Rick Poynor is a writer and critic, and Professor of Design and Visual Culture at the University of Reading. He is the author of numerous books on design and visual culture, and was the founding editor of Eye magazine. In 2017, he curated an exhibition of the posters advertising the plays of the National Theatre. He also wrote and edited a book (National Theatre: A Design History) celebrating half a century of the NT’s poster designs, which Unit Editions was delighted to publish. In this interview, Rick discusses key issue surrounding the posters and their role in the promotion and visualisation of theatrical performances.
Unit Editions: Why do you think theatre posters – unlike cinema posters, book jackets and record covers – are a neglected aspect of graphic design?
Rick Poynor: The most likely reason is that theatre posters are much more ephemeral than book jackets and particularly record sleeves, which can remain unchanged for decades. A theatrical production might only last a few weeks. Theatre posters are also very local, with an audience generally limited to the town where the play is showing. The National Theatre’s posters were mainly seen around the theatre itself. Film posters accompanying a film’s national or international release have always been distributed much more widely.
That doesn’t mean that theatre posters at their best haven’t been equally as compelling as graphic communication. Some countries, such as Poland, have a long tradition of expressive theatrical poster design and this has been well documented. A recent book, Presenting Shakespeare, gives a terrific overview of the wealth of posters designed around the world for productions of Shakespeare, showing many alternative approaches for each play. For anyone interested in researching graphic design history, this under-explored area provides some great opportunities for discovery and that’s what attracted me to this project.
UE: What distinguishes National Theatre posters from the posters of other theatre companies?
RP: The National Theatre’s posters evolved over five decades, so in pure graphic terms the answer will vary depending on which era we are talking about. What is particularly notable about the theatre is the way it kept the design process in-house, seeing graphic communication as a fundamental aspect of the procedure of putting on a play. The NT’s first designer, Ken Briggs, did the job for 11 years as a closely involved independent designer. Since 1975, graphic designers have been employed at the theatre – Michael Mayhew worked there for 33 years, which is an extraordinary degree of continuity. Today, the NT has a team of in-house graphic designers, like a small commercial studio. Fully aware of its legacy, the theatre has a nearly complete collection of its posters from 1963 to the present, as part of its fully maintained archive.
For me, the NT posters are often most interesting as graphic design when they distil the essence of a widely shared and admired approach and do this particularly well, as happened in the 1960s with Ken Briggs. As a typographer, Briggs wasn’t alone in drawing on Swiss influences – you can also see them in George Mayhew’s 1960s posters for the Royal Shakespeare Company – but he applied the style with enormous panache. Contemporary designers still find these posters impressive.
UE: What was the most important thing you discovered by curating this book, and the exhibition it accompanied?
RP: It’s less a ‘what’ than a ‘who’. Richard Bird was Briggs’ assistant and in 1975 he took over as the NT’s head of graphic design. He was a very different kind of designer, skilled in all types of lettering and able, as an artist, to produce any style of illustration that was required. He died young in 1993 and perhaps for this reason his work has been overlooked, though it was admired in his lifetime. I must confess I had overlooked it too, back then, so it came as a surprise and a pleasure to discover this wonderful body of posters from the late 1970s and early 1980s. Bird’s silkscreened pieces focus on expressing the dramatic and atmospheric essence of the play rather than foregrounding the theatre’s identity. Design tends to swing between those poles. Is the production or the organisation that produced it the most important thing? As a viewer, I believe it’s the former. The audience isn’t dumb and it’s perfectly capable of identifying the organisation with good pieces of work. Diversity is the approach that leads to the greatest graphic richness and Bird’s posters are an excellent example of that principle.
UE: I talked to a design student recently and she told me she was delighted with the book. What do you think a design student might learn from this book?
RP: Right now, especially in Britain, I think people who are committed to the medium of graphic design need to keep asserting its inherent possibilities as a form of expressive communication. The book certainly does this. It’s ironic that in a culture that is so relentlessly visual, so much 21st-century graphic design has had its wings clipped. Graphic outcomes too often conform to a template deemed fashionable or merely the most blandly acceptable. Graphic communicators need to be masters of the image, as well as typography, and they should seize this role again. The book provides an unusual 50-year case study of graphic communication at a major British cultural organisation during an era when graphic design rose and flourished. It offers a wealth of examples and visual approaches to learn from because they work so well, and perhaps also sometimes to react against.
UE: In your view, is there still a role for printed theatre posters in the digital age?
RP: This question was always in my mind while working on the project and I think it’s there for anyone designing a theatre poster, or indeed a poster. The poster’s role and position in the hierarchy of communication platforms has changed, but no one at the NT seems to doubt the poster’s necessity as a kind of visual ‘front door’ for the production. A play without a confident poster to represent it would look cold and uninviting. But inevitably the need for promotional campaigns to work as digital media, across phones and tablets, has impacted on the poster image. Whatever form this image takes, it needs to be malleable and transportable, and that requirement isn’t going to change. People still love printed posters, though, and the NT shop sells copies of earlier classics, as well as posters for all the latest shows.