Discover Hunt’s secret poster collection

Carnegie Mellon, in addition to being a world leading institute of higher education, also happens to be home to one the greatest poster collections in the world. Located on the top floor of Hunt Library, the Carnegie Mellon Swiss Poster Collection includes originals of some of the most iconic and innovative graphic design work from the past 50 odd years. In total, the collection includes over 300 works with varied themes and styles, together sharing the pinnacle of good graphic design for the modern era. Recently, I had the privilege of being shown around the entire collection. The way that ideas were expressed through striking yet simple visual imagery and type blew my mind.

The collection was established by Swiss graphic designer Ruedi Ruegg and Professor Daniel Boyarski in 1985 as a teaching collection. The story goes that every year, Ruegg would find the most intriguing graphic design work done that year, and have it shipped across the Atlantic to Professor Boyarski. Over the course of time, this resulted in the creation of a veritable collection featuring legendary designers such as Ruegg herself, Bill, Bruhwiler, Kulling, Leupin, Muller-Brockmann, Pfund, Troxler, and Weingart.

The posters were created for a variety of purposes: one was a hard hat warning for construction workers, another a flyer for a Blues concert. Many of them were embodiments of simple little things in Swiss culture. Using form, color, image and typography, the posters successfully convey ideas — some complex and some elementary — with remarkable clarity that would in many cases require paragraphs of text to achieve. They are immediate in impact, spontaneous, and often playful or humorous. Even more interesting, there is something decidedly Swiss about all of them; perhaps it is the remarkable clarity of thought, or the sense that every shade, every serif, really everything has been carefully considered by the designer.

There is an unmistakable chronological continuity to the collection. Posters from the 1950s and ‘60s are from the traditional “Swiss School” of Design, and rely heavily on composition, typography, and clear communication. This style garnered international acclaim and made the Swiss Poster a model in graphic design. Work from the ‘70s onwards is more experimental, closer to “Street Art.” The designs tend to be flamboyant and striking, and the focus tends to shift just a little from the typography and to the imagery. Another theme that struck me is the level of visual and cultural sophistication that a viewer is encouraged to bring to the posters. I remember some of the designs taking on a far more substantial meaning on a second or third viewing, or when given some historical context. A viewer’s intelligence is not only respected, but expected.

One of the designs that really stood out was “Milch,” an unbelievably simple design — a serene blue background with the word “Milch” crayoned in black, with the “ch” of Milch enclosed in a messy white oval. I found out much later that Milch is the German word for Milk; even so, one look at the poster and I knew what it was about. Another was an advert, ironically enough, for a Swiss Poster design competition. A three-fourths plus sign, very reminiscent of the Swiss flag, in unusual colors — shades of blue, yellow and red — and organized, clear typography went a long way in building the theme that the event is clearly very Swiss, with shades of edgy relevance.

Till recently, I had no idea that this collection existed at Carnegie Mellon, and I’m very glad to have found it. It really is an undiscovered gem for anyone even remotely interested in graphic design. Full of innovative work from the legends of the field, the collection is a great place to look for inspiration for any graphic-related work.