O'Reilly logo

Anatomy of Design by Mirko Ilic, Steven Heller

Stay ahead with the world's most comprehensive technology and business learning platform.

With Safari, you learn the way you learn best. Get unlimited access to videos, live online training, learning paths, books, tutorials, and more.

Start Free Trial

No credit card required

47
ANATOMY OF DESIGN
In recent years the billboard—that bastion of bombastic commercial advertising and
nemesis of roadside beautification advocates who attack it as blight on the
landscape (urban and otherwise)—has become a valuable venue for art and design
(political and otherwise). From adbusting, where advertising billboards are defaced
or altered, to the guerilla, where signboards are rented for alternative messages,
this ubiquitous mass communication space serves many personal missions and
social causes. Stefan Sagmeister, who makes sport of co-opting conventional media
for unconventional goals, joined the ranks of billboardists when in 2005 he
designed one for his “Things I Learned in My Life So Far” series—a list of
aphorisms (similar to those of Barbara Kruger and Lawrence Weiner) in the form
of a manifesto. They include “Helping other people helps me,” “Money does not
make me happy,” “Assuming is stifling,” and “Complaining is silly; either act or
forget.” This last one—a veritable motto for our times—Sagmeister made into a
billboard in Lisbon, Portugal, and then photographically chronicled for posterity.
Like public artists before him, Sagmeister hopes the monumentality of
this outdoor venue will at least trigger a passerby’s second glance, if not a full-
fledged conversation. The imposing nature of space and the enigmatic yet
accessible quality of the text invites interaction. Of course, expressing such
intimate musings in this implicit town square draws from various traditions—
soapbox oratory, mural painting, leaflet hawking, and poster snipping—all rather
primitive means of getting noticed. Email and the Internet have altered the rules
of engagement, but this venue in real space continues to be appealing for
artists and designers and eye-opening for the audience.
Today, visual orators use the same methods as commercial promoters
and marketers, claiming any available (or private) surface to hang, paint, or
stencil messages. Some billboards and street signs are meant to be hamfisted
poundings on the mass consciousness; others, like Sagmeister’s, are one-offs
designed to make a subtle, surprising statement and then disappear. Here is
the nexus of art and propaganda. And in this case, Sagmeister chose a rarified
technique to underscore what might be called
propagandart. The entire surface
is made from newsprint sheets with stencils of intricately structured leaves
impressed on them, which he had lying on his rooftop for a week. “Since it
was exposed to the New York sun, everything turns yellow,” he explains, “but
the stencils stay white. When we put it up in Lisbon, it’s going to be exposed
with Lisbon sun, so eventually everything is going to fade away.” Literally, the
sun intervened to create closure.
This unique technique is Sagmeister’s invention, but in addition to the
more universal billboard concept he draws on other design precedents.
Silhouetting stencil shapes is a commonly used decorative method that evolved
into a means of posting subversive or dissenting words and slogans. Using
silhouetted objects in art dates back hundreds of years—and portrait silhouettes
were the snapshots of Colonial America—but they became a modern trope after
Man Ray experimented with Photograms in the 1920s. Designers found through
Photogram they could transform everyday objects—everything from Paul Rand’s
cigars to Sagmeister’s leaves—into extraordinary, often breathtaking abstractions.
Achieving a breathtaking result is the goal of every billboardist. With the
computer as the most prodigious distributor of mass and private messages,
breathtaking is the way to make a message resonate. In this billboard,
Sagmeister practices what he preaches—the act of creating and posting it
ensures that the message will not be forgotten.
Either Act or Forget
Designer: Stefan Sagmeister
2005 Either Act or Forget–Lisbon Billboard, billboard
ad: Stefan Sagmeister d: Matthias Ernstberger, Richard The c: Superbock
The billboard for the Experimenta in Lisbon is made out of newsprint paper, taking
advantage of the fact that newsprint yellows significantly in the sun.
Direct-light exposure
Art of the moment
Art as billboards

With Safari, you learn the way you learn best. Get unlimited access to videos, live online training, learning paths, books, interactive tutorials, and more.

Start Free Trial

No credit card required