Graphic Design AdviceGraphic, Design, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2017

Learn How to Design the Perfect Poster


Posters are one of the most basic and versatile forms of advertising, and they remain one of my favorite things to design. They are commonly used to advertise an upcoming event, but their simplicity allows them to communicate a wide array of messages and campaigns, from the local, community level to the national platform. Because they employ the most basic design principles and are generally simple to produce, designing posters can be an ideal way to practice and hone your design skills.

Here are a few important tips that will help to make your poster design successful and effective. Along every step of the process, keep your audience in mind, and think about what other kinds of posters and ads will be vying for their attention.

Develop a concept with impact

Creating a concept for your poster design is the key first step to ensure your message comes across in a compelling, impactful way. Think conceptually about how you can represent your main message as engaging imagery—whether that be through illustrations, photography, or type treatments. For example, if you're designing a poster for a 5k race, you could select or create imagery that has a sense of movement. Start with a few concepts in mind, sketch them out, and then narrow down your favorites and start to flesh them out. Consider the context your poster will be placed in as you develop your concepts.

Making your visuals high-contrast will make your poster both eye-catching and easy to distinguish, regardless of the visual approach you decide to take. Try using a large, dominant image on a simple background, or try the opposite–make a pattern of many interesting shapes or lines. Use a big photo or create a unique illustration. In some cases, using typography alone can be the most effective solution and provides you with some freedom to play with the way the headline looks as a dominant visual element. Consider using color to help elements stand out, and play with the scale of elements. Remember, the design choices you make should refer back to and support your concept.

When developing your poster concept, don't be afraid to try something new, unorthodox, or unusual. Poster design is a terrific opportunity to learn new skills and to try something novel, and it's also a chance to step away from your screen and put some ideas down on paper first.

Think outside the rectangle

As you start concepting and designing your poster, it's important to consider the scale and format that your final printed poster will be. Picking a standard size has its advantages—you may be able to print cheaper if you don't choose a custom size. If you're working with a client, the size and specifications may already be predetermined, so make sure you're familiar with the specs of your project.

Poster sizes
A few specific poster sizes have become standard in the industry over time—a standard large poster size is 24"x36", a medium poster is 18"x"24, and a small poster is 11"x17".

However, depending on how you plan to have your poster printed and your production budget, you may have more flexibility with the size of your poster and the ability to choose a custom size. In this case, don't be afraid to try a unique proportion or orientation to help your poster stand out. Vertical rectangular posters are generally considered the norm, but rotating the poster to landscape format or trying a square or die-cut poster could earn your piece a second glance from a viewer. Size is also important—again, think about the context of your poster and how it will be viewed. A very large poster may be more eye-catching, but using the same budget to print several smaller posters might reach a broader audience. The general distance your audience will be from your posters should also determine the size and amount of information you present.

Visibility is key

Posters will generally be viewed from a distance in a visually noisy environment, and other advertisers will be competing with you for viewers' attention. Regardless of whether your poster will be on a community bulletin board or in front of a concert hall, all essential elements of your layout should be clear and easy-to-read, even from far away. A viewer should be able to quickly process and comprehend the message you're communicating, both through copy and visuals that support the message. Be sure to test this yourself by printing quick proofs to look at the sizing of text off-screen. Along with a large headline, big or brightly colored imagery can also help grab the attention of a viewer.

Create a clear visual hierarchy

One of the most important aspects of a poster is its visual hierarchy or how the layout is organized. The layout should have a clear flow of information so that a viewer's eye is directed from a focal point to the details of the message and the call to action. Choose a main headline that is short and to the point, and make it the largest typographic element on the page. As a general rule, the supporting details should be significantly smaller than the headline, but not too small that they can't be read from a few feet away. These details should also be as concise as possible, and a viewer should easily be able to locate essential details about the event or campaign, like dates, times, contact info, and location within a few seconds of viewing the poster.

Creating a decisive and clear call-to-action allows viewers the opportunity to interact with the message if they're interested, and it can be as simple as visiting a website for more information. The effectiveness of QR codes has been debated, but designers and marketers still frequently use them as a relatively simple way for viewers to interact with a poster. Company or sponsor logos, if included, need to be sized and placed in a way that doesn't distract from the main message. An easy way to do this is to have logos placed at the bottom of the poster, anchored in a corner.

Make sure that there is an appropriate amount of space between elements and that none of the text is too crowded or tightly kerned—this can inhibit readability from a distance. Also, choose fonts that are clean and appropriate for your concept, and limit yourself to two or three fonts at most. Keep enough space around the outer margins so that no element sits too close to the edge of the poster, and consider using a grid to add structure and intentionality to your design.

Keep it simple

This tip is essential to creating effective posters—try to keep your poster as simple as possible. We've all had that one client who wants to cram too much information onto an ad, but like I mentioned before, the more concise your message, the more likely it is to be effective and memorable to the viewer. Keep copy minimal and direct, and remove any visual element that doesn't support your concept. Don't feel like you have to use every inch of the page—a healthy amount of negative space can add contrast to your composition and help your concept stand out from the noise.

Create a campaign

Depending on your client or situation, creating a poster might seem like a one-off project for a one-time event or show. However, even on a tight budget a simple poster design can be fleshed out into other avenues that can help your event or message gain more visibility. Convert your poster into a square format and you've got a graphic to share on social media for free. Consider sending a digital poster via email or creating a flyer or direct mail piece out of your design. Creating this kind of repeated branding for your message will help viewers to remember it and to spread the word around, giving your message more attention and visibility, and your client will appreciate the extra exposure.

Break the rules

The final tip is to forget all the previous tips! (Well, maybe not all of them.) Keeping general rules in mind will help you to create a professional-looking, considered piece, but don't get too hung up on the rules that they inhibit your creativity. In our ever-changing digital world, posters are a great print exercise to stretch your creative muscles. In my experience, I've met many designers who use posters as their medium of choice for personal projects because they're a quick and easy way to express an idea with lots of artistic freedom. Because of their accessibility and versatile nature, there are a million different possibilities for a design, and posters remain a relatively inexpensive way to get an idea into the world.

In short, building your poster design on a solid concept and keeping details to a minimum will help you to create better posters that communicate more effectively to viewers. Use the flexibility of posters to your advantage to try something new and unique, and don't forget to have fun in the design process.

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