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Designing a Poster

Lesson 10 from: Graphic Design Fundamentals: Getting Started

Timothy Samara

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Lesson Info

10. Designing a Poster

What unique opportunities does poster design offer? How does the size of media affect a reader’s experience? Timothy walks you through his process of designing a poster for a theatrical performance and the more complex concept and image development this design work requires. We see surprises and new ideas surface through the process of refinement, as well as the value of broad research.

Lesson Info

Designing a Poster

So a poster is essentially an ad. It's just bigger. It has a street level presence. It is really an environmental kind of a format. It derives its power from the fact that it is so large, and it gives the designer a lot of wiggle room. And the potential for tremendous scale contrast. You can make stuff really super big, and you can also get stuff to be quite small, and create very profound kinds of contrast, or perception in spatial depth. It also allows you, therefore, to control the hierarchies. You can really focus attention on the big idea really quickly, and then allow people, permit them, to gain access to less important information, simply by walking up to it. Because a poster has multiple levels of reading. It is intended to function in two ways, and sometimes three ways. First there's the distance read. That is, seeing the poster on a wall, 30 or 40 feet away, while you're going by on a bike, at 20 miles an hour, avoiding traffic. And, at that read, you should be able to know ...

what it's about, when it's happening, and what it really feels like. And that's really about all you need. When you have the opportunity, once you've drawn the audience in, because if you've engaged them at that level, they're gonna walk up to it. People are curious. And so, when you walk up to the poster, you actually kind of step inside it, and it becomes almost like a book. It becomes an intimate reading experience, where people can take their time, and they can choose to pick through more detailed information, at a much smaller size. So, while for sort of street level impact, very often intuitively you may use both image and typography, very large. A title, a headline, super big, because you have the room to do it. Is that secondary information can be as small as what you might find in a newspaper. Eight, nine, 10, 11 points. If that information is not really critical for the viewers' needs. And part of designing is understanding what does the viewer need? When do they need it? And what order do they need it? And if they don't get some of it, is it okay? This poster was promoting, it promoted a dramatic event. A theatrical performance of a new play that was set in Iran, in Tehran specifically, during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. So, it's called Spring of Freedom, Summer of Fear, because the revolution actually took place in spring, around the time of the Persian New Year, which is called Nowruz. And, because of the sort of the symbolic nature of that event, which is about renewal, and rebirth, and potential, and optimism, and hope, kind of the violence associated with sort of the aftermath of the revolution, and how it affected families and their relationships, ideologically, and politically, and socially, became really, it was really sort of the crux of the matter. So, my research began first with finding out about the Islamic Revolution. I think I was nine or 10 when that happened. So, and I remember it kind of vaguely, but I read about it. I was very, very interested in images that I saw of people participating in rallies and demonstrations during the revolution. The painted fingers. Wall painting that was both typographic or calligraphic, as the case might be, as well as sort of graphical forms that had political qualities to them. So, that was very, very interesting to discover. I looked at some other forms of political communications. Posters, magazine ads, and so on, that were from the time, just to get a sense of what's the illustrative language of that, and might that be useful in some way? I was very, very interested in the idea of the Persian New Year, simply because of its symbolism, and also because of the direct connection to the play's subject matter and its title, and the way that the playwright had framed the narrative of that, it was sort of fundamental. One of the many symbols of the Persian New Year is the hyacinth, which is very vivid. It comes in a variety of colors, but usually it's the kind of the blue, blue violet, turquoise-y kind, that is present most often. And the flower as a symbol of growth, and also of potential, of death, of the transitory nature of hope or of life, seemed very, very compelling. So I got photo reference. I of course also looked at Arabic, and specifically Persian, or Irani pottery, tile work, calligraphy, architecture, weaving, and other textiles. Wall painting, ink work, cultural elements. One of the primary characters in the play was a woman, a mother of two sons, one of whom was killed, and the other who is not. And so I was also interested in the mother as a figure of hope, of fertility, of nurturing, and the loss that was inherent in that way. And of course I looked at images that would convey death, or mortality, or fragility. As well as violence. So, weaponry, in particular AK-47s and grenades, and so on. So I started off with sketches, as you saw earlier. These are directly from my sketchbook, and I usually sketch in a little book, and I sketch small, so that I'm not really getting confused, or distracted by the details. I'm after kind of the big picture. Like what are the elements there? Are they pictorial, or abstract, non-pictorial? Are they large in size? What kind of shapes are they? And also, what is the subject matter of those? So, I'll show you a bunch of these. So because of this focus on the character of the mother, one sort of direction I looked at was the cloaked figure of a woman, first in closeup, with the revealing of the eye slit in the hijab, which is the head covering, as a kind of a confrontation to a crowd. Some kind of activity in the background. And then also, in a sort of a reference to Michelangelo's Pieta, which is a sculpture that depicts the Virgin Mary holding her deceased son. Creating a kind of a Pieta out of that, which also sort of brought up the whole sort of Islam versus Christianity issue, which is also kind of wrapped up in the revolution at that time, as well as in the culture. Especially because of the Shah's relationship to the United States. And thinking about the form in a very kind of fluid, almost ethereal kind of ghost-like way, but possibly with some hint of violence, blood spatter, to signify loss. Again, closeups of, a closeup of the mother, the mother's head, also in combination with the flag. The flag was very prominent in demonstrations. I began to alter ideas. Look at alternate ideas, in which the mother actually became a symbol of death, but because she's a woman, there is this kind of duality involved. Creator and destroyer at the same time. And engaged in a gesture of prayer, and holding a hyacinth in a very kind of delicate kind of formation. Something very tenuous. I began to look at the skull in addition. One of the other kind of things that happens in Nowruz is that there's a gathering of different kinds of plates of food, and sort of offering elements together, which in this sketch, what I was imagining was those organized on a table setting, ready for a celebration, but creating the form of the sockets, and nose hole, and teeth of the skull. So the images were very intended to be very, very metaphorical. Bold and initially understandable, but then able to be kind of picked apart, where you could find layers of additional meaning over time. One was a boot on the flower. This is the hyacinth in the background. It's a rough sketch. But they're for me. The piece sign being made by a skeletal hand. And then looking at kind of Islamic patterns derived from tiles, and also ceramic vessels. We're to kind of, again, play with this kind of weird, sort of happy, aspirational, hopeful, sort of the pinnacle of human endeavor that is art making, and then the opposite, which is violence, is revolution, is death. So, here, graphical elements, decorative forms, forming the skull, and here guns and grenades, and tanks, and boot prints, replacing the traditional decorative forms, which are plant based and so on, from ceramic tile. Vessels, rather. I looked at a couple of flag options. The flag seemed a little bit too generic. And oddly, the Irani flag is red, white, and green. And so, rotated or used, it might be mistaken for the Italian flag. So that seemed like not a good idea, because it would be distracting. And then some other options, looking at kind of patterns from Islamic tile work, notably the eight pointed star, as a kind of container, or a vessel for other kinds of images, which might be something fractured, or something blotted out. Again, kind of the beauty being destroyed by some force. And of course, also looking at the hyacinth. Here, the flower shriveled, with its fresh leaves kind of dropped. And notice of course that the hyacinth is a vertical element, like the gun, the rifle, when it's rotated. So, creating this kind of duality, this parity, this comparison of two vertical forms, can suggest that they are somehow related in meaning. They become each other. And then also using the rifle as the stem instead. A drop of blood. And then the hyacinths as a kind of a garden, but sliced by shapes which could be the flag, or could be some other kind of violent kind of interruption. Spliced again. So, I presented three concepts. And I initially didn't even bother looking at all the complicated other text that had to go on, which was the Director's name, and a new play by, and where it was going to be. I just wanted the headline in there, just to kind of give context. And because I had the opportunity to work not just with the production company, but to talk directly to the playwright, I really wanted his feedback, and his response to my approaches, really early on. So I isolated sort of three directions, and I went for very, very bold color. Not necessarily knowing whether or not that would be the best way to go, whether it was appropriate, but I really just wanted to call attention to the individual forms. I wasn't even necessarily set on these particular kinds of illustrations. This sort of flattened out, sort of poster like element. But I was really after the narrative. So, in the first one, the sun rising on a new day. It's the new year. It's a new political environment. Because of the coloration, there is a sense of kind of good energy, but also something a little bit sinister, a little bit jarring about the juxtaposition of yellow, red, orange, and violet. Not showing the mother's face, to make her really kind of a stand-in for a group of people, a class of people, an identity, that of woman, of mother, not any particular person, with a tear of blood. Here is where the hyacinth got a little bit interesting. So I decided to make it out of something other than flower petals. Very bold. Instantly recognizable to those of Irani and Persian descent, for what it was. And then suddenly on second look, whoa, what? A little jarring kind of a situation. On the right, kind of a simple setup, looking at the eight pointed star being violated in some way, and sort of trading off the red and green of the flag, using the white type. So I had a conversation with the director, and he was very, very interested in not only being able to communicate sort of the nature of the play, what the subject matter was, but of also, one, really resonating with an audience of Persian, or Irani, or Arabic background, that would really understand that symbology, so that it would really speak to them. And on another level, kind of educating westerners, people of western background, as to something about the culture, and to sort of pose some questions, like why is that flower there, or why is that object there? What does that symbol mean? It's kind of drawing them into the richness of the culture. So, it was the hyacinth one. And then began a process of refinement. Client was concerned that the skulls were too grim. A little bit too unavoidable. Too much of a total end. And didn't really suggest necessarily what the political environment really was. Potentially a little bit too simple. And there was also the sense that the skulls, it was almost too easy a read. So, I began to look at, well what else could I do? So I noticed that the grenade form is also kind of round, and its contour can be interpreted as kind of petal like, and flower like. But sticking it on top of this more or less sort of slim, naturalistic thing, and it's a very rough, and not very useful kind of a sketch, but useful enough to tell me that that was not going to happen. It was too bulbous. There was too much contrast. I didn't really read the flower anymore. It was just a grenade with a kind of thing sticking into it. So, I began to look at clusters of grenades. And first trying to achieve a more or less kind of naturalistic configuration. This sort of irregular sort of system of different orientations that the flowers have on the stalk. And then, which seemed a little bit messy. And then I also looked at really sort of breaking them out into a kind of a grid formation, which was much more decorative, and not naturalistic. And that seemed interesting to me, because that decorative quality, and the simplicity of that iconic reduction, really seemed to kind of suggest Islamic image making, in the tiles. This kind of use of floral forms. The pomegranate is another symbol of the New Year. And so I introduced those as sort of secondary elements to help me be able to kind of configure the grenades, as they were moving, so that I didn't get some weird, awkward spaces. It helped me to kind of round the form out, so it became a little bit, maybe not as sort of directly representative of the true form of the flower, but there's some variation in how those flowers work. And then I was looking at sort of rounding out, so you see the, not only the pomegranate form, but also these kind of more abstract, sort of leaf forms. And then that was the final configuration. So I really spent some time tooling that, so I knew what I was working with, and I went back and forth with the client a few times, to show him these various iterations, to get his response, because it was very important. Designing is always a dialogue with your client. It's not about you. It's ultimately about them, and the people that they're communicating with. We're just the messenger. And at the very end, I also substituted a much more abstract form for the stem, because that naturalistic, and sort of curly Q, sort of more vine shape, or stalk shape, the naturalistic leaves, seemed to disconnect from the decorative or abstract quality of the hyacinth itself. So I started just sort of looking at, sort of roughly how I would position things. What kind of space does this thing take up, when it's in the center? When it's smaller in the center, when it's bigger in the center? What if I crop it off? Then I start to lose stuff. And then I wasn't really feeling that, so I thought I'd go look at some type. So whenever I'm not really sure about where I'm gonna go, and there are other things that I need to think about, I'll just put the thing that I'm not sure about aside, and jump onto some other component, because it's gonna come up sooner or later, and I might as well spend some energy looking at something different. And so, sometimes, when you jump from one aspect of a project to another, some different part, where your brain is focused on a completely different sort of set of issues, is that your brain starts to do a little work about the other thing in the background, and then when you come back to it, you're like, oh, well I should have seen that six hours ago. So I started off with this. Again, I went for, initially, right for a very condensed sans serif, where I could hold a kind of a strong horizontal, and then play with the ascenders and descenders of the letter forms, to suggest the calligraphic shapes that are inherent in Arabic writing. And introduce a little bit of contrast. As I did that, I became so interested in the Arabic, that I asked the author to send me the title in Arabic, because I wondered, what does that look like? And I knew, also, that there was gonna be this strange issue that Arabic reads from right to left. So it was an interesting thing to look at. But the Arabic calligraphy is so beautiful, as letter forms of all cultures are. I just can't get enough. So, these are the four words. Spring, freedom, summer, and fear. The diacritical marks create the connective tissue in there. And I spent a lot of time trying to get the English title to read as English, and by altering it, to look like Arabic, to actually, at a glance, read as Arabic, to people who read Arabic. And I did that for about a week and a half. And I kept sending version after version, because I was like, this idea is cool. So, it was a kind of a game, that I got a little too obsessive playing. And it was sort of interesting, but it was a little bit cold, and ultimately, no matter what I tried, the playwright came back and said, "It's starting to get a little bit distracting. It's too self conscious, and it doesn't really read as Arabic." So I was like, okay, just let it go. So I started looking at some other typefaces, to try and find something that would have the calligraphic quality, but also kind of the boldness of the illustration. And that led me to this kind of hybrid, serif sans serif typeface, which came in a number of weights, which could always be useful. There's a light, a medium, a bold, and a black. So if I needed, or I felt like I wanted to deal with all the typography in the same uniform type family, they'd be all stylistically connected, but I could still get a lot of contrast between them. And of course it was these kinds of forms, the kind of the curve form that would end at a sharp point, as well as the swashes in some of the other variants within the family, that drew me to this face, as feeling kind of Arabic, even though we're looking at a Roman script, Roman font. So, I set it all caps, to create, again, this kind of bold element. And then I altered it again, this time much more minimally. But I'm not going to show you how it all worked out. So, a few diacritical marks. A couple of swash elements, just for flavor. And then I went about looking at supplementary typefaces. Something to support that titling element, and also be a little bit easier on the eye for reading. I generally like to use a couple of typefaces, or a couple of type families together, simply because they give a little bit more contrast. There's a little bit more textural variation. And I'm really bad at controlling myself. Although I should be really good at it by now. So, I was looking at the sans serifs, and also some serif. The sans serif here seemed a little bit too cold, a little bit too weak. I looked at a more classical serif, that had a lot of sort of calligraphic quality to the movement of the strokes, and the way that the serifs were shaped. So really looking at the details. But the proportions of it were a little bit too condensed, a little bit too bitty, and almost a little bit too sharp. So then I found this, which is an older style serif, based on, or a new serif typeface based on an older style, what's called a revival. It had some sharp elements in it, which would pick up on the sharp details in the illustration, but also had the calligraphic quality of any serif typeface, which is originally derived from brush drawing. So I returned to composition. I looked at a number of variations, really roughly, and I often do this, is I don't even use the type. Because I don't wanna get caught up in, are these two letters closer together? Because in case you haven't noticed, I'm a little OCD. A little detail oriented. So I decided, well you know, I'll just use some shapes, and rough in sort of what kind of presence I want. How big, or how bold, or how small, and what kind of shape is happening. Do I wanna overlap? Do I want things to be organized in the center, and make it almost kind of religious in its quality? Very classical. Do I want it to be very modern? I ended up moving in this direction, because when I wanted to get the type treatment large enough that you could actually see it and enjoy it, because I like people to enjoy things, and I wanna enjoy seeing it out in public, and in order to get it to be large enough, without interfering with the stem, I actually had to separate the stem, which almost became like the type cutting the stem off, or the head of the flower off. Once that happened, and that stagger occurred, this little group of information could be kind of spread out, and then also staggered a little bit to create some rhythmic movement with it, which would also play off the inward and outward movement, around the contour, as the negative space sort of dips, and comes back out, and then dips in, there's this kind of radial sort of pushing outward, but then also these little sort of chunks of space that cut into the form. Then it was time for color, and I didn't really look very far. I had found the image of this bowl, and I kept looking at it, over and over again. I was like, okay, don't ignore it, don't fight it, let it live. So I chose two of the blues. The darker, more violet version, and also the turquoise. Just for a little bit of contrast, but not too much. And to kind of enrich that kind of temperature shift, from cooler to warmer, that was happening in the blues, I added a green that was not especially vibrant. And then for real contrast, I brought out the red, also as a suggestion of violence. So these were some roughs using all the text. You can see how much text there is in there. Or that had to be. And then, so these also show you, not only different iterations of that sort of side placed types, initially looking at the title as a kind of a top element, and not dealing with the lower part at all, but also the two other kind of versions of the typography for the headline that I had experimented with. And then it moved very kind of rapidly that way. You'll see this other new form, this new element that occurred in the background, which is this sort of exaggerated, this sort of supporting pattern, which I built out of some of the elements from the flower icon itself, as well as forms from a 10 pointed star, and some decorative details that I had found in some of the ceramics. And mostly because what I saw happening, was that because this form was so bold, is that it left a lot of space, not that needed to be filled up, but needed to become somehow active. And as soon as that form got large enough to really have a really powerful presence in that space, with the text aligned to it, is that the space actually got kind of boxed in. And anytime you box a space in, and it's not connected to other spaces, it becomes very noticeable. It becomes almost kind of like a self conscious little object, that people start to look at. So, in order to activate that space, without disturbing the essential layout, I thought about introducing this ceramic pattern, again as a kind of a decorative element, which was culturally relevant, into the background. But using a very, very sort of tightly controlled value relationship that is the darkness, the relative darkness of the two colors, which is a combination of the red, the turquoise, and the blue printed on top of each other, so as to create a deeper version of that blue, allowed me to set that very active patterning into the background, without, and not sacrifice the focus on the primary elements. So it was eventually, it was produced, silkscreened. This is the final poster. So I worked with a silkscreen artist to develop the individual printing screens, that is to separate each of the colors, or separate the information that would appear in each color, into its own screen. Looking at how those colors would register with each other when they were printed on the surface. It was printed in a limited edition of 500. And it was very bold. There's a detail of the type up close, where you can really see this very sort of rich interaction between sort of the analogous colors, as they all kind of ping pong, and kind of talk to each other. Kind of vacillating between cooler and warmer. A little bit more intense, a little bit less intense. A little bit bolder, a little bit brighter in value, a little bit deeper in value. And then the red which just chops right through it. This kind of jarring moment. This is a detail of the typography. So I ended up actually mixing three typefaces together. I used that serif that I looked at in italic, for kind of secondary information, or rather tertiary information, that is the third level down in the hierarchy. Sort of supporting things. Really focusing attention on sort of within that phrase, or that grouping of information, the thing that you really need to know, which was where it was, and living in the location which happened to be Minneapolis, if you live there, you know where the Lowry Lab Theater is. And then the dates, set in again the same sort of serif, sans serif hybrid, as a title, but just in its kind of straight form all capital. So there's this constant kind of alternation in texture, between this sort of little bitty detailed thing, which is very elegant, to something a little bit bolder and solid, back again, to something bolder and solid, to back again, to something bolder and solid, but, still kind of formally, visually related to the illustration. And that was where it hung in kiosk. And they had a tremendous turnout for both the opening night, and for the entire run. And the playwright was very happy, which is all I could ask for.

Ratings and Reviews

a Creativelive Student

Wonderful class! I loved getting the info as to the creative process. Great!

Øyvind Hermans

I love this class, clear and precise information with very interesting examples. I have worked as a graphic designer for 6 years but have no design eduction, so at times I feel like there is these gaps of design-knowlegde in my decisions, this was the perfect filler of these gaps.

sixtina maculan

Thank you for sharing your experiences in this class. It's been a pleasure to listen, learn and understand, as well as a wonderful motivation.

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