Design in Airline Travel Posters 1920-1970

Design in Airline Travel Posters 1920-1970

A Semiology and Sociocultural History

By David Scott

Anthem Studies in Travel

Design in Airline Travel Posters 1920–1970 offers an original insight into the structure of travel advertisements and the way recurrent motifs adapt to changing times and functions. It is both a semiology and a sociocultural history that explores the way advertising posters combine information and fantasy to create seductive image/texts. The book is lavishly illustrated in colour, the images constituting an essential part of the overall argument.

Hardback, 134 Pages


January 2021

£80.00, $125.00

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About This Book

The field of poster studies is vast, but it is surprising how little work has been done till date on the fundamental structures – semiotic and semantic – that underpin the visual messages posters produce. Most studies of posters focus either on their history; on specific themes – politics, travel, sport, cinema; or on their status as collectable items. Though such approaches are valid, they hardly account for the specificity of the poster’s appeal or for the complex semiotic and cultural issues poster art raises. This book sets out to tackle these latter issues since they are fundamental both to the deeper significance and to the wider appeal of the poster as a cultural form. 

In doing so it focuses on the field of airline travel posters which developed precisely in the period of the twentieth century (1920–1970) that coincided with the onset of mass travel. The romance and excitement of fast travel to exotic destinations stimulated some memorable poster images that today have lost none of their magic. Since posters are cultural signs, to understand better how they work and the value attached to them even after their commercial or political message has been communicated, it is useful to analyse them in terms of both their sociocultural histories and their semiological structures. What this book sets out to do is to combine these approaches in such a way as to enhance the viewer/reader’s understanding of both the cultural and the semiological aspects of the poster and to show how the interaction of these aspects produces the specific quality of its messages.

Although posters are essentially word/image constructs, little attention has been paid to this fundamental aspect of their semiological structures. While Roland Barthes (1964) and other structuralist semioticians of the 1960s and 1970s –in France in particular – have made inroads into what is at stake in the poster’s word/ image structure, this book pursues the implications of this for the rhetoric of persuasion that is activated by the poster in fulfilling its dual function as provider of information and agent of seduction. For the poster, from the start of the twentieth century, has established a conventional repertory of textual/visual motifs that it has applied across a wide range of communicative functions – political, commercial and artistic. The aim of this book is to analyse the way these motifs are structured since they reveal much about the way cultural messages are produced and the way the poster is able to promote both a specific, product-centred message and aesthetic pleasure through a multiplicity of connotations.


“The book offers a true semiological analysis of the lithographic poster, explaining its importance and specificity in relation to the photographic poster. According to Scott, the travel poster combines factual elements and fantasy but is also inseparable from an aesthetic dimension which must combine clarity (of the message) while being pleasing to the eye. The book also offers a sociocultural perspective that allows following the evolution of tourism and air travel.” —Jean-Xavier Ridon, Professor of French and Francophone Studies, Faculty of Arts, University of Nottingham, United Kingdom

“A fascinating survey of airline poster design from 1920 to 1970, Scott’s book offers an original insight into the structure of advertisements and the way recurrent motifs adapt to changing times and requirements. A socio-history and a semiology, its topics include colonial itineraries, glamour destinations, indigenous peoples and, of course, air hostesses. The outstanding range, coherence and visual impact of the images act as a visual argument supporting that of the text to make the book as entertaining as it is erudite.” —Federica Bonaldi, independent writer and educator, cultural mediator and language facilitator

“David Scott provides a well-researched, lively and accessible insight into advertising posters for air travel during a key period for the development of tourism. This is a period when travel by air still retained its glamour, and these posters are attractive objects to discover and to rediscover. Based on in-depth knowledge of and expertise in how texts and images are structured to convey complex messages in apparently simple forms, the book is of interest both for the academic reader and the general reader interested in the period, in poster design and in travel.” — Debra Kelly, Professor Emerita, School of Humanities, University of Westminster, London

“David Scott applies a uniquely rigorous and culturally attentive semiotic method to the history of airline posters. More than design history, for the practicing designer this book provides a way of seeing beyond the periodisation typically found in histories of the poster, providing tools for analysing posters in terms of communicative strategies.” — Dr. Robin Fuller, Designer and Author

“At a time when the air travel industry is dramatically endangered by the 2020 pandemic, David Scott guides his readers through a marvelously nostalgic tour of airline posters. Semiotics and the close reading of words and images render the flavour of an entire human epoch and its desire for flying.” — Professor Massimo Leone, University of Turin, Italy; Shanghai University, China

“As with his analyses of the postage stamp and of the modernist poster, by connecting the rhythms of modernity to their visual expression, Scott’s readings disclose the concentrated ideological forces that make these images so compelling.” —Shane Morrissy

Author Information

David Scott is internationally known both for his writing on travel and on the semiotics of graphic design, with books on travel texts, the postage stamp and the poster. He has also written books on the aesthetics and cultures of boxing and is the author of three works of fiction.


Anthem Studies in Travel

Table of Contents

List of Figures; Introduction; 1. Fact and Fantasy: Reading and Misreading the Poster Image; 2. People, Places and Planes: Destinations and Itineraries; 3. Looking Out and Looking Up: Framing Devices and Indexical Signs; 4. Indigenous Peoples; 5. Glamour and Sex Appeal: Designing Desire; Conclusion: The Decline of the Airline Travel Poster; References; Index.


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