Exhibiting tendencies

The problem with posters designed for exhibitions? They relegate ideas in favour of the art, unlike this classic

Like all great design solutions, Pierre Mendell’s poster for a show about Swiss book design is deceptively simple. Obvious really, in common with most great design. The white Swiss Cross in book form, on a red background, of course. Bingo.

But this is highly unusual. An actual idea on a poster for a cultural institution. The default position for pretty much any exhibition poster these days seems to be just show a piece from the show. Almost certainly badly cropped and reproduced in incorrect colours. With ugly type plonked over it for good measure. So, not only massively disrespectful to the artist (and viewer, I might add) but also utterly, mind-numbingly boring.

The curators and marketing people who insist on this short-sighted approach to publicity misunderstand communications and also context. Picasso, for example, did not create the painting to appear on a poster surrounded by words and logos. He created it to hang on a wall. Also, it’s surely better to dramatise the notion of, say, an entire Picasso show than to just badly reproduce one painting on a poster. What if the viewer doesn’t like that particular painting? And how do you stop your poster looking like every other Picasso poster? Come to think of it, Picasso actually created bespoke posters for his shows, so of course he knew better.

But hurrah, this particular poster has an idea. A ten out of ten, gold star of an idea. It makes the communication more memorable. So how do we execute it? Well there’s quite a lot to cram in here. Exhibition title, dates, venue, address – all vital stuff. And hard to handle well. The way Mendell handled it though is beautifully elegant. One typeface, one point size (perfectly big enough but not the shouting type we usually see) and one colour. Reproduced on a page of the book. Great. Secondary details are nicely handled in small white type in the lower left. Black and white type, white book, red background, plus fantastically shaped hard black shadows. Wonderful. You really cannot go wrong with black, white and red as a colour combination.

The most interesting thing about this visually stunning poster, and something we can all learn from, is just how well those particular elements work together as a piece of communication. Nothing else needed. But hang on. Where’s the museum logo? Where’s the logo/dumb strap-line lock-up? Where’s the ugly sponsor’s logo? In fact, let’s have a whole row of ugly sponsors’ logos – a whole damn cacophony of ignorable corporate graffiti. Oh, and let’s not forget the buy tickets NOW line or, even better, let’s put it in one of those diagonal flashes across one of the corners, in a bright colour. Um, let’s see, how else can we ruin it and make it instantly forgettable? I know, yes … a big phone number for the booking line. And while we’re at it, might as well squeeze a big web address in there. In bold. Can I stop now? I assume you get my drift.

It’s a poster. It has to be simple to be effective. Not only does Mendell’s work contain a great idea that communicates in a nanosecond, he and his client at the Museum for Applied Art, Munich had the good sense to drop all the usual superfluous crap off this wonderful work.

Are you listening Tate, V&A, Royal Academy etc? No, of course you’re not. But you damn well should.

Paul Belford is the founder of London-based agency Paul Belford Ltd. His work can be found at paulbelford.com. See also Belford’s Twitter feed @belford_paul


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