e-idea file



Cooper Hewitt Museum: 'How Posters Work' in 12 Easy-to-Understand Examples

The Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York City currently has a fascinating exhibit entitled, "How Posters Work." It literally is a case study in techniques used in poster design. We've used their excellent descriptions of each genre and paired them with examples of each poster. Visit the Cooper Hewitt's site for this exhibit here.

The exhibition is organized into subsections: focus the eye, overwhelm the eye, use text as image, overlap, cut and paste, assault the surface, simplify, tell a story, amplify, double the meaning, manipulate scale, activate the diagonal, make eye contact and make a system.

Focus the Eye 

Focus the eye

One of the most basic ways designers make a viewer take notice is to make the image big and put it in the middle of a space, as illustrated in Gottlieb Soland's 1957 poster "Grammo-Grafik" (pictured). Designers also use color and form to bring attention to a central element, as seen in Lucian Bernhard's famous 1909–1910 "Adler" poster, which features a centered product name at the top, counterbalanced by a starkly rendered typewriter.


Overwhelm the eye

Designers can engage the viewer in an optical experience and lead the eye on a restless journey by incorporating dense patterns, wandering lines and competing colors. Highlights of the works on view in this section include psychedelic posters of the 1960s, such as Victor Moscoso's 1966 "Junior Wells" (pictured).

Type as Image 

Use text as image

In poster design, typography is often used to enhance or obscure a message through the size, style and arrangement of letters. Featured works on view in this section include Michael Bierut's 1999 poster "Light/Years" and Josef Muller-Brockmann's 1959–1960 poster "Der Film" (pictured).



Designers use various techniques to conjure illusions of depth within the flatness of two-dimensional space. The most basic technique for simulating depth is to overlap two or more elements, as seen in Paul Rand's classic 1951 poster "Dada," which creates a rudimentary sensation of depth as black letters float in front of white ones. A similar technique is used in a more elaborate way in Felix Pfäffli's 2013 poster (pictured) for the Weltformat Poster Festival (Lucerne, Switzerland).

cut and paste 

Cut and paste

Splitting images apart and combining bits and pieces to create new meaning is central to the design process. Ladislav Sutnar isolated photographs against bold patterns and flat fields of color, transforming halftone images into tightly contained illustrations, as seen in his 1958 work "Addo-x."


Assault the surface

To focus the viewer's attention, designers may bend, burn, melt and vandalize the image to unlock its power. Examples in this section include Fritz Fischer's 1973 movie poster (pictured) for Die Zartlichkeit der Wolfe (The Tenderness of Wolves) and Saul Bass' 1961 ad campaign for Otto Preminger's film Exodus.



Designers often simplify an image in order to direct attention to a message or product. In Waldemar Swierzy's 1973 film poster for Midnight Cowboy (pictured), the simplified image focuses attention on the figure's full, ripe lips while blocking his other features.

Tell a Story 

Tell a story

Visual narratives inspire viewers to ask, "What just happened?" or "What will happen next?" Featured works in the section include two posters created for the U.S. Office of War Information during World War II, which tell the same story from different perspectives. Anton Otto Fischer's poster "A Careless Word" (1942) depicts a lifeboat loaded with distressed and wounded sailors pulling away from a burning ship. Frederick Siebel's "Someone Talked" (1942, pictured) pulls viewers even closer into the story, bringing them eye to eye with a single sailor who reaches out to them from the dark water just before drowning.



Designers may use arresting images and provocative language to communicate the urgency of a message. Lowercase letters can seem calm and conversational, while uppercase letters can project anger or agitation, as seen in "No War" by an unknown designer, circa 1980. Images of screaming mouths can trigger visceral, embodied responses in viewers, as in Art Chantry's 1982 "Ready for War" poster (pictured).


Activate the diagonal

Diagonals help the eye cut across the surface and penetrate its depths, as illustrated in the 2008 poster "Jonathan Jones," (pictured) in which designer Mark Gowing used angled text to create three-dimensional letterforms.

Make Eye Contact 

Make eye contact

Graphic designers intuitively grasp the emotional draw of eye contact and the human brain responds to images of eyes, even when they are hidden or distorted, such as in Richard Avedon's 1967 "John Lennon" poster (pictured). A face can emerge from minimal ingredients, as evidenced in Paula Scher's 1994 poster for "Him" at The Public Theater.

Make a System 

Make a system

Designers create a system of colors and forms to create a recognizable identity and address spatial relationships among visual elements. Visual systems allow for uniformity and change, repetition and variation. A contemporary example by Experimental Jetset showcases a system created for the Amsterdam concert venue Paradiso (pictured) in which the designers cut holes into each poster to allow the surface underneath to show through.

About the Cooper Hewitt

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum is the only museum in the nation devoted exclusively to historic and contemporary design. The Museum presents compelling perspectives on the impact of design on daily life through active educational and curatorial programming.


return to e-idea file article list