Posters American Style

The digital exhibition Posters American Style provides a historical overview of 20th-century graphic images and their designers in the context of events, commercial endeavors, movements, and patriotism. The posters are all designed in the U.S. and come from private and public collections across the country. This digital exhibition is not marked with a date, but a Google search reveals that a coffee-table catalog of the same name was published in March, 1998. Curated by the Smithsonian American Art Museum to complement the Museum’s touring physical exhibition of the same name, this digital exhibition aims to highlight the similarities between the Internet and poster design:

Today, as web site designers seek vibrant graphic images and powerful, terse captions to appeal to mass audiences, the fundamental lessons of poster design seem more contemporary than ever. (Elizabeth Broun, Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum)

This exhibition can be divided into four parts, namely the welcome page, homepage, key section pages, and poster collection:

  • The welcome page contains a postcard-like image with the names of the exhibition and the Museum, a printer’s color bar, and a collage with the I Want You Uncle Sam poster and the poster of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. At the bottom are the logo of the Museum and two links: one to a list of the Museum’s other online exhibitions and another to the homepage of the Museum’s website. Clicking on the postcard-like image leads to the homepage.
  • The homepage functions as a table of contents. It has a navigation menu at the top and a site index below, both of which contain links to the four key sections: Introduction, The Posters, The Process, and The Impact. The navigation menu and site index also include links to the subsections of The Posters, which contain the bulk of the exhibition. The link to the Credits and Acknowledgements is only available on the site index.
“Homepage.” Posters American Style, Smithsonian American Art Museum. Accessed April 10, 2015.
  • Each of the key section pages has a similar layout; a search feature and links to the other key sections are placed on the header. The exhibition’s name on the header links back to the homepage whereas the Museum’s name links to the Museum’s website. There are links to the subsection pages on the left of the screen. Some of the key section pages contain dynamic “exhibits.” For example, The Process has an animated GIF of an offset press while The Impact has audio files of historical milestones such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream. However, the search feature and audio files no longer function, probably due to the outdated software that powers the exhibition.
“Key Section Page.” Posters American Style, Smithsonian American Art Museum. Accessed April 10, 2015.
  • The posters in the poster collection can be viewed one at a time. Information for each poster includes artist’s name and year of birth, client, printing technique, dimensions, and collection to which the poster belongs. The artist’s biography appears at the bottom of the page. Hovering the mouse over some posters results in the appearance of boxes that, when clicked, lead to enlarged details. An image index lists all 137 posters, divided into four categories examining the subject matters of posters: 1) leisure activities including film, sports, circuses, and cultural events, 2) consumer goods, 3) social issues and advocacy, and 4) war propaganda and patriotism.
“Poster Collection.” Posters American Style, Smithsonian American Art Museum. Accessed May 6, 2015.

The most prominent feature of this digital exhibition is its link accessibility. Almost every page contains various links placed in the header, sidebar, content, and site index. This allows the visitor to access the different exhibition parts at almost any point of a particular page, reducing unnecessary scrolling and tedious navigation from one page to another. However, the multitude of links – specifically links that lead to the same destination page – falsely conveys the existence of more pages than there actually are. This results in potential confusion and undermines the overarching linear structure of the content. Furthermore, in certain key sections such as The Process, there are links to subsections that are not listed on the homepage. The visitor will not be aware of these “hidden” subsections unless the visitor thoroughly explores the digital exhibition.

While the multitude of links reflects the abundance and range of American posters, it contradicts the leanness and conciseness of poster design. Ironically, Posters American Style lacks the fundamental lessons of poster design.

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