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The Development of the Modern Poster
When Eric Gill submitted the original designs to letter the facade of a bookshop in Bristol, little did he know that he would change the face of visual design for all eternity. When the font was released as a full-fledged typeface in 1928, it was immediately thrust onto the national stage. The old London and North Eastern Railway adopted the font for its new image.
Not only did it pave the way for every poster and promotional image of the railway to bare the distinctive design, but also it changed graphic design forever. Throughout the twentieth century, posters would evolve as a form of art and personal expression. They would also turn the tide of history.
While humanist design was popular at home, geometric typefaces and the Bauhaus manner of design were sweeping the Continent. Fonts like Futura suggested a progressive, modern school of design. Stark design and glyphs replacing images were the manner of the day.
Experimentation seemed to be a major calling for designers of posters throughout the entire twentieth century. The next decades would see the so called Swiss Style that took the idea of clean, readable posters to the starkest extent. Grid layouts, photography with no drawn illustrations, and grotesque sans serif fonts became characteristic of this school of thought.
Many people will probably be familiar with this design because of British Rail. Before privatisation, British Rail used a font they developed that was similar to the Swiss font Helvetica. The so-called Rail Alphabet font was used on everything the system printed, and its posters epitomized the stark grid layout of the Swiss Style. Some private operators continue to use the look, and the National Health Service uses it for hospitals in England and Wales.
While even the Sealink ferry services used this design, the world was turning towards experimental designs that would make such starkness seem tame by comparison. Social unrest hit in the 1970s, and the punk subculture hit back. With the new music driven scene, society was suddenly open to a variety of new forms of art that pushed the envelope. The stranger and shocking the posters were, the better, and the punk community did not fail to deliver.
These new designs would shatter the previous ideologies and shake them to their core. The punk community had wanted a do it yourself ethic. With that came a clamouring for a less professional look. This grittier style was readily gobbled up, and today’s posters show designs from all of the above types.