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Nov 26, 2009

Aaron Marcus: My Swiss Poster Collection

Aaron recounts his love affair with Swiss Poster Design

When I was studying for physics at Princeton as an undergraduate, before switching to graphic design at Yale’s graduate School of Art and Architecture, I had studied German and worked two summers in Germany.

I began to collect posters then as I traveled in Germany, Italy, Switzerland, France, the UK, and the Netherlands. At Yale, I was introduced by faculty, among them Herbert Matter, Paul Rand, and Norman Ives, to modern twentieth century graphic design and Swiss-German design style. In 1969, whille studying graphic design schools in Europe, prior to starting my own informal program in graphic design  at the Princeton School of Architecture and Urban Planning and in the Visual Arts Program, I traveled to Basel and Zurich, met Armin Hofmann and Josef Müller-Brockman, and other leaders of the Swiss graphic design movement.

I think on the occasion of that visit, I was lecturing  (in German!) to the students about the coming world of computer graphics, based on my experience at AT+T Bell Labs. I had  become, as far as I know, the first graphic designer ever to work full time with computers in 1967. It was on that occasion, as well as a subsequent visit to Switzerland,  that I collected Swiss poster designs that the leaders of the movement had designed. Their focus on sans-serif typography, carefully composed negative space, strong orientation to grids, and use of photo-manipulated (i.e., non-manually-manipulated)  photography appealed to my sensibilities for systematic design, which I found useful in my computer-graphics programs and in my later work in user-interface design and information-visualization. There seemed to be a natural fit. I simply walked into museums, opera houses, and other venues and asked them if they had any extra posters. They were glad to give me complimentary samples of posters for recent events that they might have discarded in the course of time.

I was able to arrange for my collection to be exhibited at the Princeton Art Museum in 1971. 38 Years later, I was able to arrange for a second exhibition at the San Jose State University’s Thomson Art Gallery. The audience for an opening lecture and reception was packed. I was delighted and a little surprised. It was good to see such a turnout and to receive many favorable comments regarding the exhibit.

I had not seen many of these posters in almost 40 years. I still find many of them very appealing, concrete artifacts of a strong philosophy about design whose principles were carried to the UK and to the USA and flourished throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s in corporate graphic design, culture insitutions, and some advertising.
Although the leaders of the movement, like Hofmann, Müller-Brockman, and Emil Ruder have passed away or are no longer active, their impact still lives on.

Recently, I received a small Target mailing piece: carefully composed type in white on red, with the distinctive Target symbol boldly displayed in a grid-based arrangement. This piece of graphic design from 2009 would feel quite at home among the posters from 40 years earlier.

For a pdf version of Aaron’s presentation at the Thomson Art Gallery, click here.
2007 AIGA XCD Fellow Aaron Marcus is a visionary thinker, designer, and writer, well-respected in international professional communities associated with Web, User interface, Human factors, and Graphic Design.

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