Ted Bertz: Posterized impressions from the Durham Fair

[Ted Bertz] After recently finishing a personal project, a book commemorating posters completed from 1987 to 2008 for an agricultural fair held each year in Durham, Conn. — Fair Play: Twenty-three years of Durham Fair Posters — Ted Bertz, founder of Bertz Design Group, reflects on the evolution of the graphic design industry over the same period.

Over 20 years of completing the same project for the same client for the same event provides a yardstick to view the progression of an industry. That’s a long time to maintain a consistent level of performance, for anything.

Fig. 1 — Example of an old school “visual asset” (we just called them watercolors)

We were fortunate to start the Durham Fair poster series with Jim McLaughlin, a senior advertising executive and professional communicator who was in charge of publicity. Jim’s only requirements for the posters were they focus on agricultural heritage, local culture, be of high quality, and avoid featuring the honky-tonk of the midway.

Fig.2 — For quality, nothing beats good ol’ sweat equity. Except maybe for plowing fields — use a tractor.

From the first to the last, the quality of the posters was most important — the content, the artwork, the photography, the reproduction process and the surface on which they were printed. With only a couple exceptions, all of the posters were printed on uncoated, and mostly recycled, papers. The warmth of uncoated surfaces and the sensuousness of ink connecting with fibers, rather than simply sitting on a surface, added to the earthy quality we desired.

Fig. 3 — It was an at-first-sight kinda thing.

The first poster, the Merino sheep, was a Bewick woodcut silkscreened on Mohawk Superfine by Sirocco Printing (no longer in business). The job was created in traditional mechanical form with overlays, markups, etc. When we delivered it, we inquired if they would be able to match our sensitive color palette. With that we were ushered into the production area where Sirocco was producing a limited edition of Josef Albers’ screenprints for Yale, pretty much ending our questions. This marked the beginning of a series, a long-term client relationship and a love affair with the poster medium.

Fig. 4 — Back in the day, folks was “all in” for a challenge (apparently for scoring flea market deals, too).

Early on, long-term relationships extended to printers, photographers, illustrators, writers, paper merchants, typesetters and production people. Most design agencies had their own stable of trusted suppliers and worked with the same team year after year. These consortiums provided a continuum for the client and their projects, the focus always on the quality of the work.

Fig. 5 — Why do it yourself if you can get others to help? Above left, by self. Above right, with others.

The energy and cross-pollination of ideas shared during these projects created a very special culture within the community. Printers recommended clients, writers brought designers to the table, and photographers participated in conceptual meetings. People flourished and great work was produced.

Fig. 6 — Other others (ref. fig. 5). In this case, Dole, Oakes Bourret and Gudelski.

By way of example, during production of the Durham Fair posters Allied and Finlay Printing donated many hours of prepress and press time using the opportunity to explore new techniques and processes. Photographers, including Jody Dole, shot virtually an entire museum to insure ample visual resources. Lee Moody of Mohawk Paper provided skids of top quality substrates. Local artists Terry Oakes Bourret and Aleta Gudelski provided oil paintings and watercolors. Each collaborator valued being connected to good work with the hope of great visibility.

Fig. 7  — Why buy the cow?

In the early ’90s, things seemed to change in the graphic design industry. The Request for Proposal (RFP) insinuated itself between clients and vendors. It soon became clear cost was the primary concern, quality second and relationships third. Twenty-five years ago, in the age of the handshake contract, the contents of a designer’s portfolio was the proposal — a cache of exceptional solutions to showcase talent and build business. Today this seems less important. Relationships tend to live or die by procurement vehicles that keep suppliers at arms length. No emotion. No commitment. No soul.

Fig. 8 — Interestingly, all of the items above were cutting-edge technology at some point.

Yet recent technologies provide an exciting environment for designers to work in. Gone are the days of rubber cement, rubylith, xacto blades, waxers, T-squares and working with your hands. However, I sense there is still an underlying respect for craft. In fact, it has become more common for traditional techniques, such as letterpress printing, and hand-made materials to be combined with high-tech implementation. No matter what, it is still a great business to be in, getting paid to do what we love most – putting marks on paper. Paper for mom to tape on the refrigerator door.

Fig. 9 — Return on investment

A couple of quotes have always stuck with me. From The Godfather: Part II, “And I said to myself, this is the business we have chosen.” And Andy Warhol, “Business art is the step that comes after art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist.” Make no mistake, design is and has always been a business venture. And though many things about the practice have changed over the years, it is still about business.

Not sure what impact today’s procurement processes would have had on the Durham Fair Posters. Could 20 years of award-winning design — and the vibrant community of enthusiastic collaborators the project helped cultivate — have even been possible? Something tells me by sheer gumption and ingenuity, still very much alive in our industry today, we would have found a way.

Fig. 10 — Ted Bertz, founder, Bertz Design Group

Founder and creative principal of Bertz Design Group (@bertzdesign) for over 30 years, Ted remains a creative consultant to the firm. Throughout his career, he built a legacy of breakthrough design for many of the country’s leading enterprises. The depth, breadth and quality of Ted’s work established him as one of the nation’s leading graphic designers. His contribution to the design discipline has been recognized nationally and internationally by a host of industry organizations.

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Comments (2)

  1. Posted by Jim on 03.10.12 at 11:28 pm

    Sirocco screenprints is still in business and has never closed

  2. Posted by C King on 12.19.17 at 12:06 pm

    Not sure if this message will be seen, but here goes…I purchased the 2006 poster at the 2017 Durham Fair (Fig 5 in this article). I’m just noticing that it appears to be signed and/or numbered 33/50. I cannot figure out who signed the print and/or what the significance is of the 33/50. Thanks. C. King, Manchester, CT

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