As Elizabeth Guffey writes in Posters: A Global History, posters helped “mute walls speak” and perhaps this is also true of digital screens. The social fabric of posters allows for people to speak without doing so, providing a means of asynchronous messaging. Posters not only share stories and information, but they prompt storytelling, debate, discussion, and other action. They help us to address things that might otherwise be left unsaid: “Posters have been born with commitments, responsibilities, dependents, and emotionalities; they leave marks on history.”
At the same time, posters drawing awareness or action about disaster, motivate through emotion. The posters for Fukushima Daiichi were primarily intended to motivate viewers to purchase and/or donate to disaster funds. But, what did the designers intend for viewers to feel besides their pocketbooks? In her Design Observer essay, “Can Graphic Design Make You Cry?” Jessica Helfand explores the idea that visual design might provoke a range of emotions but reiterates the goal of designers “to create the simplest, most harmonious, most neutral form, thereby enabling communication to the widest possible audience” The Fukushima Daiichi posters didn’t show images flooded homes, crowded shelters, or rescue teams; they showed the hinomaru among other simplified, neutral — and beautiful — graphics.
Also, sticking in my mind is Veronique Vienne’s 2008 “Sticks in the Mind” from Eye magazine, in which she asks if anyone cares about posters, or if are they ego trips for designers. Beyond commercial display, posters seem self-indulgent when presented on websites and blogs — what is the point? At the Chaumont festival, she notes that over 75% of the exhibited posters were done for cultural institutions, with the majority done for theatrical productions. She begs the question, what is being celebrated here, other than designers that had more client creative leeway than others?
Vienne concludes that posters, especially those seen by many people, are thus experienced by a community. They are a “social glue”; likewise, Helfand asserts that posters create memories through “lasting power.” Debord hints at this in his fourth thesis, “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images”. In 2023, Slanted Publishers released Posters Can Help, a book exploring the role of posters as artifacts representing and generating social (and economic... and environmental...) good.
It is, then, less about the posters themselves and more about the connections they create among people — both individuals and groups. Posters living in archives exist in suspended animation (Guffey). This goes back to the social life of posters… Vienne’s unglued along with Helfand's glued in the mind.
Web 2.0 and social media may have changed the ways posters are perceived and distributed, but they’ve not eliminated them. Printed posters, when shared online, are distinctly communicated as a printed medium, which probably has led to people showing their hands holding posters online (similar to showing hands with books online). We attempt to humanize a medium that is something not touchable. We can see it but we don’t experience it like a poster in person… no crinkled edge, or gallery mounting. Adding hands allows us to imagine the sensory aspects of the poster itself, perhaps allowing the humanity of it to seep into our minds a little bit more. Maybe this is how we adapt to bond through screens.