Last year I received a commission from the National Park Service to create an introduction panel to the new redesign of the Tuzigoot National Monument visitor’s center in northern Arizona. The exhibit panels may be in place by the end of this summer.
The theme of the exhibit was a unique and interesting one: seeing the ancient pueblo culture through the eyes of archeologists from the 1930s, the time when the excavations were being dome for the park. We wanted to present a picture of how scientists at the time thought about prehistoric peoples and how visitors to the monument viewed it through their own culture.
The panel was to be almost 5 feet tall. To evoke the time period, we decided to create a retro design in the style of the WPA posters done in the 1930s for the National Parks.
These old WPA posters by mostly anonymous artists are among the best and most appealing work done in the history of poster design. Deceptively simple at first look, I found they were not at all easy to emulate! I failed on my first few attempts.
To my embarrassment, when we placed my second design in an array of old poster designs and found I needed to go back to the drawing board.
My original design focused too much on the 1930s people in the cool old Packard car (which I put the most time into) but not enough on the natural scene and the actual monument in particular. Somehow these old posters managed to take relatively simple natural scenes and features and make them feel like they are a wonder of the world, impressive as the pyramids.
I also realized from this comparison exercise that a lot of the effect of these old posters came from use of the dramatic silhouetted graphic foreground.
The old posters also used a very limited color palette and it is amazing what they did with it. Many were silkscreened and used only 4-5 inks and some split fountain gradations. They are brilliant studies in clean designs that look simple, but are not. My first try had 3 times that many colors and too much detail. I sampled the colors from these old posters in Photoshop and created a color scheme from that. I learned a lot while working on this.
To evaluate the final installation, step back in time and visit Tuzigoot National Monument for yourself.
To see more historical and contemporary work “in the style of ” WPA posters go here:
Posters from the WPA, at the Library of Congress
And there is a cool book: Posters for the People: The Art of the WPA