A History of Graphic Design as Told by 18 Classic Posters

By Alissa Walker on at

A new exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt design museum in New York focuses on the cultural impact of this persuasive graphic design medium and the science behind what makes posters in particular pack their visual punch.

125 posters from the Cooper Hewitt’s permanent collection are featured in How Posters Work, which opens at the New York museum on May 7. “A true visual feast,” says director Caroline Baumann, from the “hard-edged designs of Ladislav Sutnar to the ever popular psychedelic posters of the 1960s, which epitomise sensory overload.”

The exhibition also divides the posters into 14 sections like “overwhelm the eye” or “assault the surface” which also manage to serve as a kind of crash course in graphic design. Looking at the posters through this lens helps to understand the choices that the designers made — and what makes them so perennially powerful. [Cooper Hewitt]


A History of Graphic Design As Told By 18 Incredible Posters

Frederick Siebel (American, Austrian, and Czech, 1913–1991). Someone Talked, 1942. Lithograph. Printed by Devoe & Raynolds Painting Company (USA). 101.6 × 71.1 cm (40 × 28 in.). Gift of Louise Clémencon, 1949-108-10. Photo by Matt Flynn.


A History of Graphic Design As Told By 18 Incredible Posters

Hendricus Theodorus Wijdeveld (Dutch, 1885–1987). Internationale Economisch-Historische Tentoonstelling [Exhibition of International Economic History], 1929. Block print, letterpress. 64.6 × 50.4 cm (25 3/8 × 19 3/4 in.). Museum purchase through gift of Eleanor and Sarah Hewitt and Jacob H. Schiff, and through bequest of Mrs. John Innes Kane, 2001-7-1.


A History of Graphic Design As Told By 18 Incredible Posters

Michiel Schuurman (Dutch, b. 1974). HorseProjectSpace and Deveemvloer Present: Paraat 3, 2007. Offset lithograph. 117.3 × 73 cm (46 3/16 × 28 3/4 in.). Collection Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Gift of Michiel Schuurman, 2008-22-2. Photo: Matt Flynn


A History of Graphic Design As Told By 18 Incredible Posters

Michael Bierut (American, b. 1957) for Architectural League of New York (New York, New York, USA). LIGHT/YEARS, 1999. Offset lithograph. 59.7 x 97.8 cm (23 1/2 x 38 1/2 in.). Gift of Michael Bierut, 2007-12-2. Photo by Matt Flynn.


A History of Graphic Design As Told By 18 Incredible Posters

Experimental Jetset (Amsterdam, Netherlands): Erwin Brinkers (Dutch, b. 1973), Marieke Stolk (Dutch, b. 1967), and Danny van den Dungen (Dutch, b. 1971) for Paradiso (Amsterdam, Netherlands). Paradiso 2010, 2010. Diecut, offset lithographs. 59.4 × 42 cm (23 3/8 × 16 9/16 in.). Gift of Experimental Jetset, 2014-40-3, -5/-7. Photo by Matt Flynn.


A History of Graphic Design As Told By 18 Incredible Posters

Paula Scher (American, b. 1948) for the Public Theater (New York, New York, USA). Him, 1994. 116.8 x 76.2 cm (46 x 30 in.). Gift of Paula Scher, 2013-25-1. Photo by Matt Flynn.


A History of Graphic Design As Told By 18 Incredible Posters

Rianne Petter (Dutch, b. 1975) and René Put (Dutch, b. 1962). Poster No. 524: Focal Point, 2012. Cut paper. 1189 x 841 mm (46.5 x 33 in). Courtesy of the designers.


A History of Graphic Design As Told By 18 Incredible Posters

Wiktor Górka (Polish, 1922–2004). Kabaret [Cabaret], 1973. Offset lithograph. 83.7 x 58 cm (32 15/16 x 22 13/16 in.). Gift of Sara and Marc Benda, 2010-21-100. Photo by Matt Flynn.


A History of Graphic Design As Told By 18 Incredible Posters

Saul Bass (American, 1920–1996). Exodus, 1961. Offset lithograph. Printed by National Screen Service Corporation (USA). 104 x 68.5 cm (40 15/16 x 26 15/16 in.). Gift of Sara and Marc Benda, 2010-21-16. Photo by Matt Flynn.


A History of Graphic Design As Told By 18 Incredible Posters

Lucian Bernhard (German, 1883–1972) for Adler (Germany). Adler Typewriter, 1909–10. Lithograph. Printed by Hollerbaum & Schmidt (Berlin, Germany). 34.5 x 47 cm (13 9/16 x 18 1/2 in.). Gift of the Eric Kellenberger Collection, Switzerland, and museum purchase from General Acquisitions Endowment, 2005-12-2. Photo by Matt Flynn.


A History of Graphic Design As Told By 18 Incredible Posters

Victor Moscoso (Spanish and American, b. 1936). Junior Wells, 1966. Offset lithograph. 50.3 x 36 cm (19 13/16 x 14 3/16 in.). Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Leslie J. Schreyer, 1979-34-37. Photo by Matt Flynn.


A History of Graphic Design As Told By 18 Incredible Posters

Ladislav Sutnar (American and Czech, 1897–1976) for A. B. Addo (Malmö, Sweden). Addo-x, 1958. Offset lithograph. 96.8 x 61.3 cm (38 1/8 x 24 1/8 in.). Gift of Anonymous Donor, 1994-109-7. Photo by Matt Flynn.


A History of Graphic Design As Told By 18 Incredible Posters

Waldemar Swierzy (Polish, 1931–2013). Nocny Kowboj [Midnight Cowboy], 1973. Offset lithograph. 82.3 x 58.5 cm (32 3/8 x 23 1/16 in.). Gift of Sara and Marc Benda, 2010-21-103. Photo by Matt Flynn.


A History of Graphic Design As Told By 18 Incredible Posters

Art Chantry (American, b. 1954). Ready for War, 1982. Screenprint. 60.9 × 45.5 cm (24 × 17 15/16 in.). Gift of Steven Heller and Karrie Jacobs, 1993-53-27. Photo by Matt Flynn.


A History of Graphic Design As Told By 18 Incredible Posters

Mark Gowing (Australian, b. 1970) for Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (Paddington, Australia). Jonathan Jones: untitled (the tyranny of distance), 2008. Screenprint. 84 × 51.6 cm (33 1/16 × 20 5/16 in.). Collection Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Gift of Mark Gowing, 2014-32-2. Photo: Matt Flynn


A History of Graphic Design As Told By 18 Incredible Posters

Felix Pfäffli (Swiss, b. 1986) for Weltformat Poster Festival (Lucerne, Switzerland). Weltformat 13, 2013. Lithograph. 128 × 89.5 cm (50 3/8 × 35 1/4 in.). Gift of Felix Pfäffli, 2014-30-2. Photo by Matt Flynn.


A History of Graphic Design As Told By 18 Incredible Posters

Experimental Jetset (Amsterdam, Netherlands): Erwin Brinkers (Dutch, b. 1973), Marieke Stolk (Dutch, b. 1967), and Danny van den Dungen (Dutch, b. 1971); For NAiM / Bureau Europa (Maastricht, Netherlands); Out of Fashion, 2011; Screenprint; Collection Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Gift of Experimental Jetset, 2014-40-4. Photo: Matt Flynn


A History of Graphic Design As Told By 18 Incredible Posters

Jacques Delisle (Canadian, b. 1941) for Cinépix Film Properties, Inc. (CFP) (Montreal, Canada). L’Initiation, 1970. Offset lithograph. 101.6 x 68.6 cm (40 x 27 in.). Gift of Sara and Marc Benda, 2010-21-97. Photo by Matt Flynn.