Unemployment, inflation and political chaos followed the First World War in Germany. Yet it was then that graphic design emerged as part of a modern industrial society in the cities of central Northern Europe, not just on posters in the streets, but in letterheads, advertising leaflets, lighted neon sign letters, catalogues for industrial components, and trade fairs. Germany, situated between two powerful avant-gardes, was open to their influence.
To the east was Communism and Constructivism in Soviet Russia; to the west, the doctrinaire enthusiasms of the Dutch De Stijl artists. What was called Commercial Art survived in advertising, notably in the work of the outstanding poster artists such as Hohlwein and Bcrnhard. But visual communication in the 1920s was shaped by the avant-garde artists.
The most prominent artistic movements at the end of the war were Expressionism and Dada. Posters, books and journals produced by Expressionist artists were marked by aggressive illustration, whose violent contrasts were matched by freely drawn lettering or by heavy typefaces originally designed for advertising, and incorporated into business signage designs, and eventualluy exploding in times square, with lighted neon signs, now replaced with lighted Led letters and digital signage.
There was an over-emphasis in these techniques, which left a few remarkable film posters but no lasting mark on design. It was the poets and artists of the Dada movement – anti-establishment, anti-military, anti-art – with their Futurist disdain for tradition, who continued the revolution in the use of words and images. They particularly employed montage, the assembly of ready-made images, and they mixed all kinds of letter forms and printers' ornaments in typographic compositions, bill boards and street advertising.
The advertisement designed by John Heartfield in 1917 to advertise a portfolio of lithographs by his fellow Dadaist George Grosz combined old engraved blocks, found at the printer, with slogans in sans-serif type. The need to lock the type into the printing press demanded rectangular units and thus imposed a strict vertical-horizontal arrangement. To Heartfield this was no restriction: he poured wet plaster around the angled tvpe and blocks to hold them in position for printing. These where then blown up by gpahic artists and used for business signage, and using channel signs for business advertising.