consumed or accessed. We no longer look at public space as a way of gathering information, and in this way perhaps the relevance of the poster as main carrier of information has become less. However, given the current global movement of people entering public space as a way of public protest, the role of the protest banner/ poster does have a very interesting role. In this case the physicality of the statement/ quote/ protest in space and time is very interesting and could perhaps facilitate a change in the way we perceive messages in public space, perhaps as a “weapon”. Also important to remember is that these images of messages are distributed through the internet and social media, in a way which is able to spread their message or ideas.

AF: Historically, with the first posters appearance, commercial language got under way, creating a new person-commodity relationship. Therefore posters could be considered as a socio-cultural product with a huge power in creating and giving form to a collective imagination. This imagination, within capitalist societies, has been shaped on commodity’s phantasmagoria, hiding the mass production contradictions (work exploitation, environmental damages, cultural homologation).

Today, information production and its communication are no longer a monopoly; is it possible to bring, into the collective imaginary, symbologies and narratives able to show these contradictions?

Or do you think the communicative and representative devices you dealt in works such as The X-factor television persona or Enacting populism are condemned to act as falsification and persuasion?

F: Society, at least in Western Europe, is completely saturated with products, services and material goods which are marketed as enhancements and necessities for better and more glamorous and prosperous lifestyles.

Both projects which you mention above are related to a certain visual language and manner of engagement with a public, which is typical for the culture in which we live. In these two examples, political parties/ideologies have very distinctly used these mechanisms in order to seduce an audience in a very effective way. In our work we find it interesting to examine these visual codes which are used, and perhaps find ways to subvert them using the very tools with which they are effective. This does tend to highlight the façade which these images create- but we believe is also a way of attracting attention to an alternative message. In the case of “X-factor”, we wrote a critical text accompanying our subverted images, explaining untold connections between reality television and political investments.

AF: Beyond its commercial role, the poster history tells us about its social, public and controversial activity. But in the last decades the graphic design community, maybe trying to separate its work from the low-quality advertising posters, has transformed the poster into an authorial product with a strong fetish character, a collectible object disputed by some private individual. Therefore today posters are confined into private collections, teenager’s bedroom or museum and art gallery exhibitions.

Is this process changing the poster into an exclusive object within designer élites?

How much is it important that the graphic designer community comes back to consider streets and public and urban spaces again as the most valuable context where to act as a medium between public and private realm?

F: Yes this could be true. The role of posters as is used by designers today could be more of a fetish object- compared to its original function as communication medium in public space. However our perception of public space has also changed. The Internet as “public” space has become a proliferating part of our everyday communication habits. The Internet is transnational, reaches a mass audience is much more cost effective and functions in real time. With this evolution comes a different use of images and text- namely low resolution graphics and headline tweets to spread information. As I mentioned earlier, at the moment we are seeing a global need to “occupy” physical space again in order to bring across messages, which might see a future change in the way the poster is considered.

Rick Poynor

Andrea Facchetti: Considering the graphic design community, we can argue that its own social role’s awareness is stuck between two opposite attitudes: the modernist one (design as a neutral and objective instrument) and the postmodernist one (designer must act as an author). But thinking of graphic design’s social function, these two ideas have the same outcome: “the role of the designer [exists] in creating an absolutely stable environment. Before introducing anything new, designer must first protect the status quo” (Abraham Moles, in Jan Van Toorn, Design’s delight, 010 publisher, Rotterdam, 2006, pag. 28).

Do you agree with this analysis?

Nowadays, is it possible to transform graphic design into a practice capable to open new public spaces up, conveying a critical thought into the collective imagination about social, political and public issues?

Rick Poynor: I don’t believe that it will be possible to “transform graphic design as a practice” in the sweeping and total way that this phrase suggests because that would mean a mass change of heart and direction among most graphic designers and their clients, and this is not going to happen. Graphic design is a profession historically and pragmatically predicated on the idea of serving clients who are part of the status quo, so most graphic design is by definition also part of the status quo, as Moles suggests. However, individual and collective forms of resistance among like-minded designers are always possible, and if designers are committed to using graphic design for critical thought and alternative kinds of communication, then they can certainly configure their design practices along those lines.

AF: Television first and then internet have made urban physical space lose his primacy as the really public communication space. The poster, as the main medium into the urban landscape, has been hit by this transformation. Today poster’s main function is to advertise and promote, communicating private interests only.

In the face of this privatization of public space is it still possible to think about the poster as a democratic medium?

In other words, those features (immediacy, versatility and accessibility) which made the poster an appropriate vehicle for social, political and public messages, are still valuable and communicatively offensive?

RP: I don’t think we should generalise about posters. Are you talking about Italy? In Britain, the poster ceased to be a medium for anything other than commercial advertising several decades ago. Apart from advertising, there is no “culture of the poster” in the streets and very few British graphic designers create posters any more. There is hardly anywhere to display them. The few promotional posters produced by art galleries and theatre companies for display in London Underground stations are determined by marketing considerations and they tend to be very conservative in form and content. Other countries might retain more of a commitment to posters as a “democratic” medium and maintain sites in the city where posters can be placed. The poster has been an extraordinary public art form in the 20th century, but sadly its day appears to be over in many advanced economies. In the London Underground, programmed electronic “posters” with moving images, all flashing and changing in unison, are increasingly common now.

AF: With television and, in a different way, with internet the center of communication and information has moved away from the physicality of the city and from printed paper into private living room or the Net virtuality. I think the material nature of the poster can still be seen as an advantage in comparison to new technology, when this nature transforms posters into a real medium between people (citizens) and their territory (the city).

Do you think that poster’s physicality still represents a weapon for the public and urban communication?

How much is this potential actually used by designer?

RP: As I have said, in Britain, as things are now, the poster is not significant. It certainly doesn’t have much of a role as a weapon for public and urban communication. It might in theory still have some potential based on its physicality as a medium, but most designers are not seeking to explore or use this.

AF: Historically, with the first posters appearance, commercial language got under way, creating a new person-commodity relationship. Therefore posters could be considered as a socio-cultural product with a huge power in creating and giving form to a collective imagination. This imagination, within capitalist societies, has been shaped on commodity’s phantasmagoria, hiding the mass production contradictions (work exploitation, environmental damages, cultural homologation).

Today, information production and its communication are not longer a monopoly; is it possible to bring, into the collective imaginary, symbologies and narratives able to show these contradictions?

Or do you think this poster’s mythopoetic ability is condemned to act as falsification and persuasion?

RP: It might be possible to use posters in a challenging way as a form of critique to show the contradictions in our culture (though they would need to be fly-posted illegally since there is nowhere to put them) but I don’t see any signs that many designers are committed to doing this in countries like Britain or the USA.

AF: Beyond its commercial role, the poster history tells us about its social, public and controversial activity. But in the last decades the graphic design community, maybe trying to separate its work from the low-quality advertising posters, has transformed the poster into an authorial product with a strong fetish character, a collectible object disputed by some private individual. Therefore today posters are confined into private collections, teenager’s bedroom or museum and art gallery exhibitions.

Is this process changing the poster into an exclusive object within designer élites?

How much is it important that the graphic designer community comes back to consider streets and public and urban spaces again as the most valuable context where to act as a medium between public and private realm?

RP: As you say, around the world the poster seems to have become a fetish object created for poster competitions, for display in exhibitions at design biennials, and to admire in coffee-table design books. (Not so surprising since many designers still enjoy looking at posters.) But, again, it would be wrong to over-generalise. There might still be countries, particularly less developed countries, where the poster retains a significant role as everyday communication in the streets, but that isn’t the case in Britain. For posters to work, there needs to be a public that expects to look at posters, enjoy them, and absorb information from them. No such audience exists in the UK any longer for the small-scale poster. Street communication is completely dominated by the large-scale advertising billboard.

I sympathise with what you are saying about the need for a vibrant public sphere where graphic communication could provide alternative messages and I regret that we no longer have this sphere. But at a time when people are obsessed with every kind of introverted digital communication as a form of personal expression, I can’t see the simple printed poster making a successful comeback as a way of attracting and holding the viewer’s attention.