A conversation with Gerwin Schmidt “Poster Design Is Like Creativity Training”

Of all the media that graphic designers shape, the poster is the most visible and public. What role does it play today? And what are the current trends in poster design in Germany right now? A conversation with Gerwin Schmidt, 45, one of Germany’s most celebrated poster designers. Schmidt, who studied with Gunter Rambow, has a design office in Munich and is professor at the Stuttgart Academy of Art and Design.

Portrait of Gerwin Schmidt next to posters designed by himself. Portrait of Gerwin Schmidt next to posters designed by himself. | © Gerwin Schmidt Herr Schmidt, what makes a good poster?

A good poster has to have three levels. It should not only draw the attention of passers-by and cyclists, best of all from a distance. It should not only convey the essentials. Instead, it should also have a third level, a level of reflection or commentary. That is the designer’s free leg. Perhaps the image one saw from far away tilts when seen close-up. Or one discovers something mysterious that one doesn’t decipher right away. That is when a viewer takes another look for a second, and the poster burns itself into his or her memory. If this third level is lacking, all you have is a piece of paper with some text – not a poster.

Is poster design still the master discipline of graphic design?

It was for a long time, yes. At the moment lots of graphic designers are concentrating more on the editorial side of things, on magazines and books. But the poster is still the decisive context of art and practice in graphic design. Here, you have to compress an idea into a nutshell within a single surface with limited space, combining image and text into a unity. Someone who can do that can design for most other media, too. For me, poster design is like creativity training.

What trends do you see at the moment in poster design in Germany?
 

  • Valeria Gordeew: Zinnoberball (i.e. cinnabar ball) for the Berlin University of the Arts ©
    Valeria Gordeew: Zinnoberball (i.e. cinnabar ball) for the Berlin University of the Arts
  • Henning Wagenbreth: Jazzfest Berlin 2011, for the Berliner Festspiele ©
    Henning Wagenbreth: Jazzfest Berlin 2011, for the Berliner Festspiele
  • Gerwin Schmidt: Poster for the exhibition Muttersprache (i.e. mother tongue) in Taiwan, 2009 ©
    Gerwin Schmidt: Poster for the exhibition Muttersprache (i.e. mother tongue) in Taiwan, 2009
  • Bureau Mirko Borsche: poster for “Deadly and Brutal –Film Posters from Ghana,” an exhibition by the Neue Sammlung in Munich ©
    Bureau Mirko Borsche: poster for “Deadly and Brutal –Film Posters from Ghana,” an exhibition by the Neue Sammlung in Munich
  • Barbara Stehle: poster for the “Haus des Waldes” in Stuttgart ©
    Barbara Stehle: poster for the “Haus des Waldes” in Stuttgart
  • Inga Albers: Literaturrecherche (i.e. documentary search), for the FH Düsseldorf library ©
    Inga Albers: Literaturrecherche (i.e. documentary search), for the FH Düsseldorf library
All of them, actually. One can really put it that way. You see it in contests like the “100 Best Posters“. One third of the winning posters come from students, and they often quote and sample the signatures of role models, or orient themselves on particular trends. In the past, there were individual designer personalities who defined a signature for a longer period of time, Uwe Loesch, Gunter Rambow or Pierre Mendell come to mind. Today, the codes’ wave motions are extremely accelerated because everything is available on the internet. Now, newcomers and students are so present in the web that the crowd sees their works and quotes them, even before they can develop their own style.

Is there no trend at the moment that particularly stands out?

Well, the ‘Sixties aren’t being quoted as much any more, but rather the ‘Fifties; it’s not so strict any more, it’s getting a bit more emotional, a bit more in the direction of Picasso and Hitchcock title design. Also, no-design is a theme, aesthetic ruptures, anything that breaks the rules.

Many posters that are “100 Best Poster” winners are no longer to be seen on the streets. Why?

There are more and more indoor posters hanging in semi-public areas. For example, posters that announce an event and direct visitors at the entrance of a university and on the way to the lecture hall. And there is a need for them at trade fair booths or in other situations where large numbers of people are gathered in one place, because you can indicate and present information well with a poster. On the other hand, the prices for billboards and advertising pillars have increased so much that many event organisers and cultural institutions can no longer afford it.

A poster is above all a local medium. Are there differences between different cities?

Gerwin Schmidt: posters for the Munich Documentary Film Festival, 2011 Gerwin Schmidt: posters for the Munich Documentary Film Festival, 2011 | © Huge ones. I noticed that myself when I moved to Cologne after my studies, because I had liked it there in the past. But Cologne just isn’t a poster city; there are only a few posters to be seen in public space, something that also has to do with the available opportunities for bill sticking. In Munich, there are so called cultural pillars, about 400 of them, but you can only stick DIN A 4-size posters on them. The classical customers, the opera, museums, festivals, orchestras and theatre are still very much present here. And in Berlin you find many more party posters, because you can fly-poster much more easily there than in other cities, where you instantly get hit with a fine if you stick anything up.

Do graphic designers now just get DIN A 4 commissions from cultural institutions?

You might think so, unfortunately advertising agencies do everything else. A student from Stuttgart, Barbara Stehle, once turned the tables here. For her thesis, she took out newspaper advertisements in which she offered to make posters free of charge for companies and private persons, elaborately printed in silk-screen in the Academy’s print workshop. She sought out her customers herself, on condition that she have a completely free hand in the design. Some really beautiful posters arose in this way.

More than 40 percent of the 100 Best Poster winners come from Switzerland. Do the Swiss have an advantage over German poster designers?

Although both countries have a similar poster tradition, the level of awareness for graphic design is much higher in Switzerland than here with us, and especially with customers – similar to The Netherlands. Swiss poster designers have completely different options available to them, because there posters are mostly produced in world format – bigger than A0 – and often elaborately produced in screen print. Being hung up in individual metal frames also provides far more design freedom.

What does the future hold for the poster?

The poster will always exist because one can achieve visual presence extremely fast with it. And poster design will always be a key qualification for a graphic designer; things are no different with public displays or graphic motifs on T-shirts. Many poster designers I know would enjoy doing something for these new animated displays that have recently started appearing in train stations. There’s still a lot that could be done there.