Poetry was once defined as bringing together unlike things to create a new experience or evoke an unexpected emotional response.
In Europe, beginning in the 1960s and continuing into the 1990s, there emerged a poetic approach to graphic design based on imagery and its manipulation through collage, montage, and both photographic and photomechanical techniques. The graphic poets stretched time and typography, merged and floated objects, and fractured and fragmented images in a sometimes disturbing but always engaging manner.
The conservative, traditional, and expected were rejected by these graphic designers, who defined the design process not as form arrangements or construction but as the invention of unexpected images to convey ideas or feelings. A receptive audience and client list developed for their book and album covers, magazine designs, and posters for concerts, television, and radio.
A German master of this movement is Gunther Kieser, who began his freelance career in 1952. This brilliant imagist has consistently demonstrated an ability to invent unexpected visual content to solve communications problems. Kieser brings together images or ideas to create a new vitality, new arrangement, or synthesis of disparate objects.
His Alabama Blues poster combines two photographs, a dove and a civil-rights demonstration, with typography inspired by nineteenth-century wood type; these diverse elements act in concert to make a potent statement. Kieser's poetic visual statements always have a rational basis that links expressive forms to communicative content. It is this ability that separates him from design practitioners who use fantasy or surrealism as ends rather than means. In the late 1970s and early 1980s Kieser began to construct fictitious objects that are convincingly real. Viewers stop in their tracks to study the huge posters bearing color photographs of Kieser's private visions to determine if they are having delusions. In a poster for the 1978 Frankfurt Jazz Festival, Kieser and his photographer almost convince us that a moss-covered tree stump can grow in the shape of a trumpet.
Launched in Munich in 1959, the German periodical Twen, whose name—derived by chopping the last two letters from the English word twenty—signified the age group of sophisticated young adults to whom the magazine was addressed, featured excellent photography used in dynamic layouts by art director Willy Fleckhouse (1925-1983). With a genius for cropping images and using typography and white space in unexpected ways, Fleckhouse made the bold, uninhibited pages of Twen a milestone in editorial design. While the Brodovitch tradition was undoubtedly a resource for Fleckhouse, the dynamic of scale, space, and poetic images in Twen made a provocative and original statement.
One of the most innovative image makers in late-twentieth-century design is Gunter Rambow (b. 1938) of Frankfurt, Germany, who often collaborated with Gerhard Lienemeyer and Michael van de Sand. In Rambow's designs, the medium of photography is manipulated, massaged, montaged, and airbrushed to convert the ordinary into the extraordinary. Everyday images are combined or dislocated, then printed as straightforward, documentary black-and-white images in an original metaphysical statement of poetry and profundity.
In a series of posters commissioned by the Frankfurt book publisher S. Fischer-Verlag for annual distribution beginning in 1976, the book is used as a symbolic object, altered and transformed to make a statement about itself as a communication form. The book as a means of communicating with vast numbers of people is symbolized by a huge book emerging from a crowd scene: the book as a door or window opening on a world of new knowledge is symbolized by turning the cover of a book into a door one year and a window the next. These metaphysical and symbolic advertisements carry no verbal information except the logo and name of the client, giving the audience of editors and publishers memorable and thought-provoking visual phenomena rather than a sales message.
Rambow often imbues straightforward photographs with a sense of magic or mystery, and he uses collage and montage as a means of creating a new graphic reality. Images are often altered or combined and then rephotographed. In the 1980 poster for the play Die Hamletmaschine, a photograph of a wall was placed under a photograph of a man standing in front of this wall, then part of the top photograph was torn away. The final rephotographed image presents the viewer with a perplexing impossibility.
During the 1960s literary and graphic design communities throughout the world were astounded and delighted by the experimental typography of French designer Robert Massin, who designed editions of poetry and plays for the Paris publisher Editions Gallimard.
As a young man, Massin apprenticed in sculpture, engraving, and letter-cutting under his father. He did not seek formal design training but learned graphic design under typographic designer Pierre Faucheux. In its dynamic configurations and use of letterforms as concrete visual form, Massin's work has affinities with futurist and Dadaist typography, but his intensification of both narrative literary content and visual form into a cohesive unity expressing the author's meaning is unique.
Massin's designs for Eugene lonesco's plays combine the pictorial conventions of the comic book with the sequencing and visual flow of the cinema. The drama of La cantatrice chauve (The Bald Soprano) is enacted through Henry Cohen's high-contrast photographs. Each character is assigned a typeface for his or her speaking voice and is identified not by name but by a small photographic portrait.
By printing typography via letterpress onto sheets of rubber and then manipulating and photographing it, Massin created unprecedented figurative typography, while a major argument in the play provided him with the opportunity to generate an explosive typographic event. Visual vitality, tension, and confusion appropriate to the play are graphically conveyed.
In his design for lonesco's Delire a deux (Frenzy for Two), words become the expressionists image.
Massin's manipulations of typography anticipated the elastic spatial possibilities inherent in bitmapped computer graphics of the 1980s. His many years of research into letterforms and their history led to the important 1970 book Letter and Image, which explores the pictorial and graphic properties of alphabet design through the ages.
During the May 1968 student revolts in Paris, the streets were filled with posters and placards, mostly handmade by amateurs. Three young graphic designers, Pierre Bernard, Francois Miehe, and Gerard Paris-Clavel, were deeply involved in the radical politics of the day.
Bernard and Paris-Clavel had each spent a year in Poland studying under Henryk Tomaszewski, who stressed an attitude of being both artist and citizen. His teaching advocated an intellectual rigor and clear personal conviction about the world. These three young designers believed publicity and design were directed toward creating artificial demands in order to maximize profits, so they joined forces to turn their graphic design toward political, social, and cultural rather than commercial ends.
Seeking to address real human needs, they formed the Grapus studio in 1970 to realize this mission. Grapus was a collective; intensive dialogue took place about the meaning and means of every project.
The starting point of Grapus's problem solving was a thorough analysis and lengthy discussion about content and message. The most significant aspects of the problem and the kernel of the message were determined, and then a graphic expression of the essence of the content was sought. (In those days, French left-wing radicals were called crapules staliniennes [Stalinist scum]. This phrase was melded with the word graphic to produce the group's name.)
Grapus favored universal symbols with readily understood meanings: hands, wings, sun, moon, earth, fireworks, blood, and flags. Typographic refinement and technical polish yielded to handwritten headlines and scrawled graffiti, creating a raw vitality and energy. Often a palette of primary colors was used for its intense graphic power.
Grapus was motivated by the dual goals of achieving social and political change while striving to realize creative artistic impulses. A 1982 poster for an exhibition of Grapus graphics features a central figure holding a dimensional arrow with cutout letters. Bounding into the space on a jack-in-the-box spring, it layers an arresting group of cultural icons: the ubiquitous yellow smile face, Mickey Mouse ears, and Hitler's hair and mustache. Its eyes are the communist and French tricolor indicia, and a small television antenna sprouts from the top of its head.
Grapus spawned many imitators. The shocking verve of its statements, especially the dynamic informality of its spatial organization and casual, graffiti-like lettering, was copied by fashionable advertising.