Steven Heller | Essays

Martin Weber in the Third Dimension

Martin Webber
Pages from "The Weber Process," promotional brochure for the Martin J. Weber Studio, c. 1952

When he died on June 9, Martin J. Weber was 102. You may not know his name. I didn't. Like other toilers in the art service bullpens of New York who lacked a modernist pedigree, he was never celebrated by the AIGA or inducted into the Art Directors Hall of Fame. But his contributions helped define the look of mid-century American commercial art.

Martin Weber was a graphic artist, typographer and art director. Most importantly, he was the inventor of photographic techniques that gave two-dimensional surfaces the illusion of being reproduced in three dimensions. The most widely used of what were known as The Weber Process was a technique I used countless times in the pre-computer (Stat King) days, but never knew who invented it or when. Known as "posterization," a term he apparently coined, it was frequently employed back when four-color separations were too costly or only poor-quality black and white photos were available. Posterization gave otherwise mundane imagery a needed burst of expressive color.

Martin Webber

In 1942 Weber initially patented a novel photographic device that took standard gothic lettering and changed its appearance by expanding, compressing, ballooning, tilting, shadowing, and arcing. It made difficult typographic manipulations much easier, and eventually helped launch a trend in special effects lettering mostly found in newspaper and magazine advertisements. He continued to invent and another of his signature methods converted continuous tone photographs — including portraits, landscapes, and product shots — into fine line renderings that looked like pen and ink and scratch board, and steel engraving. How many times have you seen it and never gave the originator a thought?

But admittedly the jewel in the crown of The Weber Process was his posterization method, a rather simple means of converting continuous tone black and white or color photographs (or negatives) into a series of three or four flat colors, each printed slightly off register, which made the result appear multi-dimensional and spring off the printed page. It was fairly common during the forties and fifties, but as a low-cost way of simulating multiple color reproduction and achieving eye-catching results, posterization was widely adopted particularly during the late Sixties and especially among underground newspaper designers and rock poster artists to "psychedelicize" their artwork. Just check out the current "Summer of Love" exhibition at the Whitney Museum and you'll see Weber's unintentional legacy.

Martin Webber

Martin Webber

Born in New York in 1905, Martin Jack Weber attended Art Students League before starting his career as a hand letterer of silent film title cards in New York and an art director for Carey Press, a small printer. In 1933 he opened Martin J. Weber Studios on Madison Avenue as an art and production service for advertising and editorial clients. A decade or so later, he added the newly established TV networks CBS, ABC, and NBC to his client roster, rendering their earliest on-air nameplates and station identifiers before their more famously durable logos were designed by the likes of William Golden and Paul Rand>. In 1934 he became art director for only a year of the influential graphic arts magazine, PM, but returned in 1942 after it changed its name to AD to design its final cover — the classic sculpture of the American Minuteman standing against red, white and blue — which signaled the debut of posterization.

Weber's own logo, a rather smartly composed high contrast drawing of bellows camera facing an artist's palette with his initials (M and W) dropped out in white, underscored his distinctive machine age marriage of painted and drawn art and photography into a stark hybrid form. Well suited for print reproduction, it also worked extremely well with primitive black and white TV scanners, so his studio was frequently commissioned to design television program identities for sponsors like Monsanto, Celanese Corporation, Esso, Nash Autos, and Formica, as well as Old Gold, Chesterfield, and Lucky Strike cigarettes.

Martin Webber

He also produced dimensional art from famous photographs of presidents and celebrities for use in ads, and in the early fifties Weber re-rendered the New York Times corporate seal on the editorial page to give it a dimensional look, which was used for many years thereafter. In 1962 he transformed a photograph of Dag Hammarskjöld into an engraving for a 4-cent U.S. stamp that earned notoriety when an inverted version was printed and distributed in error (the postal service immediately reprinted the inverted stamp and flooded the market so the originals would decrease in value). In 1976 he collaborated with the sculptor Kaare K. Nygaard to design a U.N. stamp commemorating refugees.

Martin Weber continued to work until he was 80. For the subsequent twenty-two years he may have been forgotten, but his processes made history.

Steven Heller is co-chair of SVA's MFA Designer as Author Program and editor of AIGA Voice. Heller is currently writing Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State to be published by Phaidon Press in 2008. His website is hellerbooks.com.

Posted in: Business, Graphic Design, History, Obituaries

Comments [16]

steven, thank you for this piece. we sure do owe a lot to mr. weber. i am humbled by the magnitude of his contributions to the craft.
Gong Szeto

Thanks for expanding, in words and in images, on the obituary you wrote for The New York Times!
Ricardo Cordoba

Thank you Steven,

Men (and women) like Martin Weber are true the rock stars and innovators of our industry. Thanks for the introduction. I want to learn more ---and see those examples above in larger form!

and thank you Mr. Weber!


steven, glad our resident historian is shining the spotlight on ancestors that lead the way. thanx.
marc englishq

"...he was never celebrated by the AIGA or inducted into the Art Directors Hall of Fame."

On this site, awhile back, there was a discussion about the Cooper-Hewitt Design Triennial and who's-in, who's-out, etc.

This Martin Weber article helps put that whole discussion in perspective a little, for me anyway. I know they are different organizations and everything, but this shows how important contributions can come from all directions and not just from the anointed few they teach you about in history books and exhibitions.

I want to see / hear / learn more about people like this.


(this is the article & discussion I was referring to:
http://www.designobserver.com/archives/023077.html )
Robin H.


Thanks for the fabulous history lesson. And what a treat it was to see WJZ's call letters (a local affilate of CBS here in Baltimore) in the first sample from Mr. Weber's extensive contributions to the field.

It goes to show you that one doesn't have to be well-known or a 'star' in the design community to have an impact. It's just a shame that any further recognition comes after he's passed on.

As usual, thank god for Steven Heller. When I started out in this business close to 30 years ago, long before the advent of the laptop that I am writing this on, the art of typography, especially special effects lettering was a mysterious craft. If you wanted your headlines, expanded, compressed, or rendered in perspective, you had to send it out to a typographer where chain smoking craftsmen would magically create amazing galleys for you to cut out and paste up on your layout boards with rubber cement. Little did I know that this wonder of the graphic arts trade was the invention of one Martin J. Weber. Mr. Weber's posterization technique has made a comeback today thanks to Photoshop and the screen print/rock poster revolution. Thank you Martin J. Weber.

"...he was never celebrated by the AIGA or inducted into the Art Directors Hall of Fame."

There are countless others, whether they be designers, art directors, copywritwers, typographers, printers, production artists or salesmen that either were well known during their careers and have been forgotten or countless more that labored in obscurity. It will be interesting to note which of those working today, be they creatives or vendors that support them will be remembered 30 years hence and which will be mere footnotes.
Mark Kaufman

Dear Steve,
Thank you for this wonderful article. The impact of my grandfather's contributions to art, photography and printing are not widely known. Yet, many of his acheivements paved the way for today's computer word processors and art programs. Best of luck to you.
Most sincerely,
Adam Weber and family
Adam Weber


let me add my thanks to you for this wonderful tribute to my dad. He was very proud of his work and would be extemely grateful to know how much he is appreciated. You have done a wonderful thing for him and his entire family by honoring his contribution to art, graphic design, photography and printing. From our entire familly, thank you again.

Carl Weber

Today's Inspiration Indeed!

Seems fitting for an award to be named after him that could be given to other graphic artist pioneers moving forward.

His legacy certainly deserves it.

Von Glitschka

Good stuff, Steven.

It's scary to think of how much of this kind of history would be lost without individuals such as yourself taking the time to research and record it. Many thanks.
Daniel Green

Thank you, Steven. Could you please post some larger hi-resolution versions of these images so we can get a closer look at Mr. Weber's beautiful technique?

Dear Steve,

Thank you for the wonderful way you described and honored the significance of my Dad's contributions
to art and photography....spanning all the years of his innovative work to its influence today.
Knowing that he is being recognized and appreciated even after he's gone is a source of much comfort and great pride to me and all my family. We are very grateful to you as he would be too.

Ellen Weber
Ellen Weber

My sincere condolences to the Weber family. I am amazed at Martin's inventions and contributions, and I agree, there should be an award in his industry, given in his honor! I would love to see an entire collection of his work on display at a gallery or museum.

Barbara Ganin
Barbara Ganin

Thank you for this article Steven.

Thank you for the wonderful way you described and honored the significance of my Dad's contributions
film izle

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