Expert on Poster Design, Part 1

Let it be known, we found the king of poster design to judge your entries in this year’s HOW Poster Design Competition & Awards.

johnWashington, DC–based John Foster, principal and superintendent of Bad People Good Things LLC, is a world-renowned designer, illustrator, author and speaker on design issues. As the author of several books including For Sale: Over 200 Innovative Solutions in Packaging Design and Maximum Page Design, and several more on poster design in particular, such as New Masters of Poster Design, Volumes One and Two1000 Indie Posters, it’s safe to say he knows a thing or two about design.

If that’s not enough to convince you he’s the perfect judge of your cool posters, get this: Foster was recently named the curator for the poster collection for the University of Maryland. Not to mention, his work has appeared in every major industry publication, and he’s the recipient of a Gold Medal from the Art Directors Club of Metropolitan Washington and a Best in Show from the ADDYs. Oh, and his work has been shown in galleries all over the globe and is also a part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection. No big deal or anything …

Read on for Foster’s expert opinion on what makes the best poster design and to learn more about his successful design career and best posters.

Poster design by John Foster

Poster design by John Foster

What initially compelled you to go into design?
Like a lot of good things in life, my path to design was one of combining strengths. I had gotten a drawing scholarship to Carnegie Mellon, and was also accepted into the respected business program at a large university. I was really torn, but I couldn’t see myself making much of a drawing degree. I knew I didn’t want to continue on into education and teach, as my Dad is a college professor (of course, I turned around and married a high school teacher, so my life is still surrounded by stacks of projects to grade). I also didn’t see myself as a fine artist.

ImageHandler.ashx.htmlSo we started to look toward something that used all of those skills, and we found graphic design. I then went to a very small and rigorous design program that started each year with 30 students, and graduated 8 (with 3 being transfers) each year. That dumped me into a brutal economy, but that is another story—haha.

Tell us a little about the philosophy/driving force behind your career.
I think everything for me really boils down to trying to always be sure to step into my client’s and the consumers’ shoes and to try to be as selfless as is possible in the process. I have found that by doing this, and not being a slave to style or forcing a look upon a project, I have been able to create unique solutions for almost all of my projects. It means I will never have a monograph of my work filled with some era-defining style, but I can trade it in for a stable of happy clients.

“After that, if it hadn’t already, my heart
forever belonged to the poster.”
—John Foster

Poster design by John Foster

Poster design by John Foster

You’ve written several books on poster design. What draws you to poster design and compels you to talk about it?

It is funny now as everyone talks about posters, but I really took up the cause in the 90s because almost no one was championing the form at the time. City councils had waged war on postering in their towns, the blast email had basically replaced it in everyday use, and virtually all mainstream design studios had seen their poster work reduced to virtually nothing. I saw these designers refusing to let it be retired as a form, but most of it was at a grassroots level. These innovators were doing cutting edge work and creating new marketplaces for the poster to exist in.

These were the first blasts in what would become the gig poster explosion, the renewed interest in the poster as political protest, and also as an economic driver. It was all still very small and isolated though. You laugh now but each major city might have only had two to three designers doing attention-worthy poster work at the time, and they were having to invent projects or sponsor events just to have a reason to do them in some cases.

While all of this was bubbling below the surface I knew in my gut that it would be ready to break through in about two years, so I started pitching writing a book—the book that would eventually become New Masters of Poster Design. No one would publish the book. Everyone had given up on poster books, as they hadn’t sold for years, and no one could see the poster returning from the abyss it had been resigned to. It was destined to be a relic, I was told again and again. I was down to my last editor before I was going to give up the project—honestly. Luckily, that editor was the one willing to take a chance on me and my gut feeling. When the book came out it was the spark that ignited a worldwide conversation, as it unified the best work being done in any medium in Poland, Germany, Switzerland, Iran, China, United States and so on. It was amazingly gratifying to see that this faith (from all parties) had not been misplaced. After that, if it hadn’t already, my heart forever belonged to the poster.

Poster design by John Foster

Is there any one poster project that stands out to you as having been the biggest challenge, and can you elaborate on why?
The most challenging poster projects have always been when I have been lucky enough to be invited into a series of gig posters being produced for a band’s full tour. The idea is to have a different designer do a poster for each city along the way. The Melvins really assembled an astonishing collection of many of the best designers in the world using this system.

You know going in that the other posters in the series are all going to be incredible and everyone involved will be bringing their A game. Nobody wants to be the weak link in a collection of all-stars. Plus, you are all approaching essentially the same problem, so it provides a unique sense of healthy competition that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the design world. It’s not like they do 50 different movie posters for a summer blockbuster, one by a different person for each city … So you really do get put side-by-side and you can see where you stack up. They are always a lot of fun but they bring a completely different pressure in comparison to anything else I work on. I have redesigned product lines for Coke against the top agencies in the world, but that is nothing compared to knowing your poster is going to be sitting next to a Jeff Kleinsmith as a die-hard Melvins collector debates which print to purchase.