The Meaning and Design of Words

Lesson Plan

Lesson

Students will learn about the Association Quicksilver and Skull and Roses posters and the artists’ inspiration for their designs. Then they will look at the different shapes of the letters and words in the two posters, exploring what the words mean and how visual shapes influence those meanings.

Intended Age Group

Elementary (grades K-5)

Length of Lesson

One 50 minute lesson

Standards Area

Language Arts

Objectives

Students will be able to:

  • list at least five descriptive words for each poster;
  • describe the impact of letter design on the meaning of words; and
  • feel comfortable taking creative risks with their writing.

Lesson

  1. Warm up: Write a list of words on the board that includes words such as squiggly, sharp, smooth, hot, cold, etc. Have students create lettering that communicates the meaning of these words in a creative way. For example, the letters used to make the word “hot” could look like flames.
  2. Show students the typed out words from the Association and Skull and Roses posters. What do the words convey? Lead a discussion on the details or allow students to talk in groups of 3–4.
  3. Now show the students the posters and discuss whether the words create a different mood or feeling compared to the typed versions of the same words. Why? How did the artists take simple words and evoke feelings? What are those feelings?
  4. After students have described the feelings created by the posters, have them list out words that evoke those feelings. Write all the words down, helping students assess which are more effective than others and why.
  5. Once you have a final list, allow students to select one word and design their own lettering to further emphasize the feeling of the word.

Materials

  • Paper and pens or pencils
  • Colored pencils or markers
  • One copy of a list of words from the Association and Skull and Roses posters, typed in a plain font, for every 3–4 students
  • One color copy of each poster for every four students, or the ability to project the images onto a wall or screen

Standards

CO Standards

  • Visual Arts
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening
    • Research and Reasoning
    • Writing and Composition
    • Reading for All Purposes

21st Century Skills

  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction

About the Art

Association, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco

Association, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco

1966

Wes Wilson, United States

Who Made It?

Wes Wilson was born in Sacramento, California in 1937. He got his start while working for a print shop in San Francisco, where he designed posters and handbills for early dance concerts. During the 1960s, he became the first artist to consistently create posters for the two main concert promoters on the San Francisco music scene-Bill Graham, who produced concerts at the Fillmore Auditorium and Chet Helms, who ran the Avalon Ballroom. One of the first projects to bring Wilson recognition was a handbill for the legendary Trips Festival, a three-day event that took place in San Francisco and set the stage for later dance concerts.

Wilson initially produced as many as six posters a month for the Fillmore and the Avalon. In 1966, when the pressure of designing multiple posters each week became overwhelming, he began working solely for Bill Graham. While Chet Helms loved to contribute to the poster-making process, Graham allowed Wilson the artistic freedom he desired. "Chet almost always had the theme already picked out, but with Bill, you could do your own thing, mainly because he was too busy to deal with you. He liked that I could do posters without him having to tell me anything." Despite the freedom that came with working for Graham, Wilson began to feel exploited and stopped producing posters for the Fillmore in 1967. Although Graham was building an increasingly profitable poster-selling enterprise, Wilson was paid only $100 per poster, without royalties. Wilson continued to produce posters for other venues, including the Avalon Ballroom. Today he creates artworks from his farm in the Missouri Ozarks.

What Inspired It?

Psychedelic posters were originally created as advertisements for dance concerts that took place in San Francisco from 1965 to 1971. The term "psychedelic" comes from the Greek psyche (mind) and deloun (make visible or reveal), and refers to the mind-altering effects of LSD, a hallucinogenic drug that was frequently used at these events. Designs for concert posters were a visual reflection of the experiences one might have at a dance concert. The movement, colors, and images all reflect the kinds of things that would appeal to a concertgoer's many senses. Posters were plastered on telephone poles and in store windows, and were often stolen by people who took them home to hang on their walls or refrigerators. "It was very disconcerting to poster a whole street and then walk back a few minutes later and discover that 90 percent had been removed. But I soon learned that a stolen poster carried home and pasted on a refrigerator reached the audience I wanted," said Helms.

Wilson was a part of the counter-culture that he was trying to reach out to, and was inspired by his personal experiences. "I imagine the posters were like some kind of imprint like a section of my mind at that time. And some of them were pretty weird, pretty strange," said Wilson. His designs set the style, capturing the full sensory experience of the dancehall environment and the visual distortions brought on by psychedelic drugs.

Details

Semi-Legible Text
Semi-Legible Text

Psychedelic posterslike this one were often filled with text that was difficult to read. “Well, it’s nice, but I can’t read it,” Bill Graham said about one of Wes Wilson’s poster designs. The artist replied, “Yeah, and that’s why people are gonna’ stop and look at it.” Wilson proved right. People often spent time looking at the posters and would actually sway back and forth as they tried “to follow the curvature of the words, the lettering,” noted Graham.

Lettering
Lettering

Wilson drew his letters by hand to create three-dimensional, undulating shapes. This lettering style became characteristic of his early work. “I like to do my work freehand—no ruler and stuff. Just make it fit naturally. If I needed to make a letter a little wider, well, I would.”

Color
Color

Wilson used “loud” or very bright colors to reflect the dancehall atmosphere. By placing the bright red and green next to each other, he created forms that seem to vibrate.

Movement
Movement

Wilson formed each letter so that it fit into the overall shape of the flames. The flowing lines evoke the energy and movement of the dancing crowd and the light shows that one would see at a concert.

Funding for lesson plans provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.