Grafa's (Very Brief) Guide to Poster Styles

Discover the history behind most prominent styles from the Rise of the Poster, Early Modernism, International Style Modernism, Postmodernism, to Contemporary Posters.

What style is it?

When we look at a vintage poster, we often want to know where it fits within a timeline of historical styles. Is it Art Nouveau, Art Deco Modern, Postmodern, or something else? The answer isn't always obvious, since designed objects, posters included, don’t always fall easily into a stylistic category. Styles themselves resist strict definitions – one historian’s idea of postmodernism, for instance, might differ from another’s, or a poster might incorporate elements of various styles.

All that being said, it’s still useful and interesting to learn how poster design developed over time and to have a broad understanding of the different styles you might encounter. 


The Rise of the Poster

The poster as we know it – a large colorful advertisement displayed outside – first appeared on city streets in Europe and America at the end of the 19th century, when advances in color lithography made it possible to print large numbers of colored illustrations quickly and inexpensively.


The poster as we know it – a large colorful advertisement displayed outside – first appeared on city streets in Europe and America at the end of the 19th century, when advances in color lithography made it possible to print large numbers of colored illustrations quickly and inexpensively.

A new breed of poster artists produced dazzling advertisements, mostly in the popular Art Nouveau style. Posters became wildly popular, with magazines and exhibitions celebrating the latest creations and collectors rushing to acquire them from printing shops or directly off the street. For a fun, two-minute introduction to the French poster craze of the late 19th century, see History of the Poster on YouTube.

(Fig.1, Left) Werner Jeker, Papier, Musée des arts décoratifs, Lausanne, 1991.
(Fig.2 Right) Alphonse Mucha, Poster for White Star Champagne by Moet et Chandon,1889. Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

As tastes changed throughout the early decades of the 20th century, new poster styles emerged: Arts and Crafts posters in England, the sachplakat, or object poster in Germany and Switzerland, and fabulous Art Deco posters from countries around the world in the 1920s and 1930s. 

Early Modernism

The early 20th century also saw the rise of the modern movement in art and design. Much of what we think of today as modern graphic design had its origins in this period, roughly a hundred years ago. 

Following the upheaval of World War I and the Russian Revolution, groups of artists across Europe set themselves the ambitious task of rebuilding the material world to match the new reality of modern life. Avant-garde movements (Constructivism in Russia, De Stijl in the Netherlands, and Dada in Switzerland, Germany and France), looked for new ways of communicating within a changed society. They created new graphic languages based on their explorations of typography, photography, geometric compositions and abstract images. 

This new graphic style lent itself perfectly to posters, a medium of mass communication. Russian Constructivists produced remarkable posters using photography, abstract images and dynamic compositions to communicate with a largely illiterate public. At the Bauhaus, a legendary design school that operated in Germany from 1919 to 1933, teachers and students embraced posters as an effective way to spread their modernist ideology. Bauhaus posters often feature san serif typography (letters without end strokes), diagonal compositions, simple geometric shapes, bold flat colors and photomontage – all graphic techniques meant to resonate with a modern audience. These iconic early modern posters are objects of great historic and artistic value.

(Fig.3, Left) Fritz Schleifer, Bauhaus Ausstellung, 1923. © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY
(Fig.4, Right) El Lissitzky, Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, 1920. HIP / Art Resource, NY

International Style Modernism

After World War II, Switzerland came to the fore in the fields of typography and graphic design, and Swiss poster design attracted international attention.

With Switzerland largely sheltered from the devastating effects of the war, Swiss designers were able to carry on with their work, and they continued to explore modern approaches to graphic communication. Two designers in particular, Josef Müller-Brockmann and Armin Hofmann, were key figures in developing and promoting what came to be known as the Swiss Style – a very minimalist, objective style based on strict grid layouts and the use of particular sans-serif typefaces. Posters from the 1950s through the 1970s by Müller-Brockmann, Hofmann and their colleagues are considered masterpieces of the Swiss Style design.

(Fig.5) Josef Müller-Brockmann, Anthologie de Musique Suisse, 1970.
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The Swiss Style had a profound influence on graphic design internationally. As it spread around the world, particularly in the realm of corporate graphics, it came to be known as the International Style.

(Fig.6, Left) Julia Born, Swiss Style, Internationale Grafik, Museum für Gestaltung Zurich, 2015.
A poster by Julia Born advertises an exhibition exploring the lasting international impact of the Swiss Style in graphic design.
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(Fig.7, Right) Wim Crouwel, Het Nieuwe Bouwen in Rotterdam 1920-1960, 1982. 
Dutch graphic designer and typographer Wim Crouwel was known for his devotion to the International Style's minimalist grid-based system. His passion for the modernist grid earned him the nickname Mr. Gridnick.
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In the United States during the post-World War II period, graphic designers built on the foundations of European modernism to create a uniquely American approach to advertising and graphic design. Corporate America embraced a slightly softer, more whimsical take on the tenets of modernism for its logos and print advertising.

(Fig.8) Stephen Frykholm and Philip Mitchell, Herman Miller Office Systems, 1971.
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Postmodernism is perhaps the most difficult poster style to pin down. In its broadest terms, postmodernism is a questioning or rejection of modernism. In  the field of graphic design, this change of course generally meant a rejection of the all-pervasive International Style. However, so many new approaches to design emerged internationally from the 1960s through the end of the 20th century that the umbrella term of postmodernism has only limited value for understanding poster styles of the late 20th century. 

In Switzerland, a new generation of graphic designers coming out of design schools in the 1960s and 1970s began to reinterpret the rigid formality of the Swiss Style. Designers such as Rosmarie Tissi, Bruno Monguzzi and Werner Jeker maintained their links to modernism but injected into their typography and compositions a new flexibility and vitality. The posters they produced are bursting with creative expression and energy.

(Fig.9, Left) Werner Jeker, Papier, Musée des arts décoratifs, Lausanne, 1991.
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(Fig 10), Right) Bruno Monguzzi, Lyonel Feininger, Museo Cantonale d'Arte, Lugano, 1991.
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In the early 1970s, New Wave graphic design emerged in Switzerland and America as a more radical alternative to the modernist aesthetic. Swiss graphic designer Wolfgang Weingart, the “father” of New Wave design, practiced and taught an approach to design in which the basic tenets of the International Style – the strict grid, highly-legible san serif typography, simple and clear images – were thrown aside in favor of complex compositions, highly-manipulated, irregular typography and overlapping, textured images. American designers who studied under Weingart in Switzerland, notably April Greiman, introduced the New Wave style to an American audience. Greiman was also an early adopter of computer-aided graphic design. Designing on a Macintosh computer allowed for even greater possibilities in the manipulation and layering of type, color and image. The graphic style that Weingart, Greiman and others developed in the early 1970s was widely imitated over the next two decades.

(Fig.11) April Greiman, Freedom, Equality, Liberty, Security, Property, 1989.
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Contemporary Posters

What role does the poster serve in our media-saturated world? Is an outdoor printed advertisement still relevant when it’s competing against so many other forms of media on the street, in our homes and on our phones? Despite the competing demands on our visual attention, poster design continues to thrive. Many designers still see the poster as a perfect medium for exploring their craft and fortunately there are many cultural institutions interested in supporting their work. International poster competitions attract the top talents in the field and showcase the most captivating and innovative poster designs. In a few lucky countries, poster culture is still alive on city streets (Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands stand out). 

In terms of style, trends come and go, and it’s difficult to identify an overarching approach to poster design in the early 21st century. Particularly with the use of computers, designers have the capacity to explore infinite variations of type, composition and image-making. A noteworthy development is a new interest in moving posters. Designers have been making animated posters for online use (see @themovingposters on Instagram for a nice selection of these) and some of these moving posters have started appearing on street kiosks. It’s exciting to follow the varieties of creative expression coming out of the contemporary poster scene.

(Fig.12, Left) Raffinerie AG, Oïphorie: atelier oï, Museum für Gestaltung Zürich, 2018.
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(Fig. 13, Right) Peter Bankov, Filmmaking Area, 2013.
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(Fig. 14, Left) Annik Troxler, Weltformat Festival 2016.
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(Fig. 15, Right) Norberto Molina, 30th Anniversary, Escuela Internacional de Cine y TV 2016.
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If you’re interested in learning more, please check out this list of books and other poster resources.