10 Tips On Creating Killer Gig Posters

Editor’s Note: This post was originally written in April 2013 by 2014 HOW Poster Design Awards judge John Foster. Read more about Foster here.

My devotion to gig posters is far from a secret (from both volumes of New Masters of Poster Design, to 1000 Indie Posters, and all the way back to Maximum Page Design) but it goes further than my writing. Creating these short-run screenprints for my college band, as well as friend’s groups, I have been designing them for more than 20 years. We didn’t call them gig posters back then, and we didn’t have a worldwide community to alert us to other like-minded souls, or to push and pull our creativity. Spurred on by the papering bans in cities like Seattle, and the explosion of the internet, a small scene began to grow, connecting three to four mavericks in each town with co-conspirators nationwide.

Eventually, they would all meet face to face at the first Flatstock. The formation of the American Poster Institute, taking Flatstock all over the globe, and most acutely, the poster nerd playground that is the excellent gigposters.com, meant that more and more people were exposed to the joys of the poster world. As more people were exposed, more people wanted to get in the game. As with most things design-based, it’s often 51% talent, and 49% knowledge. So, while I can’t provide the tipping point, I can give you a great head start on the other side of the equation. Old hands might even read on and find an inspiring moment or six. Let’s get started!

Tips for Creating Killer Gig Posters

1. Paper is Your Friend (and Co-conspirator)

In the ever-expanding digital age, one of the great appeals of gig posters is that it’s a physically printed product that revels in its inky goodness. While we will talk about those inks in just a minute, don’t forget one of the true joys of being a print designer —specifying paper (see design resources for HOW’s Paper Mills & Suppliers List)! You might want to stick with a white, but add in some incredible tactile texture with a finish, or invert the entire process and print silver on a black sheet. This is your dream come true for the paper nerd inside you, as a single box of nearly any sheet is affordable, and all you need for a limited edition print run.

A man who only needs a clear concept, one or two inks and a lovely sheet of paper to create visual joy. Dirk Fowler uses dark sheets and metallic inks like the master that he is. Dirk Fowler, Lubbock, TX; f2-design.com

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2. Challenge Yourself to Try New Techniques in Imagery

Never illustrated before? First day with a new camera? Collage always seemed like fun, but too daunting? You love clean fonts but yearn to take a crack at some hand-scrawled type? What better opportunity than a project that demands cutting edge design and only has a very small limited edition print run based around a one-time only event? Push yourself! You will be rewarded.

Already a dazzling designer, one of the most amazing things to watch over the past year or so has been Zach Hobbs’ surprising and sudden exploration into radical collage, attacking and pushing his work to new heights. Zach Hobbs, Chicago, IL; weareyoungmonster.com

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3. Challenge Yourself to Try New Techniques in Production

Limited runs mean that the financial implications of experimentation are lessened greatly. Now is the time to take a risk or two on the production side, without a multi-million dollar corporation over your should wondering if this is going to work or not. Mix in a spot varnish, split fountain, tweak the opacity of your ink and just experiment in general and take away lessons learned for your other clients and projects.

Few things delight me like the playful under, and over, printing on the posters by The Little Friends of Printmaking. JW and Melissa Buchanan, Milwaukee, WI; thelittlefriendsofprintmaking.com

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4. Typography ALWAYS Matters

While I have already impressed upon you the desire to create meaningful and challenging imagery, don’t ever forget that a successful poster depends on the typography that comes with it. Readability depends on the artist and their audience. Don’t forget that a lot of these posters are intended as merchandise, as opposed to items to promote the show before it happens. So you can take chances, but you had better bring your big league typographer game because the gig poster field is field of gig posters filled with the most amazing designers working with type today.

Nate Duval always shows how vital typography is, in very different ways, on all of his posters. Nate Duval, Longmeadow, MA; nateduval.com

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5. Would You Hang This On Your Wall?

This is the hardest thing to quantify, but there is no escaping that a gigposter is expected to be cool (aren’t all band and music posters, after all?). Cool enough to be the only piece of art on your wall. Cool enough to let everyone that walks in to the room know a little about you and your tastes. This is the rule of gigposter law. If you wouldn’t hang up your own poster (not that you should actually do that – what are you, some kind of raging egomaniac? Haha!) then you are doing it wrong.

One of my favorite duos is Jeff Kleinsmith and Jesse LeDoux, because their styles are so different, yet both create infinitely cool work that I could cover 100 walls with. Jeff Kleinsmith and Jesse LeDoux, Seattle, WA

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6. Take Full Advantage of The Joys of Screenprinting or Letterpress

Using admittedly rougher printing techniques than big commercial presses bring with it a litany of quirks and shortcomings, so the only way to truly enjoy screenprinting and letterpress is to fully embrace the things they can do that no other process offers and celebrate and shine a spotlight on those quirks. No two screenprints are ever truly the same. Hand-pulled means that ink won’t ever quite distribute the same way, and colors blend and lay over one another in different ways. Under-printing is something workable to a fascinating extent in screenprinting. You like a rough texture, or silk smooth curves? Depending on how you set it up and do your pulls you can have it all. You want to change a letter on a poster in a different spot on every print? Letterpress can make it happen. One of my favorite printing stories ever was when Hammerpress told me that they started the next letterpress poster they designed with the last piece that went on the press for the print before it, something only possible with letterpress. Love it.

1000% letterpress. All day. Every day. That is just how Hammerpress, winner of HOW’s 2009 Poster Design Awards rolls. Brady Vest, Kansas City, MO; hammerpress.net

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7. Whenever You Are Stuck for Ideas, Use a Giant Head

World renowned designer and illustrator Dave Plunkert once said this to me half in jest as to how he removed creative blocks, but there is a great deal of truth to it. Posters allow for faces, illustrated or half-toned, to be manipulated and be shown larger than they naturally are, making a huge impact, and creating a magical funhouse mirror for the viewer to look back upon. We love to look in the mirror.

Few have mastered the crazy giant head like Aesthetic Apparatus. They are more “eye” men these days, but I always love it when they veer in this direction. Dan Ibarra and Michael Byzewski, Minneapolis, MN; aestheticapparatus.com

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8. Listen to the Band You Are Designing a Poster for

Sounds simple, but you can easily see when a designer has abandoned the studying part of the job. Your poster can reference a lyric in a beloved song, or exist as an abstract piece of art, but it needs to appeal to the audience for the band to have any worth. These are the people who you want to buy your print to frame and cherish it forever. Respect that and they will respect your work.

Methane have produced seemingly hundreds of posters for Dave Matthews Band over the past year, every one unique, and every one directed straight at the heart of his audience. Robert Lee and Mark McDevitt, Atlanta, GA; methanestudios.com

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9. Follow A Few Simple Ethical Rules (We Will All Benefit)

Many young (and old) designers jump into the gigposter game because they love music and enjoy testing their skills in the cutting edge margins of the design industry. Too often, their enthusiasm blurs the fact that the same legal and ethical obligations apply to these projects. A final output of 50 prints, compared to 5 million cans of soda, just changes the scale, not the rules. Here is the easy part; just remember that if you are selling prints without permission, it competes with the merchandise sales of your favorite band, taking money directly out of their hands.

The first thing you need to do is make sure that you have been hired or have permission from either the band, or their management, or the venue and/or promoter. This very simple premise seems to elude far too many designers. If you do not have this, you are essentially just making fan art. If you try to sell this work, you are essentially moving bootleg merchandise, something despised by all corners of the entertainment industry. Once you have all of these permissions locked in, make sure you do not sell your prints online until after the show has occurred. The other issue is that, in the desperate rush to make cool posters, the lines between appropriation and theft get pretty blurry. The absolute worst thing you could ever do is steal from your fellow gigposter designers, people in this game for the love of music, much like what brought you here, with only the tiniest compensation, and their creative exposure through their work to sustain them. Respect this and you will do fine.

They left the gigposter game for the art world last year, but no studio walked it like they talked over the last decade in the way that Seripop did. Yannick Desranleau and Chloe Lum, Montreal, Quebec; seripop.com

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10. Now, One Last Tip — Ignore Everything I’ve Said (Except The Ethics Part) and Shock The World

u7725My number one rule for enjoying a gigposter is seeing something that I never, in a million years, could have produced. Insanely experimental work, to simple rudimentary drawings, they come from singular talents, so pure in their vision that it glitters in spotlight. They solve visual problems using parts of their brain that I am not even sure that I have. I. Am. Amazed. Now get out there and amaze me.

No studio consistently blows my mind like the sweetest couple in the business, Sonnenzimmer. Nick Butcher and Nadine Nakanishi, Chicago; sonnenzimmer.com

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Now that you are properly inspired and informed, I hope you start making magic on paper. Follow a few rules, break a few others, and have fun! The gigposter community is an incredible place that will give you back as much love as you put in, and I, personally, can not wait to see what you create next.


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