By Steve Bain
Poster design has often been the kind of sought-after work awarded to the talented designer who has earned an opportunity to show off his or her creative dexterity. Due to their unrestricted size and ultimate simplicity, posters offer design freedom no other document design can. The design process is simplified even more by the fact that poster reproduction is limited to the capabilities of offset printing, meaning there are fewer technical hurdles to leap when compared to other design tasks.
The one rule to keep in mind when it comes to poster design: there are few rules. This lack of guidelines and boundless simplicity can be a boon or a bust depending on the depth of your creative well (and how frequently you’ve visited it). In the next few pages, we’ll explore a few inspirational ideas and recommend optional creative avenues to pursue when tackling a poster design.
For a work-in-progress illustration, we’ll look at how the various ways a poster design for a local flight event can be tackled. In this instance, the poster will serve to advertise and potentially be a collectible item. Although fictitious, each design features the elements and information necessary to promote the event.
Define the Design Limits
These days, posters are commonly used for anything from advertising products, services, or events to unique artistic expression. Like any design project, you’ll first need to collect together any criteria which might influence your design. You’ll need to determine the purpose or goal of the design, what type of audience it must appeal to (such as gender, age, ethnicity), and any required content (such as logos, names, dates, and Web or other addresses) for the design.
With this critical information in hand, the next key factor to consider will be your client’s budget. How much latitude will you have in terms of color, stock, and size for the project? (Keep in mind that good design doesn’t always require high cost, but higher reproduction quality and materials often do.) Will the budget allow for full color, varnishes, additional spot colors or will you need to explore cost effective strategies? How will the poster be used? Will it be posted onto billboards, telephone poles, mailed, and/or sold as a collectible?
Collect Your Design Imagery
Next, your goal should be to target ideas for imagery you’d potentially like to incorporate. Imagery includes elements such as logotype, visual props, or graphic tie-ins to other published material such as flyers or brochures. Imagine yourself as the audience and consider creating or locating appealing images of interest which can be adapted to your design. Imagery may be arranged, combined, repeated, distorted or layered to create different visual effects.
Choose images which lend themselves well to the subject matter. Consider current trends in color and style. With a collection of imagery assembled, you can begin the creative process of formulating the layout and investigating color and style. The poster examples shown next (see figures 1 and 2) use the same graphic imagery in two different arrangements using similar color schemes. Although they are significantly different, both use the same basic visual elements.
Experiment with Background and Layout
The beauty of poster design is that there is no real established layout the way there is with formal publishing. The layout of your imagery and/or text doesn’t necessarily need to follow strict publishing rules. There are several ways you can draw attention to your poster design, and manipulate the viewer’s eye using background and layout techniques. The background plays a key role in setting the overall color of the design, while the layout sets the direction and order of the path followed by the audience’s eye.
A busy background enables you to provide contrast or offset with your foreground elements, such as key imagery or textual information. Will the background be simple or complex? Will the imagery be presented in a clean and simple color and style, or will it be intricate and photorealistic? The separation between your background and foreground elements can be contrasted in a number of ways. One technique is to contrast a busy background with plain foreground elements. Another is to contrast a background which uses “quiet” colors with vibrantly colored foreground elements. Backgrounds which feature intricate patterns may be contrasted with large, bold foreground elements.
When it comes to poster layout, the latitude is certainly wide-ranging. You’ll need to keep in mind the order in which information must be interpreted (especially text) and position your elements accordingly. You might also consider exploring left, right, centered, off-centered, or mixed alignments. Layout also involves how your composition will affect production processes. For example, will your imagery and/or background bleed off the edges of the poster page? Or, will the design be framed by the background and/or texture of the printing material?
The next three examples (see figures 3, 4 and 5) show different layout and background styles. Two use a simple centered layout, while the other features a mixed layout. Two feature simple bold images with full background coverage, while the other uses a complex background framed within the boundaries of the printing material.
Explore Color and Style
Of course, both color and style present each present an enormous number of variations in design, issues of which our previous examples explore. Color can be used both to fill and surround images and text. Nonetheless, both aspects can heavily influence the design of any project. Choose colors which are either relevant to the subject matter and lend themselves well to the imagery you have selected, or connect with the audience and message being conveyed. Consider adapting current trends in color. Experiment with using color blocks and colored text, repeating patterns of color, complimentary or high-contrast schemes, and/or tinted monochromatic imagery. Use color contrast to emphasize or de-emphasize the composition. Contrast the color of the background with visual elements and text.
The style of your poster design can also be visually established by the text/font you choose and the type of imagery. Experiment with fonts styles and sizes which set a hierarchy for the text information. Explore the possibility of using altered- or illustration-style text effects. Consider using either appealing photorealistic images or whimsical nondescript images to set the style. For certain types of design projects, you might also try symbolic, artistic, entertaining or historical themes. Our next examples use a variety of slightly different styles and color schemes.
With this in mind, put some or all of your explorations to work. The example shown in figure 6 uses a single whimsical image with limited use of image and background color, while figure 7 plays on a variation of this incorporating illustrated type matching the imagery colors on a plain background. Figure 8 uses a simple graphic illustration with a blunt European-type style. Figure 9 uses a high-contrast color scheme and even more simplistic text effects and image symbolism, while figure 10 incorporates bold text and background colors with simple stylistic images. Figure 11 shows a fully-illustrated example, where both the main text and the visual examples incorporate full color and photorealistic graphic illustrations.
Guiding the Viewer’s Eye
Whether you’re creating a simple or complex mix of text and imagery, you’ll need to pay attention to key focal points and these points guide the audience’s eye as they absorb the information. The simplest ways to manipulate the reading direction is by using size and color. Your audience will naturally be drawn to larger more colorful text and/or images first. Blank open spaces can also create the same effect. Getting viewers to jump between subsequent points (in the correct order) is often the challenge. When sizing and positioning visual elements, explore a size and/or color hierarchy. Use size to offset distance between two relevant points. Consider that the readers’ eye is trained to read left-to-right, top-to-bottom. Give more prominence to the poster’s main message (such as the main text or main image), equal prominence to elements of equal importance, and less prominence to lesser information (such as logos, crests, sponsors, addresses, URLs and so on).
Centered poster design formats are often the easiest to work with. This enables you to stack text and images above and below the main element(s). Explore using imagery which inherently “points” the reader in a specific direction. This includes obvious elements such as arrows, or more subtle imagery such as a person’s profile, an object in motion, or the natural shape of an object or collection of objects.
Make Text Easy to Read
The most important text in your poster design should be easily read from a distance. Although certain audience’s will be more forgiving of hard-to-read text than others, your focus should always be on legibility. You can often successfully achieve this using size and color contrast with elements layered behind the text (such as the background). Beyond using black text on a white background, consider reverse (white) text on dark or black backgrounds. Reverse effects on medium- or small-sized text is easily read over dark backgrounds, but sans serif works best for this technique.
Where text overlays other images, there are several techniques you can employ to improve legibility. Consider using a bright color such as yellow, orange, or red over dark, murky backgrounds. For prominent display text, add either hard- or soft-edged shadows behind the text. Use dark-colored shadows on light-colored text over light-colored backgrounds, or use glow-style shadows on dark-colored text over dark-colored backgrounds. Figure 12 shows two extreme legibility problems improved using shadow and glow effects.
Symmetry Versus Non-Symmetry
When searching for a design solution where a less conservative approach lends itself well to the poster subject matter, explore working with a nonsymmetrical layout. These types of layouts use the weight of visual elements balanced on either side an invisible centerline and often present refreshing opportunities for unbalance.
Consider using large visual elements to balance out or juxtapose equally large spaces of color either vertically, horizontally, or diagonally to create a deliberately unbalanced layout. Balance the weight and surrounding space of small elements to with larger elements. Consider offsetting bold colored visual elements or text with quite colors elements. Many of the examples shown here use a centered and symmetrical format, while one (see Figure 3) uses a mix of both symmetrical and non-symmetrical placement.
The ideas and examples featured here should serve well as a guide for the basic attack plan for virtually any type of poster design. As you’ve likely discover the design process is not unlike that of other types of design. Successful poster designs will attract, entertain, or stimulate viewers to accomplish their main objective, as well as fulfill a secondary purpose of advertising, promoting, or showcasing a person, place or thing. For the designer, creating poster designs offers an opportunity for creative release like few other projects can—an occasion to get up out of your chair in a manner of speaking. Following your design instincts will help get the job done, but be sure to dig deep into your creative well and try new and different possibilities.
Steve Bain is an award-winning writer, illustrator, and graphic designer and author of nearly a design and illustration books including CorelDRAW The Official Guide.