Arts

The poster boys for cool posters

Designers Webb, Biesinger and Bell lead a low-tech image revolution

Nestled amidst the thick layers of ads that line every pole and billboard
in town lies a quiet revolution. It’s not the kind of revolution that
wields grenades—in fact, you wouldn’t even notice it unless you
knew what to look for. But if you peruse carefully among the multitude of
digitized, pixelated, solarized, texturized and diffused posters, there are a
few that will make you smile with their mischievous simplicity.

They’re the work of a group of emerging designers—namely, Matt
Webb, Lyle Bell and Raymond Biesinger—who are in the forefront of a
worldwide movement to change the impersonal, computerized face of design.
They are not technologically inept Luddites. These designers belong to the
first computer-savvy generation, a generation so comfortable with technology
that they are no longer smitten with it. “All of us are very
comfortable with technology,” Webb says. “It’s a conscious
choice to reject the aesthetic. I have an aversion to what’s produced
with new technology. When it first comes out, people are fixated on the
novelty of new technology. We’re trying to create an aesthetic that is
the antithesis of this.” The trio has put together an exhibition of
their work. But Social Justice Now! 23 Posters That Don’t
Use Impact or Comic Sans
is more than a show; it’s a
manifesto.

Webb, Bell and Biesinger seem to have been destined to meet. For one
thing, all three are musicians, part of Edmonton’s underground,
alternative music scenes. “[These are] bands and musicians that
aren’t playing music to become successful and make money,” Webb
says. “It’s for the love of music. It’s more of a
compulsion.” In fact, one of the reasons they were drawn to design in
the first place was that posters for music gigs were woefully inadequate.
“I would get promotional material from clubs and it was so bad,”
Webb says. “I didn’t feel much pride handing people handbills
that were uninspiring. We have a vested interest in the way that the local
music scene is represented.”

But it wasn’t the music that brought them together—it was
seeing each other’s posters around town. “I saw Raymond’s
stuff on the street and said, ‘That’s cool!’ and vice
versa,” Webb says. Their designs had an anti-high-tech feel inspired in
part by www.gigposters.com, a Calgary-based online archive that allowed these
young designers to see what was being done all over the world. “We were
able to see what’s happening in San Francisco, Montreal and places
where interesting design is coming out,” Webb says. “Seeing this
amazing stuff, I didn’t know that there were people out there investing
so much time into doing concert posters.” Interestingly, many of the
designers they admired so much were musicians themselves. They had another
important thing in common, too: their work may have been done on a computer,
but it retained the expressive, low-tech immediacy of Depression-era posters,
Polish and French posters, maybe even the idiosyncratic power of Russian
propaganda poster fonts. “That’s what I was drawn towards,”
explains Webb. “Things that looked like outsider art.”

Both Webb and Bell have experimented with the old-fashioned
screen-printing techniques of the pre-computer era. “I was able to set
up a press in my basement,” Webb says. “A lot of the stuff [on
gigposters.com] is screen printed. You don’t see much of that around
town.” Why would Biesinger, Bell and Webb go to all of this effort to
disguise the computer-savvy look that nearly every poster in town is so proud
to display? “It seems cold and clinical—it doesn’t have the
same warmth a screen-print has,” Webb explains with palpable
enthusiasm. “When I see a screen-print, I want to feel it, I’m
compelled to touch it.”

It’s an ironic twist of fate that the first computer generation (the
one the rest of us Luddites count on to fix our perennial computer problems)
is the very generation to question our love affair with pressing buttons to
obtain slick designs. Biesinger, Webb and Bell may well ignite a visual
revolution—and if they succeed, perhaps technology will finally step
down from the altar we have collectively put it on and make way for the human
touch. V

Social Justice Now! 23 Posters That Don’t Use Impact or
Comic Sans
By Matt Webb, Raymond Biesinger and Lyle Bell •
Muddy Waters • April 23-June 18

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