How to Design a Railway Poster – by combining Power, Economy and Sparkle
The artist can be a law unto himself…Not so, the commercial artist
Austin Cooper 1938
The question of how to design a railway poster may seem daunting when one is confronted by a blank sheet of paper, or considers the many possibilities exemplified by the many posters reproduced in this survey…except that the railway poster does not begin with a blank sheet of paper…It’s a kind of standard product.
Over the long history of the railways, there have been many forms of advertisement. In general what we have in mind, here, are posters that present a pictorial landscape or view. The apotheosis of this form of poster design occurred in Britain during the period between the two world wars.
The history of posters is, nowadays, well documented in terms of the poster images themselves. The way that posters were designed and actually made remains more obscure. Luckily, there are a number of books that describe successful poster design for the would-be commercial artist and designer. These books were produced during the 1930s, the so-called golden age of the railway poster. I’ve used some of these books as my source material for this essay.
This essay aims to describe the theory and practice of designing a successful railway poster. My aim has been to describe the process of design as a system of organisation. Obviously, the would-be designer needs a certain level of practical and artistic ability – drawing, and colouring-in, for example. These practical skills are less significant, in my opinion, than the ability to co-ordinate the various parts of subject and composition into a successful design. So, this essay considers the principle elements of successful poster design individually, in relation to each other, and considers these parts in proportion to each other…
The instruction to design a railway poster usually arrived from the Advertising manager of the railway company, and usually included a note of the proposed subject matter. The manager was generally responding to an order for advertising from a resort town or tourist destination. So, from the first, the designer had to work to a brief.
Furthermore, railway posters were always produced within an industrial and commercial framework and always to specific technical standards. Developments at the printing office were directed to improvements in quality, speed and efficiency. This progress aimed to reduce the costs associated with poster advertising and, accordingly, to make it more profitable.
The defining characteristics of the modern poster (evident from about 1870 onwards) were of bright colours and large scale… Both of these characteristics devolve from the technical standards applying to the production of posters. The standardisation of colour palette and size was facilitated through the industrial development of colour lithography during the late 19C.
The formats of the industrial printing press quickly standardised the railway poster around the quad-royal (50×40 inches) and double royal (25×40 inches) sizes of paper. The display environments of railway stations adapted themselves eaqually quickly to the organized display of posters in these sizes. Conveniently, these paper sizes gave the posters the proportions of the windows in railway carriages. So, the images on posters were always understood, subliminally at least, as corresponding to the view from the train!
In general, railway posters were displayed on railway platforms and amongst the crowds and bustle of the station environment. The railway station provided for a wide range of experiences. Whatever the range of experiences associated with the railway platform and waiting room, it was very different from the quiet concentration of the picture gallery. The modern poster was the first kind of image to be developed so as to be seen dynamically and from a distance.
These considerations mean that the successful poster designer was both an artist and a technician. The designer had to understand the process and system of production and be able to work within its parameters. The artist had to be able to realise the composition.
Railway Views and Railway Vision
The poster should be so fashioned that he who runs may read…
Austin Cooper 1938
During the 19C, Hermann von Helmholtz conceptualised the cognitive model of the intelligent eye. This understood the human eye and brain to be connected. Accordingly, he proposed that physiological, cognitive and epistemological considerations had to be made holistically and in relation to each other. The eye became understood as part of a pattern-recognition approach to cognitive formation and problem solving. Later, the Gestalt psychologists constructed a theory of psychological development around this idea of holistic cognitive organisation.
Over recent years, the development of technology has been re-assessed as having profound impacts on the internal balance of the Helmholtz model. Briefly, the acceleration of the machine-ensemble, associated with modern industrial society, changes the vision and perception of the world. In turn, we change the world so that it becomes more like what we perceive.
This may seem a straightforward idea in relation to, say, the visual technology of the cinema (invented 1894); but, the same applies to the mechanical accelerations of railway, motor-car and aeroplane. By the 1930’s, technology and the world were experienced as vision in motion.
Wolfgang Schivelbusch (1986) has described the impact of railway technology on perception thus, the experience of railway travel also shaped the way landscape was viewed…the conventional way of looking at landscape prior to the railway was to observe a receding vista from a static viewpoint, a detailed and closely observed foreground giving way to a more generalised middle ground which guided the eye to towards a specific distant object of interest. From the moving train perspectives were always changing, eye catching focal points in the middle distance were alternately visible and obscured, close and distant, while the foreground whizzed past in a perpetual blur. The speed of travel by railway made it impossible to form such a well-ordered and closely observed landscape in the mind’s eye.
Schivelbusch also connected this insight to the developing 19C spectacular and its attendant ocular entertainments of the diorama and panorama. Indeed, Schivelbusch suggests that the railway experience became the, defacto, optical entertainment before cinema. In this context, the railway poster becomes a kind of visual appetizer to the journey ahead, whilst at the same time, only being really discernible to travellers already familiar with railway vision.
Since railway poster designers were also railway travellers, we can assume that they absorbed these experiences and developed their designs accordingly. The pioneers of the modern poster (Cheret and Lautrec, in France, especially) were quick to adopt a two-dimensional and flat-colour representation derived from the Japanese woodcuts of the floating world (ukiyo-e).
In practical terms, the elaboration of flat-colour design didn’t necessarily require a knowledge of Japanese woodcuts. The same illusion could be derived from the techniques of theatrical scene painting. The elaboration of a design as a succession of scenic theatre-flats helped provide a convincing three-dimensional space within the two dimensional frame.
The scale of theatrical work also helped provide a style of simplification suited to the requirements of the poster to carry beyond its immediate display. Two further points need to be made about arranging the picture in this way. The conventions of flat-colour illusion usually make use of the black key printing to draw the eye into the picture space and to make the illusion from two to three dimensional work. Using this powerful visual trick also had the effect of implying a heightened level of illumination. In its most extreme form, this makes the poster seem as bright as if the scene was illuminated from within.
The benefits of high-lighting the design cannot be overstated…as evidenced by the continuous use of this technique over the last 500 years or so – from the stained glass of the middle ages through to the back-lit screens of TV and IT, via the illuminations of advertising poster sites. At a cognitive level, the intelligent eye understands back-lighting as transcendent…this is obviously derived from our early religious training and is certainly useful for the advertising industry, who make the same claims for products and services.
The extra illumination, implicit in the flat-colour arrangement of the poster also provides for brighter, and more solid, blocks of colour. This lighting is perfect for rendering views associated with seaside and open air – the traditional subjects of the railway poster.
These pioneers understood intuitively that the flat-colours of Japanese woodcuts had a visual correspondence with the way that the world appeared from a moving railway carriage window. The successful railway poster made the connection between experience, form, and image, explicit to the onlooker. It did so by establishing a virtuous connection between the space, illumination and colour of the design.
The commission to design a railway poster still required the designer to complete several tasks and to combine the outcomes in a satisfying and pleasing whole…the next part of this essay examines the practical considerations of designing a railway poster.
A poster is never just a story. It is a decorative design and its best qualities are broad simplification, power and pattern
Walter Shaw Sparrow 1924
As I’ve mentioned before, the subject of the railway poster was usually included in the brief. So, the designer’s work is to combine power, economy and sparkle so as to produce a dramatic, dynamic and attractive composition.
Power: Position, Scale, and Point-of-View
It is usual to begin by positioning the main subject of the poster in the centre of the design. This frames the subject; but this can lack dynamism and drama. The subject can be moved so that it is ranged, left or right, up or down, within the frame.
Obviously, the scale of the main subject in the design provides an important clue as to its significance. Usually, we recognise scale as an important signifier of status. In conjunction with position, this should draw the eye to what is important in the design.
The poster provides a frame (or window) to the view. By bringing the frame closer to the subject, we can make the subject appear larger. This add’s significance. At its most extreme, we can move so close to the subject that the frame can no longer contain the whole subject. The subject bleeds beyond the edge of the poster.
Suddenly, the subject can be understood as extending beyond the frame of the view…this implicit perception makes any subject seem much more significant. If the image crop makes the subject seem bigger; the resulting effect can be monumental.
Nowadays, everyone is familiar with this idea from the cropping of digital images. But, until relatively recently, these considerations would have seemed arcane to all but a few professional pictorial technicians. The advent of high-quality and portable photographic cameras (Leica 35mm viewfinders in the 1920s for example) allowed for a new approach to photography; where the photographer framed the picture in the viewfinder. The advent of photographic art-direction in fashion magazines also developed these ideas. Before WW2, the modern poster was a proving ground for the professional development behind this kind of design decision making.
The frame could also be tilted. This provided for a point-of-view that could be elevated or lowered. Both of these options carried significant implications. The bird’s eye view gave the observer a larger and more expansive view of the composition. Also, feelings of soaring freedom and excitement could be provoked by the hint of vertigo implicit in these elevated perspectives.
Conversely, a lowered point-of-view could make the subject seem to tower over the viewer. This provided dramatic monumentality, but at the cost of the subject looming over the viewer. This very powerful perspective was often used so as to produce the domineering images associated with political propaganda. But, this perspective was also useful in conveying the scale of medieval ruins or modern industrial plant.
A good poster should not puzzle people
Tom Purvis quoted by Leonard Richmond 1933
There are a number of international names that are important in the development of these ideas in relation to poster design. Chief amongst them are the Franco-Russian designer, AM Casandre, whose travel posters exemplify the principles of dramatic composition described above. In the context of British railway poster design, the greatest exponent of these principles was Tom Purvis.
Purvis was one of five designers retained exclusively by William Teasdale and Cecil Dandridge of the LNER. Between 1923 and 1945, Purvis produced over one hundred different poster designs for the railway. In addition to the expert composition of his designs, Purvis favoured the use of cut-out shapes and flat colours. The subjects of Purvis posters – generally romantic landscapes and the pleasures of the English seaside – allowed for the expression of something that was both dramatic and attractive.
Purvis belongs with Lautrec, Hohlwein and Bernhard, as one of the artists whose efforts contributed to the development of the visual language of poster design. Some designers and artists used coloured-paper and scissors to elaborate these deceptively simple looking designs.
The illusion associated with this transition from two to three dimensions is deceptively simple. It requires great skill in drawing to achieve the visual illusion of mass, weight and perspective expressed as a two-dimensional shape. This is particularly true when working to large scale. The drawing requires the confidence so as to combine accuracy with scale and monumentality.
The internal illumination effect, implicit in flat-colour design, also helps with the modeling of these flat shapes. The addition of air-brushed shadow effects could be used to provide additional drama through volume and mass.
Case Study One – Power
Tom Purvis East Coast by LNER 1928
This flat-colour design is probably the most famous of inter-war railway poster images. Purvis has grouped his figures beneath an over-sized parasol. This contrives to give an impression of sunshine, emphasized by the shadow on the ground; although on the east coast, the parasol was just as likely to have to act as a windbreak.
The position and scale of the parasol provide the power in the composition. The slightly lowered point-of-view raises the visual drama an extra notch.
The stripes of the towel catch our eye and draw us into a three-dimensional space entirely defined by two-dimensional shapes. The shapes have to be drawn with real precision to carry this off.
A simplified treatment is easier read…
Horace Taylor quoted by Leonard Richmond 1933
The evolution of the railway poster can be traced through three distinct phases of technical development. The first stage and up to about 1923, was based on the interpretation of a design by technical specialists at the printing press. The second stage, lasting through the period between the wars, involved establishing rules of economy so that the artisan process of poster make-ready could be made quicker and less expensive.
The third stage, roughly corresponding to the period after WW2, proceeded to an increasingly mechanical process of reproduction whereby colour separations and make-ready at the press were transformed into a process of entirely technical and mechanical procedure.
Accordingly, early railway posters are naturalistically rendered as complex designs with lots of detail. The many colour separations required to achieve these designs were costly and time consuming. Simplifying design was, first and foremost, a question of reducing the number of colours used. For practical purposes, simplicity and economy were combined.
The standard lithographic press prints a single colour. Colour lithographs (chromolithographs) were first elaborated by printing each colour successively and building up the design progressively. More complex machines combined stacked rollers so that two colours could be printed in a single pass. Later, four rollers were arranged in series to produce the first four-colour printing. This became the standard CMYK process. This is four-colour printing on white in ceyan, megenta, yellow and key, or black, as a subtractive model.
The technical staff of the print-shop were at the forefront of efforts to improve the economics of printing through speed and efficiency. Accordingly, they made mechanical improvements to the press machinery – adding rollers and power to the press to speed it up. They also developed split-duct printing which allowed for two colours to be printed at a single pass through the machine and were systematic in their documentation of effects made possible by overprinting. The technical manuals published by Thomas Griffits are the standard works on this subject.
Griffits (1940.2) itemises the tasks in making a lithographic poster thus
- Examine the original
- Decide the number and sequence of the colours
- Select paper
- Draw the key transfer
- Determine whether to print from stone or plate
- Prepare plate or stone
- Transfer key
- Roll up key
- Make the offsets
- Draw the colours
- Etch and roll up stone
- Prove colours
- Finish print
Within the railway context, single and two-colour designs were used only for the most prosaic of notices. Travel posters were usually printed in between four to twelve colours. The number of workshop tasks is multiplied accordingly.
The main skill associated with simplification was to choose the appropriate range of colours, so that the subject could be rendered successfully. The choice of colours had to combine naturalism with contrast. Furthermore, the architecture of the design had to be considered so as to lead the eye into the obviously two-dimensonal picture plane. The most effective way of doing this was to make the black, key, printing work as an optical gateway into the design. You can observe the effectiveness of this in the posters of both Tom Purvis and Frank Newbould.
Austin Cooper, designer and principal of the Reimann School of Design, London, described the “carry” of various colours. This was a function of tone and contrast and, crucially, allowed the poser to attract attention over distance…
Ernest Biggs (1956.15) lists the following rules…
Yellow is the colour with the highest visibility
Colours at the red end of the spectrum have higher visibility than colours at the blue
Pure colours are more visible than shades
The visibility of a colour is increased when placed in juxtaposition with its complimentary colour
By the 1930s, colour theory, gestalt psychology and print, had combined so that both the science and meaning of colour were understood.
Frank Newbould was a skilled exponent of simplified design. He was a commercial artist and poster designer who made substantial contributions to the development of British advertising art during the 1920s and 1930s.
Newbould worked extensively for the London and North Eastern Railway and for other clients. During WW2 he was appointed a colleague of Abram Games and designed a series of evocatively nostalgic posters for the Army Bureau of Current Affairs.
Case Study Two – Economy
Frank Newbould Electrical Plant 1932
This design combines the scale of industrial plant and low-level point-of-view to produce a dramatic and imposing design from a relatively uninspiring subject. The sharp contrast between the sunflower yellow, black, red and grey; gives the design exceptional carry. This design is an exemplar of the virtues attaching to economy in design. This idea was famously expressed through the architectural maxim – less is more.
Sparkle and Patterm
Pattern and decoration (should be) free from an excess of realism
Walter Shaw Sparrow 1924
Power and economy are not enough, though, in poster design. The design also has to have an element of sparkle to attract the eye. This is a form of optical disturbance equivalent to a fluttering movement. It’s this apparent movement that catches the eye.
Traditionally, printers and designers have exploited the inherent sparkle of letterforms and typography. You can see this clearly in early 19C letterpress playbills and notices.
At the beginning of the 19C, most local printers were traditional letterpress printers. Notices about theatrical entertainments and local events were elaborated entirely from the available stock of metal or wooden type in various styles and sizes. Most printers carries a relatively limited range of type styles and sizes with relatively few styles in large sizes. Accordingly, it was practically impossible to print these kinds of text-based notices in the single and consistent typographic style we are familiar with today.
The creation of a vibrant contrast between the blacks and white of the print was made possible by exploiting the differences between various letterforms. Thus italic, shadow, and fat-face, letters were each used in close proximity and in different sizes and weights. Elements of this design tradition may be seen in the earliest railway posters produced in the 19C.
By the 1920s and 1930s, new considerations of typographic consistency, made possible by monotype machines, and corporate identity were combined with economy to severely limit the range of typographic variation allowed.
In poster design, the letterforms were usually hand drawn. Indeed, the technical skills of accurate letter drawing provided a platform for the development of the commercial artist. During the 1920s and 1930s, large-scale sans serif letterforms were elaborated as exemplifying the characteristics of power and economy identified, above.
These styles of letterform were powerful, but at the cost of a plain style. To compensate for this shortfall, designers sought to integrate elements of optical disturbance into the main, pictorial, elements of their posters. By populating a scene with many visitors, the poster designer contrived to make a destination seem popular and interesting. The crowds sprinkle a sparkle upon both the beach and promenade.
The same effects can be seen in the way that architectural detail is defined as sky-pattern along the roof line of many buildings.
Even in landscape painting, the subtle use of light and shade can provide a gentle background of optical disturbance to attract the eye. The greatest exponent of this landscape dazzle was the maritime artist Norman Wilkinson.
Norman Wilkinson was a distinguished British maritime painter and landscape artist who worked during the first half of the 20C. The artist also made important contributions to maritime camouflage, during WW1, and to the development of poster design in Britain. Wilkinson was a prolific poster designer for the London Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) during throughout the 1920s and 1930s.
During WW1, he served on a submarine in the Eastern Mediterranean and on a minesweeper in the English Channel. Wilkinson’s maritime and artistic experience was acknowledged in his appointment to investigate the problems of camouflaging shipping.
The advent of heavily armoured Dreadnought type battleships, before WW1, transformed the terms of engagement in maritime conflict. Firstly, the new battleships provided for much heavier calibre cannon. Secondly, the hydraulic control systems of the gun platforms on the new battleships allowed for a greatly increased rotation and elevation of guns. In consequence, both the range and the arc of fire of the big guns became greater. The risks to shipping were correspondingly increased.
In order to minimise these risks, Wilkinson was invited to consider the advantages of camouflage on shipping. The specific context of maritime engagement in modern war, with ships at some distance from each other and moving at speed, suggested a need for new forms of camouflage. These were designed to confuse the range-finding calculations of estimating the target’s speed and direction, rather than to disguise the ship from view.
Perhaps surprisingly, Wilkinson found that the most effective forms of camouflage were based on the optical disturbance of dazzle patterns. These were, typically, geometric and angular shapes that broke up the outline of the ship. The resulting confusion was sufficient to cause enemy range-finding calculations to go awry.
Norman Wilkinson’s posterdesigns reveal a remarkable facility for both landscape painting and for the detailed depiction of machinery. This was especially important in relation to the railway and shipping interests associated with the LMS. Accordingly, Wilkinson was best placed of all the pictorial advertising artists to benefit from the patronage of the LMS.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Wilkinson became one of Britain’s best-known poster designers. Wilkinson claimed to be the originator of the modern pictorial poster. His idea was to replace the piecemeal visual presentation of the traditional railway poster and to offer a single, larger, picture as the focus of attention. Wilkinson also understood that in order to assure the effectiveness of this advertising the image would require a level of sensitive simplification.
Wilkinson’s landscapes are deceptively simple. The shape of the landscape is defined by light and shade so as to provide a background of gentle optical disturbance integrated into the composition. The successful incorporation of Wilkinson’s camouflage experiments into the generic forms of British landscape painting was an enormous and significant achievement.
Case Study Three – Sparkle
Norman Wilkinson The Snowdon Range by LMS 1930s
The ability to render the complex topography of dramatic landscapes through simple shapes and colour was a great achievement of Wilksinson’s. Here, he finds sparkle in the contrasts between light and shade that guide the eye from foreground to the high mountains. The result combines visual simplicity and optical sophistication.
A poster must create a new experience in the mind of the passer-by
Bernard Venables quoted by Leonard Richmond 1933
After WW2, railway posters were increasingly produced by photo-mechanical and offset lithography. For practical purposes, this allowed more complex designs to be produced economically through photographic colour separations and four-colour printing.
This allowed for a wider variety of visual styles to emerge by removing the technical constraints that had contributed so importantly to the golden age of the railway poster. Paradoxically, the more realistic forms of design facilitated by photography have been, typically, much less dramatic in their effects.
Case Study Four – Photo Sparkle
Scarborough by LNER Fred Taylor 1920s
The larger seaside resorts always made appeal to the crowd. They present themselves as social resorts with lots of attractions and activities for every taste.
Here, Fred Taylor has turned the crowds in the winter garden and on the promenade into a compelling visual sparkle. Taylor was a pioneer in working from photographs. The complexity of the architectural modelling in the design required a great level of precision in the elaboration of the colour separations. Likewise, the crowd effects.
Paradoxically, the technical and mechanical developments that allowed for greater realism tended to diminish the visual correspondence between the poster and the experience of looking from the train window.
The railway posters produced in Britain between the wars are, nowadays, rightly considered to the highest exemplars of railway advertising. This is based on the considerations and techniques itemised, above, as power, economy and sparkle. Combined with the evident graphic skill of the many artists, featured in these volumes, these images attest to the successful interaction of eye, hand and brain.
The conceptual considerations described here are not merely historical though. The effects of internal illumination, evident within these designs, allow us to see them as proto-typical pieces of web design. The transcendent potential derived from this illumination connects these posters to forms of image making associated with both the medieval church building and the world-wide-web. Accordingly, the future appeal of these posters and their design is assured.
Beaumont M and Freeman M (2007)
The Railway and Modernity – Time, Space and the Machine Ensemble
Bern CH, Peter Lang
Especially Chapter 1
Vadillo AP and Plunkett J The Railway Passenger, or The Training of the Eye
Biggs E (1956) Colour in Advertising London, Studio
Cooper A (1938) Making a Poster London, Studio
Eckersley T (1954) Poster Design London, Studio
Griffits T (1940) Technique of Colour Printing by Lithography London, Faber
Griffits T (1944) Colour Printing London, Faber
Kauffer E McKnight (1924) Art of the Poster London, CP
Purvis T (1939) Poster Progress London, Studio
Rennie P (2010) Modern British Posters London, BDP
Richmond L (1933) Technique of the Poster London, Pitman
Shaw Sparrrow W (1924) Advertising and British Art London, Bodley Head