Pop Art Influence on Graphic Design

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Pop art was an art movement that originated in post-war Britain and by the 1960s where it was popularized in the United States was incredibly influential in shifting modern art. Pop artists generally worked with the techniques and imagery of pop culture, amalgamating everyday objects like comic strips, supermarket products, billboards, magazine advertisements and images of celebrities into their work. Some of the most established and significant artists include Richard Hamilton, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg. In this essay, I will explore the impact of pop art on modern art, specifically graphic design, with an emphasis on the divide between the British and American pop art movement and the meaning of pop.

As a movement that was noted as a totally American sensation, pop art was actually something that started in the UK some 15 years earlier. During the late 1940s - early 50s the nation's artists looked west to the new capitalist paradise being advertised in the thriving United States whilst Britain was still recuperating from World War II. British pop art surged from an outsider's perspective as it looked disparagingly, nevertheless with a sense of irony humor, at the new visual imagery rising from America where everything from cars to household appliances to beauty products were advertised beautifully on colorful glossy magazine pages. As early British pop art icons like Paolozzi, Hamilton and Blake began to incorporate this marketing aesthetic of post-war America, they contributed significantly to the pop art movement sparking an overturn against the predominant culture and art and the conventional views on what art should be and in turn creating a completely new movement of art that was more representational of what the artists were seeing at the time. The Scottish sculptor and artist Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, for example, who was widely considered to be one of the pioneers of British pop art, began creating collages from what he’d found in American consumer magazines and comic strips in the late 1940s. For instance, in his piece ‘The Next War!’ he combined a collection of images, including new children’s shoes, SPAM, and Mickey and Minnie Mouse. The work was created using images that were originally roughly cut from their original innocent background, transformed into a more ironic context. Paolozzi was one that felt particularly passionate about the blissful perception America emitted. As he quoted, American consumer magazines “represented a catalogue of exotic society, bountiful and generous”.

The Independent Group were essential in the transition in the British art world from the grey starkness into the revolutionary pop art movement. The Independent Group (IG) were an extremist group of young writers, critics and artists who met at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London in the early to mid-1950s. They rejected the modern dominism and culture, in order to make the culture more inclusive of popular culture. They were responsible for the cooking up, conversations and publications of many of the basic ideas of British pop art. They used a range of sources including the pages of science-fiction magazines, Hollywood film, the streets of London’s East End and modernist architecture in order to create a radical approach, looking and working with visual culture. The approach to this kind of art was comprehensive and gracious, because the origin of their inspiration ranged from sources as diverse as communication theory, sociology and philosophy. This approach also included the entire cultural diversity of post-war Britain. Paolozzi was one of the founding members of the IG along with other notorious artists such as Richard Hamilton, Nigel Henderson, John McHale and William Turnbull.

Collage was a major style of many of the artworks that came from the Independent Group. It was also a technique which also emulated the action of restoration that was occurring in Britain at the time. One of the first and most iconic collars during the British pop art movement was ‘Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Home So Different, So Appealing?’, created by Richard Hamilton. Richard Hamilton took part in the Whitechapel exhibition in London in 1956, which is one of the places where the IG would exhibit a lot of their work. Hamilton created a collage as a part of his contribution to the exhibition that was later made into a poster. He concocted the image by researching a collection of different topics he planned on including “man, woman, food, history, newspapers, cinema, domestic appliances, cars, space, comics, TV, telephone, information” (quoted in Richard Hamilton, 1992). The collage itself depicts a wholesome interior complete with furniture, a TV, some form of record player and pot plants. In conjunction is the athletic man, standing in a body-builder’s pose. He is holding a giant lollipop with the word on it - ‘POP’, aimed at the virtually nude woman sitting in an unnatural manner on the sofa next to him. Hamilton collected his imagery from American magazines that John McHale (a fellow member of the IG) had brought back from America. The final piece highlights the different ways in which information was shown throughout the movement, resonating to Hamilton's obsession with popular culture.

Hamilton refers to the pop in pop art as “popular (designed for a mass audience), transient (short-term solution), expendable (easily forgotten), low cost, mass produced, young (aimed at youth), witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, big business”. These characteristics lead to modernist critics revolting against the pop art movement because of the low subject matter and the artists apparent insensitive use of it. Whereas in reality pop transformed the art world in the sense of subject matter and experimentation of different ways of presenting popular culture in art. It's considered one of the most notable influential modernist art movements because of this representation of what was new and current. Another notable description of pop art is that said by British curator Lawrence Alloway who described pop art as a form of ‘popular’ art – suggesting in the same way that Hamilton saw it, that the ‘pop’ translated to ‘popular’ referencing the representation of consumerism, mass production.

In a similar way to the British pop art movement the American pop art movement was a response to the commercialism portrayed at the time. American pop art did not truly develop until the late 1950s to mid-1960s. One of the biggest contrasts between British and American pop art was the fact that the British art was more cheerful, and consolidated irony whereas the American art was a result of perpetual advertisement that they had been subject to, therefore working from what they experienced in the culture around them. In a way American pop art was an even bigger jump from conventional art at the time. Solid lines, strong designs and recognizable subject matter was now the main focus of art, contradictory with the remoteness of the Abstract Expressionists. Likewise in contrast to conventional ways and the use of detached, impersonal subject matter alternatively, the focal point on serious intimate feelings and symbolism.

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A large majority of the American pop artists, including Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist originally worked within the commercial art industry. Warhol was originally a magazine illustrator and graphic designer, likewise Lichenstein was a billboard painter. Their background in this field proved to be successful in translating visual communication into prevalent culture. Also, this gave them the artistic capability to combine high art and popular culture. Warhol is possibly the most renowned American pop artist, constructing his artistic spotlight, ‘The Factory’ referring to his studio in New York ranging from 1962 to 84. In this studio is where he created some of his most iconic pieces including silkscreens of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and his paintings of Campbell soup cans. This studio was also an essential part in revolutionizing pop art as much like the Independent Group in the UK, it brought creatives together allowing them to collaboratively create. Warhol transformed what it meant to be an artist, because of the pop art movement there didn't have to be a physical link between the final piece and the artist, artists could be seen more as designers because of this.

Therefore, it's easy to see why and how Warhol and the pop art movement on a whole has such an impact on designers, specifically graphic design. Artists and designers still use a lot of the characters of the pop art style today. Most of today's designs incorporate some form of detail seen in work by Warhol or Licenstein such as strong colors, sequences of images on one print, celebrities faces and everyday objects.

An example of this representation of pop art in modern graphic design created by a designer who was also heavily influenced by the movement, is the iconic Obama presidential campaign in 2008 created by Sheaprd Fairey.

The ‘Barack Obama 'Hope'’ poster reflected the intentions in Obama's campaign advocating hope and change and has made a long-term impact on pop culture as it was shown all over social media, billboards etc. Preceding the production of the poster Fairey was most known for his unique aesthetic, which he defines as a “bold iconic style that is based on stylizing and idealizing images”. Much of his earlier work also focuses on political factors with many of his images presenting judgement.

The portrait of Obama was made using both digital and analogue design techniques. Fairey started his work by manipulating a reference photo digitally: improving lighting, definition and separating the shadows into four individual layers. He printed separate layers and illustrated them individually through screen printing processes. The final image would then be returned to digital and further edited until creating the desired design piece. In addition to insinuating the American patriotism, Fairey decided on a limited color palette of only three colors because he saw the high contrast layers as giving the impression of a “streamlined, iconic image” as well as being the American patriarchal colors.

Fairey said that his style was mostly influenced by “constructivism and social realism” and that his Hope Poster visually and conceptually was inspired by such works of Andy Warhol and Ben Shahn.

In conclusion, pop art was an art movement proclaiming and reprimanding the commercial arts. Today pop art has been embedded into the world of design and advertising. Not only have the visual aesthetics had an influence on graphic design, i.e. bright, bold, fun and user-friendly looks. But also, the conceptual aspect to focus on popular culture, capturing what's happening in current society. Because both pop art and graphic design often make references to popular culture, both continue to represent a lack of conventionality and pop arts simple cultural statements give it a significant and ageless quality, and by ridiculing cultural behaviors it catches the now and maintains the past in a way art didn’t and couldn’t do before.

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Pop Art Influence on Graphic Design. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 13, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/pop-art-influence-on-graphic-design/
“Pop Art Influence on Graphic Design.” Edubirdie, 01 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/pop-art-influence-on-graphic-design/
Pop Art Influence on Graphic Design. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/pop-art-influence-on-graphic-design/> [Accessed 13 Apr. 2024].
Pop Art Influence on Graphic Design [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 01 [cited 2024 Apr 13]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/pop-art-influence-on-graphic-design/
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