8 Simple Rules for Effective Poster Design

Of all the graphic work I do, posters are my favorite medium. Here are some simple design principles I try to always follow.

  1. Keep it simple, stupid. The biggest mistake the amateur designer makes is to over-stuff a poster with information that is either unnecessary, redundant, or both. When deciding whether or not to include any information on your poster, ask the following questions: does the viewer need to know this? Is this something they can easily learn from somewhere else, like your website or through social media? Does this information help make the sale? Have you reduced the information to the simplest possible form? The most important things to include on a poster are the name of the event, the organization(s) involved, the dates, the times, and how to obtain tickets. Anything beyond that is not essential. Think it over. If you think you can leave it off, than you can definitely leave it off. Clean and concise is always better than busy and informative.
  2. Tell a story. If you’re designing a poster for a movie or a play, a pretty photo of the lead actors doesn’t really say much about the piece. Then again, an action shot taken from a scene looks weird out of context. The trick is to create a unique image that tells a story yet remains ambiguous enough to create curiosity in the viewer. Recently in my own designs, I’ve moved away from group photos of the leads and focused more on individual character photos arranged in a certain way to create a relationship between them on the poster. Whatever image or images you choose to use on your own poster, make sure they tell a story. Oh, and always retouch photos. Not to death. But everybody notices pimples, uneven complexions, or awkward shadows. Your subjects will thank you and your audience’s attention will be better focused.
  3. Create focal points. Not every part of your poster should have the same impact. Choose one specific area, usually the central part of the poster, to command the most attention. There, you place things like title, dates, and times. Then, create two or more secondary regions for additional information like tickets, website, etc. This way, you draw the viewer in with a commanding focal point and allow them to discover the other details. I usually divide my posters into three regions: top, middle, and bottom, with the middle being the focal point, the bottom being the secondary point, and the top being the least busy. But experiment with different compositions, and even different aspect ratios.
  4. Don’t over-shadow. It can be tempting to throw a drop shadow or outer glow on every piece of text you have on your poster, especially if you want to make it pop a bit more. But don’t do it. For starters, shadows and glows on screen are never accurately replicated on print. They always appear darker and grainier and more saturated than on screen. Secondly, not every piece on information should be weighted evenly. Use shadows or glows when you have to to bring out text on a noisy background. But if you compose your images and text correctly, you should barely need to shadow or outline, if at all.
  5. Make it discoverable. Your poster should start the conversation, not end it. It is after all just one piece of what should be an arsenal of various promotional materials. The poster may be the first impression the viewer has, but it should by no means be the last. Make sure you give your audience options to continue their discovery. Always include a website and/or phone number. Social media icons are also a good idea. QR codes are trendy and look cool, even if nobody ever uses them. The point is to create opportunities for your audience to follow the bread crumbs to learn more about what you’re selling. Because if the poster is all the ever see, chances are you won’t see them in the audience.
  6. Use strong typefaces. Your poster has one or two seconds, if that, to make an impression. It should be legible from at least 15 feet away. So use strong, bold typefaces. Everyone loves Helvetica Neue Ultra Light, but it reads like shit from three feet away. Use block letters. Also, avoid script fonts and don’t over-do the serifs either.
  7. Check, recheck, and check again. Everyone has had to reprint a poster at least once because of what, in retrospect, should have been the most obvious error imaginable. So proof-read. Then proof-read again. Then get your people to proof-read. Then send your proof to NASA and get them to check it. Then recheck. And again. I think you’re getting the picture. You can’t distribute a flawed poster. And you don’t want to double your printing costs. So play it safe.
  8. For God’s sake, don’t use clip art. Ever. Unless you’re being ironic.
Follow this simple design rules in your own poster design and create a strong, lasting, and maybe even collectible, impact.
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