Until the desktop computer made it possible to achieve a virtual third-dimension
graphic, designers were confined to a flat, two-dimensional ghetto. Apart from
environmental design projects, paper has been graphic design’s traditional, most
prevalent medium, and a fairly static one at that. During the twentieth century
many designers tried, some successfully, to transcend paper’s inherent
limitations by sculpting paper into 3D pop-ups, die-cutting shapes and forms, or
using graphic and photographic tricks to achieve the illusion of dimensionality.
The latter is what Milton Glaser was after when he designed the 1987 Art
Directors Club poster for its second annual exhibition, the success of which
demanded close collaboration with the printer to make certain all the elements
needed to transform a two-dimensional surface into a trompe l’oeil (literally, “an
object that deceives the eye”) were in sync. For the illusion to work—for the
corners to look folded and the transparent paper overlays to be convincing—the
printing had to be flawless. And so it was.
Glaser was not, however, the first to attempt this feat, nor was he the
last. Even today, designers do whatever they can to deceive the eye. The
earliest trompe l’oeil works date at least to the Renaissance, when painters,
perhaps bored with the rigors of academic art, precisely painted flies on
otherwise pristine religious or landscape paintings. Of course, this three-
dimensional verisimilitude caused consternation among frustrated viewers, who
were convinced that real insects were sitting on the artworks, but that was the
point: These were satiric pieces designed to flummox and confound. Throughout
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, baroque and rococo trompe l’oeil,
accurate depictions of three-dimensional objects, were common in art. It was
considered one of the highest artistic virtues to create such precise illusions. In
graphic design, similar kinds of dimensionality were tried through pen and ink
or engraved renderings until the widespread introduction of photography
changed the nature of creating illusion. Manipulating photographs enabled
graphic artists to tinker with reality and perception. Given the high quality of
today’s printing processes, trompe l’oeil illusions can be so convincing that one
cannot help wanting to flatten out what looks like a crumpled, folded piece of
paper. Contemporary software is available that so effectively contorts or
contours type that it looks as though it were truly folded or crumpled too.
Today, manufacturing deceptive visual realities is as easy as moving a mouse.
In the nineteenth century, the greatest boon to the designer illusionist
was the 1878 invention of the airbrush, a tool for creating shadows, and
shadows are the best way to show dimensionality on the printed page. A well-
placed false shadow adds the magic that transforms the common into the
uncommon. In Glaser’s case, all the magic was achieved through photography
and by cutting the top of the poster on a diagonal, to further disrupt the
viewers’ equilibrium.
Why toy with paper in this way? Design is in large part a playful
activity, and play must have certain rewards. In his book Art Is Work, Glaser
proudly recalls that “everyone who came into my office and saw [the poster]
hanging on the wall tried to lift the flap.” Clearly, few things are more
satisfying for the magician or graphic designer than when the audience falls for
the illusion—and this also forces them to pay attention to the message.
Second International Exhibition:
Call for Entries
Designer: Milton Glaser
1987 Second International Exhibition: Call for Entries, poster
d: Milton Glaser
Milton Glaser’s poster for the Art Directors Club second annual exhibition demanded close
collaboration with the printer to make certain all the elements needed to transform a
two-dimensional surface into a trompe l’oeil (literally, “an object that deceives the eye”)
were in sync.
Unusual shapes
Folded paper corner
Creased paper
Layered paper

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