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Meet The Designer Who Created The Iconic 1969 Woodstock Festival Poster

After 50 years, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair is remembered for the crowd of some 450,000, the fields of mud from the intermittent rain, the historic rock 'n' roll performances by musicians that went on to become legends, and the festival’s logo: a white bird perched on a blue and green guitar neck against a red background.

Arnold Skolnick, a long-time western Massachusetts resident, was a New York graphic designer and advertising director in 1969. He was approached by Woodstock’s organizers to design a replacement for the festival’s original poster.

“They had the first poster, which nobody liked — it was called Age of Aquarius,” Skolnick said. “They called me in and said, ‘What do you think of this poster?’ I said, ‘Not much.’ They said, ‘Can you do another one?’ I said, ‘When do you need it?’ This was Thursday afternoon. They said, ‘We need it Monday morning.’ So, I said, ‘Fine.’”

The instructions that Skolnick received for the poster’s design were minimal.

“He said, ‘We’re going to have a festival with arts and crafts and music,’” Skolnick said. “And I turned it around to say ‘three days of peace and music.’ So, it started with the words.”

It was the era of elaborately designed posters for rock concerts.

“Everybody was doing psychedelic posters, which I think are awful,” he said. “A poster is supposed to be so simple that if you’re driving by slowly in a car, you can see it.”

Skolnick’s straightforward design featured a guitar and a bird.

The 1969 Woodstock festival poster created by Arnold Skolnick.
Credit Arnold Skolnick / junaidrao / Creative Commons / flickr.com/photos/junaidrao
Creative Commons / flickr.com/photos/junaidrao
The 1969 Woodstock festival poster created by Michael Skolnick.

“When I did the bird, which is on the upper-left-hand side, you have to balance it,” he said. “So I put the type on the bottom. If it’s balanced, everybody goes, ‘Ohhh. Ohhh.’ If it’s not balanced, it throws everybody off.”

Work on the poster didn’t really begin until the Monday morning it was due. And that bird on the upper-left-hand corner of the poster — the one that for 50 years, I and many others thought looked like a white dove?

“I used a catbird instead of a dove, because a catbird is fat, and a dove is like a pigeon. It has no shape whatsoever,” Skolnick said. “When you say the word peace, you think of a dove. It’s just a symbol.”

Later that morning, Skolnick delivered his design to the Woodstock festival organizers.

“I brought it in around 11 o’clock,” he said. “All the guys are waiting. These are the investors and everybody. They said, ‘Do it! Do it!’ You know... and that was it.” 

For his design, which has endured for 50 years, and is so identified with Woodstock, Skolnick was supposed to get royalties.

A monument to the Woodstock festival at the site of the 1969 event in Bethel, New York.
Credit Marc Holstein / Creative Commons
Creative Commons
A monument to the Woodstock festival at the site of the 1969 event in Bethel, New York.

“Two percent of everything,” he said. “Two percent of everything was $15, according to their calculations. I didn’t do it for the money — just solve the problem, that’s what I was doing it for.  I think about solving problems, visually.”

Skolnick did attend the first day of the festival, leaving because of the impending rain and the crowd.

Chaos. There were so many people,” he said. “All day long, people kept coming, because they didn’t time it right. The cars broke down. And then I found out the rains were coming. I had no tent. So I left on Saturday morning. I must have damaged 50 cars getting out of the parking lot, and that was it.”

Although rock 'n' roll wasn’t Skolnick’s thing, he thought Richie Havens, the festival’s opening performer, was terrific.

Correction: In the original version of this story, photo captions contained the wrong first name for Arnold Skolnick.

John Voci is Senior Director, Radio, at New England Public Media.
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