Designing Posters


Excerpted from InDesign Magazine, February/March 2012 (issue 46).

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Back in the day, if you had an event to announce, a product to sell, or a cause to proclaim, you needed a poster. Today, a poster may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you have something to advertise, but they’re still an important part of any advertising campaign.

Creating a poster appears deceptively simple. With relatively few elements—the title of the event, the date and location, some contact information, and a graphic—it should surely be a straightforward assignment. In practice, however, with so much space for text and pictures, it can be difficult to know where to start. The common challenge of publication design—having to fit too much into too small a space—is turned on its head, and you have a vast expanse of paper and relatively little content to fill it.

The near limitless number of possible solutions can be as paralysing as it is liberating. For this reason, it helps to have a methodology—something to hang your ideas on. For me, it’s taking an historical approach. The rich history of poster design is well documented in books and to a lesser extent on the Web. Studying past examples is a great springboard for ideas. Previous generations, though they worked with pens and paper, glue and scissors, approached the challenge of a poster in much the same way as we do today.

I decided to design my poster in a range of historical design styles, inspired by the main attributes of such styles but not constrained by a need to reproduce them too faithfully. But where would I find the posters’ content?

While there’s value in fictitious assignments, nothing gets me going like a real project. So I asked David Blatner how he’d feel about me designing a series of posters for the forthcoming Print and ePublishing conference in San Francisco. He agreed and I had my case study. For each example, I used the same content, though with some variation—in those that call for a minimalist approach, I left out things like the list of speakers and sponsors, for example.

When it comes to posters, bigger is better, but there are practical limitations. For this reason, I used a Tabloid (11×17 inches or 279×432 mm) sheet. Anything smaller is a flyer, anything bigger is cost-prohibitive and impractical to print. If this were this for a European client, I’d use the international paper equivalent, A3 (11.7×16.5 inches, or 297×420 mm). As well as aesthetics, I chose my designs for how well they leant themselves to being created in InDesign. I also used Photoshop and Illustrator, and to a lesser extent Bridge, but always came back to InDesign as the hub.

Victorian Circus

I found it helpful to name my different approaches. As well as distinguishing them, the names also let me focus on what they’re about. Let’s go through them in historical order, starting with what I refer to as the “Victorian Circus poster.”

My inspiration is the same poster that inspired John Lennon to write “Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite!” on the Sergeant Pepper album.

Working in this style is very forgiving because you can forget rules about keeping it simple and limiting the number of typefaces. In this case, more is more: Use lots of typefaces in a variety of sizes. I worked with the Adobe woodtypes Poplar and Birch, as well as Clarendon, an 19th century slab serif, and Bodoni Poster. I scanned a suitably kitschy image from an old clip art book and threw in lots of bold lines, dingbats, and ornaments. The custom page size (8.5x17 inches) approximates the aspect ratio of the original.

To make the border, I started out with a glyph from the Adobe Woodtype ornaments set. While these glyphs were designed for borders, it’s easier to make a pattern brush in Illustrator, and that’s what I did, copying the tile of the original pattern and combining it with a corner tile for a border that will adapt to any size.

For tips on using Illustrator this way, see the Adobe Help pages on constructing pattern tiles and pattern brush options.

Constructivist/Bauhaus Poster

My second version is a hybrid Constructivist/Bauhaus approach: lots of bold typography, reds and blacks, and diagonals. I used the abstraction of the letter P as both diagonal and circular shape around which to orient the type. Originally, I’d chosen a Futura P because of its geometric qualities, but the bowl of the letter wasn’t quite the perfect circle I was after. So I made my own character using InDesign’s shape tools and then, using the Type on a Path tool, ranged the text around the circle.


For added visual interest I also incorporated some transparency and a Gradient Feather to the “PePcon” text frame. This may be mixing my design metaphors a bit, but the rules are mine to break. The typeface (P22 Bayer) is based on Herbert Bayer’s universal, a unicase typeface designed by the Bauhaus director of printing and advertising between 1925 to 1930.
Constructivist and Bauhaus stylings are often emulated for two reasons: They look good and they’re easy. In the 1920s, rotated sans serif type was technically challenging and revolutionary; today it’s perhaps become a cliché or pastiche, but it’s still an effective way of creating tension on your page. I resisted the urge to flip any Rs or Ns to make things look more “Russian.”

Pelican Text Book Poster

My next version I’ve dubbed the “Pelican text book”. Reminiscent of a 1960s or ‘70s sociology textbook, it features sans serif type and simple geometric designs.


Initially, I was experimenting with the Transform Live effect in Illustrator to generate repeating geometric designs inspired by the Spirograph, the children’s toy popular in the 1960s and ‘70s. Ultimately, I kept things simple, and the “snowflakes” are nothing more than rotated rectangles set to a blending mode of Multiply or Screen (set in the Effects panel) to create an interaction of the overlapping shapes. One features the “print” colors cyan, magenta, and yellow, the other the “screen” colors red, green, blue, affirming the dual print and screen design aspects of the conference. I reduced the tint of the color to 75% because the colors were too saturated at full strength. The typeface is Helvetica—what else?

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