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Auburn Faculty Curate “Visual Memoranda: The IBM Poster Program, 1969-1979”
“Visual Memoranda: The IBM Poster Program, 1969-1979,” a selection of posters that were IBM internal communications, are currently on exhibit at the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art (JCSM). Curated by two School of Industrial + Graphic Design (SIGD) faculty members, Shea Tillman and Robert Finkel, the posters represent a mid-century shift in the evolution of graphic design from text-heavy commercial art into image-driven visual communication.
Quirky and colorful, the single-message posters were visual inter-office communications to IBM employees about topics such as security, safety or upcoming events. They were created by the IBM’s Design Center in Boulder, CO. Working on their own time, staff graphic designers Ken White, John Anderson, and Tom Bluhm were able to break out of the IBM corporate mold and use the posters as their creative outlet. Each poster was painstakingly produced in rich colors, using silk screen or offset lithography, by two print houses in Denver. They were then shipped to IBM campuses to be displayed in hallways, conference rooms, and cafeterias.
IBM, a giant of the technology industry at the time, hired world-renowned design consultants to project its image as a forward-thinking, technologically advanced organization. Paul Rand, the preeminent U.S. graphic designer of the twentieth century, designed the iconic IBM logo along with a corporate design guide for the application of graphics across the organization.
Rand influenced the top design talent IBM hired (he had taught White at Yale), and the staff designers took their cues from him. As a result, the posters reflect Rand’s aesthetic. Many were designed in the “International Typographic Style” of the Swiss school, and many won awards in Walter Herdeg’s groundbreaking Graphis annual. Ironically, none of the posters were designed on a computer. They were all created by hand because computers were not used for design work at this time.
Perhaps the greatest compliment for the designers, Tillman says, were how many posters were taken from the walls by admiring IBM employees. “That’s how we came into a number of the posters,” explains Tillman. “John Stram, who was an industrial designer at IBM’s Boulder and Poughkeepsie offices in the early 1970s, gave his ‘re-appropriated’ collection to us. We also have another 20 on loan from the last living member of the design team, Tom Bluhm, who I had the opportunity to visit and interview in Switzerland.”
Tillman, an associate professor of industrial design, and co-curator Finkel, associate professor of graphic design, both teach design history at Auburn. Finkel named the exhibit “Visual Memoranda” because the posters were like visual memos to IBM employees. He also created a visual identity and a website: visualmemoranda.com.
The 20 posters currently on display at JCSM are part of SIGD’s collection of more than 100. Also included in the exhibit is Rand’s famous “Eye, Bee, M” rebus poster from 1981. Finkel and Tillman employed an archival framing and display system that prevents damage to the posters and allows them to travel well. They hope to exhibit more posters in more places soon. To accompany the poster exhibit, Tillman also created a display of iconic IBM equipment, such as an IBM Selectric typewriter and an early PC, in the lobby of Wallace Hall.
“Visual Memoranda” runs through July 15, 2018 at JCSM. For more information, read Print Magazine’s interview with Finkel in “IBM Beyond Rand” http://www.printmag.com/daily-heller/ibm-beyond-rand/ and FastCompany’s interview with Tillman, “The Radical In-House Design Program that Shaped IBM.”
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