The Evolution of the Printed Poster

Not only has the poster become a staple in graphic design, but it has evolved to become a prolific visual print media tradition.

Published on 2 May, 2016 | Last modified on 1 November, 2022
gone with the wind movie poster

Posters are one of the most ingenious inventions of humanity. That may seem like an hyperbolic statement, but the power posters yield have stood unfettered against the test of time.

Not only have they become a staple in the trade of graphic design, but posters have evolved to become prolific visual traditions. The main goal of a poster is to captivate a person’s attention, engage with their mind and stimulate some sort of action.

Posters have accomplished this for over 2 centuries, rendering
them the champion of print media.

Yet posters, their design process and distribution, have changed drastically over time. Let’s take a look at how the poster has evolved to retain its power over consumers.

Teaching Young Dogs Old Tricks

Posters are not a new concept in print media. Posters had their start in the early 19th century, greatly shaping the development of typography and graphic design. As Design Is History outlines, during its beginnings, posters were used to promote, advertise and spread ideas in regards to political campaigns, military efforts and new products among the general public.

The poster was so effective in communicating and engaging with the public that its use quickly spread across the globe, refining typographic styles to optimize public outreach. In the 20th century, posters became a dominant form of advertising in cinema – a transition period from mainly sound advertisement (radio) to print media.

Film posters promoted themes and narratives. Cinema posters reflected the iconography of actors, creating an ongoing recognizable and engaging rapport with the public. 

It beckons the question, has much changed?

Today, posters are still used for promotional purposes and for public awareness campaigns. The effects of the poster are so gripping that they’ve even transcended into digital media.

A fitting example of this is Netflix’s prominent use of movie thumbnails, or essentially their continual reel of miniature movie posters. What are Netflix users first attracted to when browsing? It’s not the star rating, but who or what is displayed on the poster.

Does One Size Fit All?

You may be thinking that the Netflix example is a bit of a stretch, but posters are scientifically proven to increase knowledge, change attitudes, and alter behavior.

In other words, a poster is a form of powerful visual communication that engages with the mind and can dynamically change how we think or interact. Posters, when distributed correctly, have the ability to linger in a person’s mind long after they’ve been visually ingested.

Maybe that’s why people still rank their favorite movie posters – even in the digital age!

And posters aren’t limited to just film. A study conducted by the British Journal of Health Psychology found that the influence of health promotion posters prompting stair use increased pedestrian traffic volumes in stairwells. Likewise, another study found that posters improved healthcare standards when it came to workers informing patients on the topics of infection prevention and control.

No matter the industry, when it comes to leveraging engagement through a poster’s size, generally speaking the bigger the better. However it’s not all one size fits all. Posters can get the job done with a variety of sizes to choose from.

You may choose to print out a slew of smaller posters and place them altogether, like a wall of never ending paint samples you’d see at a hardware store. A mosaic army of posters can grab the attention from afar and nearby. Walking in sight of wall of posters peaks interest, whereas walking directly past a wall of posters commands attention.

In juxtaposition, if you’re releasing a new product or service, try printing out a larger poster. A larger poster is like zooming in on a message with a magnifying glass – they spotlight your message with larger copy and graphics.

Skyrocket Engagement

Brands and organizations can gain traction by placing posters in high visibility environments. Or they can be strategically placed–like the two studies previously mentioned–to target specific consumers, like a poster advertising for a sale outside of a retail store.

Relax on Kepler 16b Poster

In either case, when people see posters they are unknowingly engaging with their surroundings. This can happen when strolling past that whimsical retail store, or while waiting at the station to catch a train. A poster’s message is consumed at first glance, and because it is continually exposed you can attract a lot of potential new consumers. If your marketing message is executed correctly, the likelihood of further consumer interaction is promising.

Organizations unlikely to have a strong relationship with the younger segments of the population have also employed the use of posters in their marketing strategies. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory recently released their Visions of the Future, a series of 14 space odyssey posters. Each poster vividly illustrates ambitious space travel under the design of retrofuturistic elements.

In the words of NASA, “As you look through these images of imaginative travel destinations, remember that you can be an architect of the future.” NASA isn’t merely designing for pleasure as a result from a twiddling thumbs. This is part of NASA’s marketing towards the younger generation. These posters, which are free for download, are aimed to spark thought on the human potential for future space

How to Create a Powerful Poster

While everything we’ve discussed so far sounds full of promises, posters are only as powerful as what they’re made of. In order to get the impact you’re searching for, you have to consider lots of design elements. Here are some quick guidelines that you may want to consider in avoidance of becoming overwhelmed in your poster design:

  1. Identify the purpose of the poster. Is this for advertisement or awareness purposes? Or is it to impart some form of knowledge? Ask yourself: What do I want someone who sees this poster thinking/feeling? What information should they have?
  2. Focus on design choices and how they operate under the authority of your intended audience and poster location. What’s trendy may not be what’s best for your message!
  3. Write the copy that must be included on the poster. This could be specific dates, hashtags or brand names. You can later make spin these more creative, but writing them in advance ensures they’ll have the necessary real estate. Additionally, designing font on-the-fly will really eat up time.
  4. Draft a design that speaks to your purpose. If you’re not fluent in the art of graphic design, you may want to consider hiring a freelance designer.
  5. Print in high quality to elicit attention. Mimeo prints a variety of posters in captivating large formats. Don’t put your hard work to waste!

Posters are generally more cost-efficient forms of advertising than radio and television, but the costs can add up if you place them in places that prohibit certain content, resulting in their premature removal. If your audience is primarily composed of younger individuals, you may want to consider adding a QR code onto your poster. This can further spread your messaging if they decide to distribute the link around to others who may not get the chance to see your poster but would benefit from its messaging.

So, do you think that the poster still reigns as the champion of print media? What types of gains and oversights did you experience as a result of distributing posters?

This post has been updated for accuracy and relevance.

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