A History of Posters in Art – Pre-18th Century to Modern Day

Posters have long played a significant role in the world of art. They are a unique form of visual communication that can convey messages, promote events, and showcase artistic talent. From early forms of public advertising posters to contemporary graphic design, posters have evolved to reflect changing styles, technologies, and cultural values.

In this blog post, we will explore the history of posters in art, beginning with their origins in the pre-18th Century and tracing their development through to the present day. Along the way, we will discover how posters have been used for various purposes, from commercial advertising to political activism, and how they have helped shape our visual culture.

Pre-18th Century

Before the 18th Century, posters, as we know them, did not yet exist. However, various forms of public advertising and announcements served similar purposes. For example, town criers were common in medieval towns and cities. They would walk through the streets shouting out news and announcements to the public, often wearing a distinctive uniform and carrying a bell or horn to attract attention.

Another early form of public advertisement was the handbill or small printed flyer. Handbills were used to spread information or promote events, such as public meetings, concerts, or plays. They were often distributed by hand, posted in public places, or attached to poles or walls.

With the invention of printing techniques such as woodblock printing and lithography in the 18th Century, it became possible to mass-produce printed materials, including posters. These early printing methods allowed the creation of colorful and visually appealing posters that could be used for various purposes, including advertising and propaganda.

Woodblock Printing

Woodblock printing involves carving a design onto a block of wood, inking the block, and pressing it onto paper to transfer the design. This technique was used in China as early as the 9th Century. It was later adopted in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries.

One of the advantages of woodblock printing is that it allows for the production of prints in large quantities. It is also relatively simple and inexpensive, making it a popular choice for printing posters and other printed materials. However, woodblock printing has some limitations, such as the fact that it could be better suited for printing fine details or multiple colors.


Lithography is a printing process that involves drawing a design onto a stone or metal plate with a greasy substance, such as a pencil or a crayon. The plate is then washed with water, absorbed by the non-greasy areas but repelled by the greasy areas. Oil-based ink is then applied to the plate, which adheres only to the greasy areas. The inked plate is then pressed onto paper, transferring the design onto the paper.

Lithography is more complex than woodblock printing and requires specialized equipment and materials. It is well suited for printing fine art details and multiple colors and allows for large quantities of prints. However, woodblock printing is more expensive and time-consuming.

One notable early use of posters was during the French Revolution (1789-1799), when political posters were used to spread revolutionary ideals and mobilize the public. These early political posters, known as “affiches,” featured bold slogans, patriotic imagery, and portraits of revolutionary leaders.

They were often printed in large quantities and posted in public places, such as streets and squares, to reach a broad audience. These early political posters set the stage for using posters as a tool for social and political activism in the following centuries.

18th and 19th Centuries

The 18th and 19th centuries saw the emergence of commercial posters as a means of advertising goods and services. In addition, the development of transportation systems, such as railroads and steamboats, made it possible to reach wider audiences and promote travel destinations.

This led to the creation of travel posters featuring attractive imagery and enticing slogans to lure potential tourists. Circus posters, another famous commercial poster, use bold graphics and eye-catching slogans to promote performances and attract audiences.

In addition to commercial uses, posters continued to be used for political and social purposes. The Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century, with its rapid urbanization and social upheaval, provided a fertile ground for political and social movements to use posters as a means of communication and propaganda.

Labor unions, for example, used posters to mobilize workers and advocate for their rights. Women’s suffrage movements also used posters to spread their message and recruit supporters.

The 18th and 19th centuries also saw the development of various artistic styles that influenced early poster design. The Art Nouveau movement of the late 19th Century, with its organic, curving lines and emphasis on beauty, significantly impacted poster design.

The Art Deco movement of the 1920s and 1930s, with its sleek, geometric shapes and bold colors, also influenced poster design. These styles helped many poster designers to produce posters from mere commercial tools to a respected art form.

Art Nouveau

Art Nouveau (French for “new art”) was a style of art, architecture, and design that emerged in the late 19th Century and is characterized by organic, flowing lines and a focus on beauty. It was inspired by natural forms and structures, such as plants and flowers, and sought to bridge the gap between art and everyday life.

Art Nouveau posters, often used for advertising concerts, plays, and other cultural events, featured curved lines, decorative motifs, and bright colors. Some of the most famous Art Nouveau-style posters were created by the French artist Alphonse Mucha, known for his distinctive poster style and use of subtle gradations of color.

Art Deco

Art Deco, short for “Arts Décoratifs,” was a style of art, architecture, and design that emerged in the 1920s and 1930s and is characterized by geometric shapes, bold colors, and sleek, streamlined forms. Various sources, including ancient Egyptian and Aztec art and modern technological advancements, such as the rise of aviation, influenced it.

Art Deco posters, often used for advertising movies, concerts, and other cultural events, featured bold graphic design, bright colors, and a sense of glamour and sophistication. Some of the most famous Art Deco posters were created by the French artist Jean Carlu, known for using bold typography and his sleek, modernist style.

20th Century

The 20th Century saw several significant developments in the world of posters. World War I and World War II greatly impacted poster design, as most posters were used for propaganda and recruitment. Governments and military organizations produced posters featuring patriotic slogans and imagery to rally public support and encourage enlistment during these two world wars.

Posters also played a significant role in popular culture in the 20th Century. Movie posters, for example, became a powerful form of advertising for the film industry, featuring bold graphics and enticing taglines to attract audiences. Music posters featuring bands and musicians also became famous and helped to promote concerts and tours.

The 20th Century also saw the rise of graphic design as a profession. With the advancement of poster printing technologies and the increasing demand for effective visual communication, graphic designers began to specialize in creating modern posters and other printed materials. This helped to raise the status of the poster as a vital art form and led to the creation of many innovative and influential poster designs.

One significant development in poster design in the 20th Century was the integration of new technologies, such as computer graphics and digital printing. These technologies allowed for greater flexibility and precision in design and made it possible to produce high-quality posters more quickly and efficiently. They also opened up new possibilities for experimentation and innovation in poster design.

Computer graphics, which involve the use of computers to create and manipulate digital images, have revolutionized how posters are designed and produced. With the help of specialized software, graphic designers can create complex, multi-layered designs that can be easily modified and updated. They can also use various digital tools, such as filters, gradients, and vector graphics, to create multiple effects.

Digital printing, which involves printing from a digital file directly onto paper or other materials, has also significantly impacted the poster art industry. Digital printing allows for shorter print runs, a faster turnaround time, and greater customization and personalization. It also provides for using a more comprehensive range of materials, such as metallic inks, transparent films, and synthetic papers.

Overall, integrating new technologies has helped modernize the poster industry and opened up new possibilities for innovation and creativity in poster art. It has also made it easier and more cost-effective for artists and organizations to produce and distribute modern posters, which has helped to democratize the medium and make it more accessible to a broader audience.

The 20th Century saw poster art evolve from a primarily functional medium to a respected art form that could convey a wide range of messages, from propaganda to popular culture.

21st Century

In the 21st Century, the poster has continued to evolve and adapt to changing technologies and cultural values. One major development has been the increasing use of social media and digital marketing, which has changed how posters are distributed and promoted. Whereas traditional posters were often physically posted in public places, digital posters can now be shared online and reach a potentially global audience.

Social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, allow organizations and individuals to promote their posters to a wide audience by posting images and links to their websites or online store. Digital marketing techniques like email marketing and search engine optimization can also help increase posters’ visibility and reach.

One of the advantages of using social media and digital marketing to promote posters is that it allows for greater targeting and personalization. Organizations can target specific demographics or interests using data analytics and other tools and tailor their marketing messages to particular audiences. This also makes it easier for organizations to adapt to changing market conditions and target their marketing efforts more effectively.

The increasing use of social media and digital marketing has helped to democratize the poster industry. It has made it easier and more cost-effective for organizations and individuals to promote their work to a broader audience.

Another trend in 21st-century poster design has been incorporating new materials and techniques. Many contemporary poster artists are experimenting with mixed media, including paper cutouts, collages, and 3D elements. Using sustainable and eco-friendly materials, such as recycled paper and non-toxic ink, has become more common.

Despite these changes, the poster remains a powerful medium for visual communication and a respected art form. Many contemporary poster artists are using their work to address social and political issues, such as climate change, racial justice, and gender equality. They also explore various styles and techniques, from traditional graphic design to experimental approaches.

Some notable contemporary poster artists include David Carson, known for his innovative use of international typographic style and layout; Shepard Fairey, known for his street art and political activism; and Paula Scher, known for her bold, graphic style and her use of cultural references. These and other contemporary poster artists are helping to push the boundaries of poster art and keep the medium relevant and vibrant in the 21st Century.


In conclusion, the history of posters in art is rich and varied, spanning over two centuries and encompassing various styles, techniques, and purposes. From early forms of public poster advertising to contemporary digital media, posters have evolved to reflect changing technologies, cultural values, and artistic styles.

Throughout history, posters have been used for various purposes, from commercial advertising to political activism. They have played a significant role in popular culture, promoting movies, music, and other cultural events. And they have helped shape our visual culture, influencing how we see and interpret the world around us.

Looking to the future, it is clear that the poster will continue to evolve and adapt to new technologies and trends. But no matter their form, posters will remain an important and enduring art form, a powerful means of communication and expression that can inspire and engage us all.