Top 5 tips for designing posters

A poster isn’t just for showing the details of an event (often it isn’t even mostly for showing the details of an event): it’s for enticing people into wanting to go. When you are putting together your own posters, the temptation can be to stick on the important information and stop there. Resist the temptation!

1. Make sure it grabs the attention from a distance

Your poster won’t exist in isolation: you are competing for your audiences’ attention against all the distractions of daily life – work, bills, advertisements, shopping lists… If you don’t find a way to stand out amongst all that noise, you won’t be able to persuade them they should be interested in your concert.

This doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be overly elaborate or that it’s beyond the skills of an amateur designing from within a Word document. Have a look at the example below – the same information is on both versions, but one of them is more likely to grab the eye.

Judicious and imaginative use of imagery, colour and fonts will go a very long way to producing a poster that works.

Allied to this is the next tip:

2. Always design for your audience

The first question you should have clear in your mind is: ‘who am I designing for?’ (or ‘for whom am I designing?’, if you prefer!). Every poster has an intended audience; the people that you are hoping will see it and take in your communication, so it makes sense to keep them in mind.

For example, if your group is trying to attract younger people, or more families, or people who don’t usually attend classical music concerts, you may need to take a different approach to getting your message across than you might to an audience of die-hard, long-standing classical music lovers.

Neither of the images below is ‘bad’ from a design point-of-view, but the example on the left doesn’t quite fit the mark for the audience intended. The one on the right better reflects the content of the concert and is therefore much more likely to work in attracting the intended audience (parents/children).

Remember that while your design may look good, it might not be the best possible communication for your audience. When in doubt, always refer back to the intended audience.

3. Make it easy to absorb through a hierarchy of information

A poster needs to communicate quickly. The important information should be easy to read from a distance, and should be arranged in a hierarchy reflecting the most/least important parts of information.

When it comes to design, you can think of text as having three distinct layers:

Primary (headline):

This is the main (and largest) text element in the design. It can be in addition to an art element or it can be the art element. Opt for a readable typeface that is interesting and demands attention.

What the headline is is up to you. For some concerts, the theme or name of the concert (e.g. ‘Christmas Carols’) may be descriptive enough to be enticing. For others, it may be more effective to lead with the pieces being played (‘Beethoven late quartets’), the artist, or the something unusual that sets the concert apart (‘Come and sing’). 

If in doubt, think about who you’re trying to draw in and what they are most likely to find most interesting – that’s what should be most prominent.

Secondary:

After the headline, the next most prominent information should be the next most important: this is usually the date/time, repertoire or pricing. Combined with the headline, this should be enough for most passersby to decide whether or not to act on the poster. Try dropping the size to about half of the headline for very clear hierarchy or continue to use a larger size but use another technique (colour, font, layout) for contrast.

The example below show three posters using the same structure, but each with a slightly different choice of the most prominent information: a). repertoire + free for under-18s, b). repertoire + headline artist, c). headline artist + date/time.

 

Tertiary: 

When, where, how? Answer any of these questions that aren't included in the headline or secondary layers of text. What information does someone need to do what your poster is asking of them (e.g. where to book tickets)? Provide the information here in a concise manner. If there are any extra bits that you have to include, (e.g. charity numbers) keep them small and try to ensure they don't distract from the important stuff.

4. Say more with less

Think about whether you need to put everything you're planning on to your poster. Unlike a flyer which is as much about providing detailed information as it is about advertising, posters are for primarily drawing attention and making viewers want to find out more. Usually, the more information you put on your poster, the less likely someone is to read any of it.

So, leave off anything that you don't think is going to sell the concert (or that the viewer needs in order to act on it). For example, including your M.D. or conductor's name as one of the main pieces of information probably isn't going to increase the effectiveness of your poster (unless your conductor happens to be Simon Rattle!...). It may be worth considering leaving information like this for the programme (where you have more space to name and thank everybody).

5. Make the most of imagery, fonts and colours

The best way to ensure you are hitting the mark in points 1-3 is to make good use of the 'visual language' of your poster (that is - what it communicates through it's look and feel). Your choice of images, fonts (type, weight and size) will often make the difference between a great poster and a bad one.

Image selection can make or break your poster

Images can communicate extremely quickly - far more quickly and effectively than most text will, so judicious use of images can be a good way to make your poster work.

As a shorthand or illustration

You can often use images instead of (or to support) your text. The stripped-back posters below, from Froxfield Choir and Fulham & Hammersmith Choral Society respectively, illustrate how your audience will often be able to tell what the concert is about in a split-second.

A picture of a poppy will communicate 'remembrance concert'; a Christmas tree or bauble will communicate 'Christmas, possibly carols'; a picture of a stained glass church window will communicate 'religious'. Any of these signifiers will be processed and understood by viewers well before they begin to read any text, and will help to draw their attention.

Communicate a feeling

Emotions drive decision-making far more often than rational considerations, and when it comes to music, this is especially so. Have a look at comments under any YouTube video of a musical performance and you'll see people talking in terms of their emotional response: "transported", "soothing", "buzzing", "crying"... For potential audiences, particularly those who may be less familiar with the repertoire or with your group, images can be an excellent shortcut to giving them an idea of what they will get out of attending.

To tap in to that, it can be effective to put aside selling the concert for a moment in favour of selling the feeling they will get if they attend. I may attend a concert of Bach's Cello Suites because I love them, but the reason I love them is because of how/what they make me feel when I hear them performed.

In terms of how that might apply to your image selection, have a look at the examples below.

All four are generic photos, but each could be used to suggest a very different feeling to viewers, and so provide a shortcut to why they might enjoy the repertoire: e.g.

Mysterious, fantastical - could work for the Hebrides Overture, or the Peer Gynt Suite Explosive, dramatic - could work for Verdi's Requiem or Carmina Burana
Soothing, contemplative - could work for Ola Gjeilo or Ives' The Unanswered Question Sparse, structured - could work for Arvo Part or Bach's Cello Suites

Bad images make you look bad!

The flip side of this is that an unsuitable image on your poster can turn people off.

Make sure that your images are:

  • good quality (avoid bad lighting, low resolution, bad framing)
  • a reflection of the nature of the concert (see 'Design for your audience' above)
  • interesting (if your image is uninteresting, people will asume your concert will be as well!)
  • a good match with your other design choices (fonts, layouts and colours: an image of the crucifixion paired with Comic Sans font is going to feel jarring!...)
  • not a distraction from the information (ideally the image should draw viewers in to the supporting text - be careful that it doesn't instead make the information hard to find or read by being too overpowering or 'busy') 

Finally, make sure you are legally allowed to use any images you select

If you have images from a particular photographer/artist you know and have their permission to use them, don't forget to ensure you include any credits they request on the poster.

If you don't have an artist/photographer to hand - fear not! There are lots of great-quality images that you can find on the internet. That doesn't mean you can just use anything you find in Google (assume you can't use an image unless it explicitly says you can), but ones marked as licensed under 'Creative Commons' (free to use with attribution), in the public domain (free to use) or as 'free of copyright' are usually not difficult to find.

Some good places to start are:

  • Flickr Creative Commons
  • Google image searches (on the image search results page, click 'Search tools' and then from the 'Usage rights' drop-down options, pick 'Labeled for reuse'. This will filter the image results shown to only show those that are marked as free for reuse)
  • Wikipedia (images used in Wikipedia articles are mostly public domain or available under the Creative Commons scheme, so this can be a good place to go)
  • Royalty-free stock image websites (e.g. most of the pictures we've used on this article come from https://pixabay.com. Wikipedia has a good list of many of these sites.) 

Here are a couple of examples of very simple posters using little more than a free, generic image to link to the theme and to suggest a sense of the feeling of the music.

Using colours

Colours are another important dimension to your poster standing out. Don't be afraid to experiment with using colours: e.g. one for your headline, another for your secondary information and a third (or the first one again) for the tertiary extras.

Likewise, don't be afraid to start with a coloured background and use white or contrasting colours for the text (as in the blue example from Fulham & Hammersmith Choral Society above) - this can often help your poster stand out more than a traditional white background.

Keep up the contrast

Whichever colours you choose, make sure that there is contrast between the important elements of your event poster and everything else (e.g. if your poster is dark, use a white font, and vice-versa). Your computer screen is probably considerably brighter than your poster will be when it's on a wall/board somewhere, so ensure you take this into account.

Complement your imagery

If you're using imagery in your poster, it's often effective to use this as the basis for your colour scheme. There are some great examples of this (and of colour palettes you could use) and this tool suggests a colour palette from any image you upload.

Be harmonious

When picking a colour scheme, use these approaches to the colour wheel for inspiration:

  • Top-left - Monochromatic: various shades and tones of one colour (e.g. light to dark blue) - neat and clean, but can be too subtle sometimes
  • Top-right - Analogous: hues that are side-by-side in the colour wheel (e.g. yellow-green + yellow + yellow-orange) - often the best balance of interest and coherence
  • Bottom-left - Complementary: colours that are opposite each other on the wheel (e.g. red + blue) - high contrast and high-intensity, but need to be managed carefully or they can clash too much
  • Bottom-right - Split-complementary: a colour, plus the two colours either side of its opposite on the wheel (e.g. blue + red-orange + yellow-orange) - can provide good contrast but without the intensity of clashing that you might have from complementary colours.

Finally, don't forget - putting aside the colour wheel, white or black on (dark or light respectively) coloured background is often both the easiest and the most effective text colour for legibility.

Choosing fonts

Some variety, but not too many

Variety in fonts (weights, font types, sizes) provides visual interest and helps to differentiate between your headline, secondary and tertiary content. Aim for 2-3 or you may start to sacrifice the legibility of the poster to prettiness.

As with colours, so with fonts

Similar to the rules of the colour wheel, you could choose your fonts based on their similarity or contrast to one another. E.g.

  • A single font, but with varying 'shades' (either font sizes or weights - e.g. bold vs. unbolded)
  • Two different main fonts of opposite types (e.g. a blocky sans serif like Raleway for the headline and a flowing serif like Times New Roman for the secondary information)
  • Several different fonts of similar types (e.g. all sans serif)

This handy tool allows you to pick a font and then suggests others that work well with it.

Make it legible

Whatever you choose, don't forget that you need it to be legible from a distance. Some serif fonts (in particular, those designed to look like handwriting) are very difficult to scan from a distance. 

6. Get a friend to check everything!

I know, I said 5 tips, but this is important!

Before you send it to the printer, make sure you have had it checked thoroughly by another person (preferably one who hasn't seen it before).

This allows you a chance of picking up those mistakes that cause you to beat your head against the wall ('Friday 22nd' when it should be 'Friday 23rd' and so on) and also gives you an opportunity to test the poster out. Do they think it works? Is there anything missing? Is it hard to read, or confusing?


We hope you find this Making Music resource useful. If you have any comments or suggestions about the guidance please contact us. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the content of this guidance is accurate and up to date, Making Music do not warrant, nor accept any liability or responsibility for the completeness or accuracy of the content, or for any loss which may arise from reliance on the information contained in it.