The Object Poster:

Essays by Steven Heller
1 316 words7 min read
In the beginning was the word...

And The Word played a wondrous role in the history of humankind for it gave breadth to both the spirit and the flesh. However, the story that I relate is not of biblical proportions. The word to which I refer is a more earthly and common. It is not The Word that came from the mount (as in “And The Word was...”) but rather a word, or words, carefully selected and strategically composed coming from an advertising agent for the purpose of evoking the decidedly primal urge to consume.

In the beginning (of the early nineteenth century, that is) commercial advertising and graphic design relied on words because pictures were just too costly to reproduce. Ideas and messages were communicated through words set in wood or metal typefaces, printed in multiples, and posted on any empty surfaces. Walls, fences, and hoardings were covered with bold letters announcing miraculous patent medicines, derring-do entertainers, and honest-as-the-day-is-long political candidates. In fact, there were so many words that printers, the craftsmen fundamentally responsible for producing advertisements, could garner attention only by using the most raucous of letterforms. Larger, bolder, decorated letters were akin to screaming hawkers. But amid the cacophony of Tusans, Latins, Egyptians, and novelties faces galore a poster or broadside had to be more than just loud, it had to have allure.

Imagery was key. Initially, wood engraving enabled printers to reproduce linear graphics. But with the advent of chromolithography — the so-called Democratic art — during the late nineteenth century a sea-change in advertising and graphic design occurred. The reproduction of colorful tonal pictures gave birth to popular art that not only promoted and persuaded but also entertained. With this new technology artists developed looser styles consistent with painting. The resulting posters were indeed large canvases filled with fanciful figures, mirthful metaphors, and chromatic colors, capped by artful letters. But artists being artists were not content to use one method alone, and so from the earliest academic renderings the visuals evolved into various graphic styles that became increasingly more complex in form, if not function.


Art Nouveau was the most elaborate of the early modern design vogues. This commercial style manifest primarily throughout Europe and The United States around the turn of the century was characterized by naturalistic, curvilinear ornament, such as branches, vines, tendrils, and floral patterns. Even the numerous Art Nouveau alphabets were designed to symbolize nature and thus prompted one critic to dub the aesthetic “floreated madness.” In fact, during the few years between 1896 and 1900 Art Nouveau developed into a resolutely eccentric mannerism that dominated the commercial marketplace and prompted much mimicry by graphic, furniture, and fashion designers

One exponent was an eighteen year old (although some say he was sixteen), starving German cartoonist named Lucian Bernhard who, in 1906, entered a poster competition sponsored by Berlin’s Priester Match company. The prize was 50 Marks, a published piece, and a possible contract to do artwork for Hollerbaum & Schmidt, Germany’s leading poster printer and advertising agency. As the story goes, Bernhard’s first sketch was typically Art Nouveau (or Jugendstil as it was known in Germany), including a cigar in an ashtray on a checked table cloth with dancing nymphets formed by the intertwining tobacco smoke. Incidentally, next to the ashtray were two wooden matches. A friend complimented Bernhard on the excellent cigar advertisement which prompted him to rethink the composition and one-by-one he eliminated the table cloth, ashtray, cigar and erotic smoke, leaving only the two matches. He then enlarged the matches, painted them in red with yellow tips, and left them on a dark maroon field, At the top of the image area he hand lettered Priester in block letters.

The jury summarily discarded this entry as being much too spare. Yet as fate so often intercedes, arriving late, the chief representative of Hollberbaum & Schmidt, Ernst Growald, retrieved Bernhard’s work from the trash bin and announced that this was his winning choice. A big, boisterous man, Growald held sway over the other jurors asserting that this was the next wave of advertising. So Bernhard was given the cash award, the poster was printed and posted around Berlin, a contract was signed for additional work, and — not inconsequentially — the Sachplakat (or object poster) was born.

Art Nouveau met its demise not because of Berhard’s accidental “invention” of the object poster, but because the world was rapidly changing. Industrialization, the growth of cities, the increase of vehicular traffic, and the fast pace of everyday life required that advertisers compete for attention as never before. Visual complexity no longer worked. Passersby moved much too quickly to appreciate the levels of craft and symbolism in elaborate Art Nouveau compositions. Growald understood this. Bernhard intuited it too. The alternative was bright color, stark imagery, and bold words.


What constituted a bold word, however, was subject to location. In America billboards contained terse slogans and minimal art. In Berlin it was enough simply to state the company or brand name, such as Priester, Steinway, Manoli, or Frank. At this time, before the era of multinationals and diverse subsidiaries, one company produced one product, which may or may not compete with another company producing the same product. There may have been other match companies in Germany in 1906, but once the Priester poster was hung — with the block lettering that read Priester atop two colorful matchsticks — there was no other brand in the minds of consumers. The same holds true for Steinway pianos, Manoli cigarettes, Frank coffee, and the many other products that Bernhard (and his Berliner Plakat cronies) advertised in this same manner.

The word was a mnemonic cue, and alone it forced recognition but its close proximity to the object was necessary for full effect on the audience. The stark combination of the word and image was invincible. In fact, the object poster could be defined as a verbal/visual sentence that required the proper name and visual noun in order for the viewer could read it. In addition, these posters worked best when hung in multiples of three or more consecutively in a long line, which created a visually rhythmic refrain — Priester, Priester, Priester, Matches, Matches, Matches. The concept is not unlike the constant barrage on radio or TV of annoyingly memorable jingles and slogans.

It doesn’t take a behavioral psychologist to know that the repetition of any single word or image will lodge itself in the human conscious and unconscious. And when Bernhard made object posters the advertising industry had not yet embraced, as it so fervently did, pseudo-science or market research to determine what influenced the public most. The notion of subliminal intervention had not become a codified strategy. It was simply logical that after an era of visual complexity, visual simplicity would have a positive impact. It was also predictable that after a period of simplicity the novelty would wear-off, and more aggressive (or at least more novel) means of mass communication would be necessary.

The object poster was dominant from 1906 to around 1914 when the Great War in Europe brought rampant commercialism there to a crashing halt. During the war wordy slogans and complex renderings sold patriotism as well as what few products remained. After the war advertising techniques shifted once again and a variety of new ideas emerged in Modernist hothouses. But it was clear to anyone who could read the posters on the wall, that the word could not be displaced as the main ingredient of persuasion.

  • Art director of the New York Times Book Review and founder and co-chair of the School of Visual Arts, New York MFA/Design Program. He is the former editor of the AIGA Journal of Graphic Design and author or editor of over 80 books on popular culture, graphic design history, and political art. His most recent books include The Graphic Design Reader, Allworth Press, The Education of a Design Designer, Allworth Press, and Counter Culture: The Allure of Mini-Mannequins, Princeton Architectural Press. His forthcoming books include: From Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Progressive Magazine Design of the 20th Century, Phaidon Press, Cuba Style: Graphics From the Golden Age of Design, Princeton Architectural Press, and Graphic Humor: The Art of Graphic Wit, Allworth Press.