13 November 2006
Fons M. Hickmann
Fons M. Hickmann

The title of this article could just as easily have been 'The King is dead, long live the King!'. More specifically, in the context of posters - that creme de la creme of graphic design - there's nothing like premature reports of an early demise to give something a real boost.

Nearly ten years ago David Carson put forward the theory of the 'End of Print', because he had heard Brody talk about it, and because he wanted to find confirmation of it in McLuhan. But as he couldn't actually come up with a solid foundation for the theory, the claim nevertheless became a successful PR gag. No design book sold more copies than 'The End of Print'. As well as being a clever marketing strategy, theories of the end of something or other are also based on a fundamental pessimism about the media. It is the fear that any new medium will force out all existing media. These fears were experienced by the book trade with the advent of magazines, and by magazines with the first flickerings of film, the cinema with the appearance of the TV, the TV with the introduction of video or DVD, and all of them together with the coming of the Internet. Yet despite the belief of the media pessimists that every new life signifies a death, all of these media are existing quite happily next to each other, and our need for a broad-ranging visual mastery of our perception capacity seems to have increased still further. With posters it's also a bit like that.

Four weeks ago the Russian magazine Designer and novum both asked me to write an article on contemporary poster design. As this is not a book, but an article, I'll keep it short and general, and try to give a broad overview of the theme - of course it is a subjective one, and very much from the point of view of the designer.

The state of international poster art is showcased at poster biennales and triennales around the world - the main venues are Brno, Chaumont, Colorado, Helsinki, Hong Kong, Korea, Lathi, Mexico, Mons , Moscow, Ningbo, Toyama, Sofia and Tehran. Some of these take a single theme, like the biennale for political posters in Mons, and the theatre posters triennale in Sofia. The one at Chaumont takes a different theme each year. But most festivals are open to all themes and posters. The quality of the biennales is strongly dependent on the curators involved, and on the skills of the national selection committee. Because of the vast number of entries, some biennales go through a pre-selection process, to make the job of choosing the winners easier for the main jury. This doesn't actually make a lot of sense, because all too often very innovative work falls through the net. When it comes to innovative poster design, the '100 Best Posters' competition covering German-speaking countries is in fact one of the most interesting - since its internationalisation three years ago - as it really does take up on new trends and promote them. Most of the biennales and triennales produce catalogues giving a good cross-section over the main trends, special developments and curiosities. Here the distinction between poster art and poster design is deliberately blurred.

Remarkably the names of the winners at these exhibitions are somehow always the same from year to year. Interspersed with stars, starlets and one-day wonders. It's true to say that there is a hard core in the poster world. In Japan there's a particularly strong tradition, with names like Shiego Fukuda, Ikko Tanaka and Koichi Sato. In the 1960s and 70s Poland was a leading nation in poster art, but was then overtaken by France - and here, it's hard to limit myself to just the few names of Alain Le Quernec, Paris Clavel, Pierre Bernard and Phillipe Apeloig. In Russia there's Vladimir Chaika, Andrey Logvin and others. Not forgetting the Swiss contingent with Niklaus Troxler, Werner Jeker, Ralf Schraivogel; the Americans with James Victore, Paula Sher etc.; China with Wang Xu and Xiao Young; and Germany, which has been well placed for decades with names like Uwe Loesch, Cyan and Pierre Mendell. The list goes on The reader will almost certainly think of others - equally worthy - that I have not had the space to mention. Nowadays there is no longer any one nation that dominates the poster scene. The picture is very international, and each country has names worthy of note - Iran, Israel and Turkey also have very interesting designers (I mention some new names in the picture section). Well, I'll have to stop there with this litany of names, and draw your attention to the 'Summit' exhibition (with small catalogue) organised by the new poster museum PAN Kunstforum in Emmerich. On show here is the work of the 44 supposedly 'most important' contemporary poster designers. And I also strongly recommend you take a look at the website of posterphile Rene Wanner, who sets out just about everything on the subject of poster art.

Again and again students ask me why the poster is such an outstanding and challenging medium for a designer. After all a poster consists of just one surface. The question itself contains the answer. No other medium shows the mastery of the designer as clearly as in the job of filling a blank space of a particular size and format. With posters it's all about distilling the message down to its essence, to its core. Which doesn't mean that a poster has to be bland or prudish, it can also be kitschy, or even playful, if that is the best way of supporting the message being put across. The medium requires a certain concentration, it permits no wavering. Interestingly similar laws govern writers for the production of quality text. Only that which has to be said is said, the information should be clear and unequivocal. It's better to be precise than waffly. The designer has to successfully hit the given mark, within the scope and possibilities open to him. If he doesn't, then the whole thing is a sad patchwork, neither one thing nor the other, a wasted space. The day that this kind poster design dominates really would be end of rock 'n' roll.

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About Fons M. Hickmann
Fons M. Hickmann lives and works in Berlin, and is a Professor at the University of Applied Art in Vienna. The Studio Fons Hickmann m23 is among the top award-winning design bureaus in the world. 

About novum
novum - WORLD OF GRAPHIC DESIGN is an international magazine for communication design (German/English). The first issue was published in 1924 - the magazine celebrates its 80th anniversary in 2004. Each month novum shows the best works in graphic design, packaging, web design, advertising, editorial design, illustration and features special topics like trade fair design, orientation systems, typography, event design and many others.