Even if you’re a design newbie, creating an awesome poster can be simple and fun. These 12 pro tips will help you design a poster that will turn heads.
Posters are invaluable media for generating buzz and excitement in the lead-up to an event. Whether you’re organizing a festival, conference, exhibition, or gig, an eye-catching poster design will help you to promote, push ticket sales, and give viewers a sense of the event’s atmosphere.
1. Get Started with The Right Software
Posters are the simplest of design layouts, made up of just a single printed sheet. You can create a poster using almost any software program that has the capacity to set up a design for print (i.e. allows you to work in a CMYK color mode), but some programs are better suited than others for different tasks.
Many professional designers will opt for a publishing program like Adobe InDesign to set up a poster layout. This software allows you to expertly prepare your poster for printing by setting the Intent of your document to Print, adding a bleed around the edges of your page, and giving you the flexibility to resize your poster page as required using InDesign’s Page Tool and Liquid Layout function.
However, most designers will dip into other design programs to create and edit photos and graphics. Photoshop is essential for photo editing before dropping the final result into your InDesign layout, while vector software such as Illustrator or InkScape offers more control for creating vector illustrations, logos, or more sophisticated type effects for incorporating into your design.
2. Know Your Poster Sizes
Posters come in a wide range of sizes, which varies depending on their final use — as well as the country in which they’re going to be displayed. A viewer will look at a metro poster from a greater distance than a poster pinned to a community noticeboard, so you will have to adapt the scale of elements on your design to accommodate this.
Here are just a few of the most standard US poster sizes and where they’re likely to be used:
- Poster Flyer (8.5 in x 11 in) — A small-size poster format used for street advertising and noticeboards.
- Small Poster (11 in x 17 in) — This versatile format combines two US Letter pages.
- Medium Poster (18 in x 24 in, or 19 in x 27 in) — Slightly larger formats suitable for indoor advertising.
- Large Poster (24 in x 36 in, or 27 in x 39 in) — These large sizes are often used for outdoor advertising.
- One-Sheet (27 in by 40 in) — The iconic “one sheet” is the standard movie poster size in the US, used in theaters, on bus stops, and for other outdoor advertising.
Once you’ve decided the size for your poster, get into the habit of printing out drafts or sections of your design to true size to determine whether the elements of your design are legible and have impact when viewed at an appropriate distance.
3. Create a Concept Before You Start Designing
Posters are an incredibly creative form of design, and that’s probably because there’s nowhere to hide. This single page layout, often blown up to a much larger size than other print media, is loud and proud — and on a mission to grab and hold attention.
Designing a poster can feel like a challenge because these sorts of layouts require a single strong concept to anchor the whole design and make it memorable. If the concept isn’t strong, then a viewer may overlook it or not absorb the essential details about the event. Before you even start designing your poster, you should take some time to get some concepts down on paper, and perhaps discuss your ideas with coworkers or friends. If somebody doesn’t “get” a concept straight away, it’s probably not going to translate well to a poster format.
“Concept” might be a scary word, but often it’s the simplest ideas that create the strongest poster designs. This series of posters for a TEDxCambridge event by Tank Design take the simple idea of using the “x” in the event’s name as an anchor for the whole series, creating a flexible foundation for the design that feels graphic and striking.
Interchanging photos and illustrations across the posters helps the design to feel fresh and dynamic.
4. Find a Style That Works
When you’re set on creating a poster design that feels completely unique, the word “style” can feel like a compromise. However, there are advantages to choosing a style for your design. From a design perspective, a style can give your poster project direction, helping you narrow down the possibilities for your creativity and also give your design a particular flavor that matches the event you’re promoting.
Audiences are also very receptive to styles that they’ve seen elsewhere, and tapping into a trending style can give your poster extra credibility and make it feel more relevant.
Let’s look at an example of how to channel a particular style into your poster without compromising the uniqueness of your design. This “Music Party” poster by designer Mihyun Sim taps into a vintage-inspired illustrated style that borrows from folk art and mid-century design. This nostalgic, fun style is the perfect fit for a music event.
This “Festival de Martigues” poster design by French illustrator Virginie Morgand taps into that same vintage, illustrated style, but the subject matter, layout, and details are different, adding up to a unique design that nonetheless has stylistic appeal.
5. Choose a Focal Point and Create a Visual Hierarchy
Posters are usually made up of a combination of typography and photos or illustrated graphics. This pairing of text and image could have equal balance in the layout, as in this poster design to promote UK TV channel BBC Three’s Sorry Not Sorry For Being Me season.
Alternatively, you might want to make the typography or image dominant. This poster from the same series is an acute example of using text alone on the design.
Try juggling the prominence of these different elements on your design and decide which makes for the most impactful poster. An especially strong piece of copy or eye-catching title might be the element you want highlighted — or it might be that a dramatic photo should catch the viewer’s eye.
Deciding on the level of prominence you want to give each element on your design creates a visual hierarchy on your poster, which allows viewers to take in each part of the design in an order you determined.
6. Use a Grid
It can be tempting to dive straight into putting together your poster, but by setting out a basic grid on your page, you’ll find the whole design process goes much more smoothly, and the final result will look much more professional.
A grid is a simple checkerboard structure you lay over the top of your page. It helps to determine where elements should sit on the page, as well as giving a visual order to the design by directing the viewer from point A to point B. By grouping some of your grid squares together you can create larger sections for placing the most prominent elements of your design.
Grids are very simple to use, and you can arrange them in different ways to suit different layouts. Here, designer Pablo Lacruz has created two grids for portrait and landscape versions of this concert poster, which helps both designs to feel equally organized and slick — even though the posters are very busy.
7. Use Color to Grab Attention
Once you have a concept for your poster and a basic structure in place for your layout, you can really start to get creative! One of the simplest ways to attract a viewer’s attention is to use a bold, daring color palette. Some colors are proven to be more eye-catching than others — reds, oranges and yellows are particularly effective at attracting attention.
With ’80s-inspired style experiencing a revival in design, palettes of neon brights can also look fantastic, and they lend a lit-up effect, which is guaranteed to attract attention. This collection of “Made You Look” posters by UK agency Studio—JQ is an experiment in combining vibrant colors to create posters that you simply can’t ignore, even though the layouts are largely type-based and deceptively simple.
8. Create a Sense of Atmosphere
It’s very important that posters give the viewer a taste of what the atmosphere of your event will actually be like. While images can convey a sense of this, it’s color that will best capture mood and setting in your design.
This series of designs for a night market event by designer Mary Galloway is another study in how color can conjure atmosphere. Here a background gradient dissolving from deep purples to warm yellows invites the reader to picture the event in a sunset setting.
In this design, rusty colors contrast with more somber shades of gray to make the autumnal setting of this event very clear.
9. Using a Photo? Make Eye Contact
If you want somebody to really listen to you, would you look down at the ground while you speak? Absolutely not! Direct eye contact is the most effective way to hold somebody’s attention and make sure they are receptive to your message.
Communicating a message via print media is no different, which is why choosing portrait photos in which the person is looking into the camera is a fast way to get somebody to look at your poster and pay attention to the details of your design.
When using portrait photography, it’s often more effective to keep your design very simple, making the photo the focal point of your design. This design for an exhibition poster fills the available space with a close-up portrait.
This iconic poster for Amnesty International uses a portrait photo for a very different purpose — here to emotionally connect with the viewer and make a political statement — but again, this demonstrates just how effective eye contact can be in a poster design.
10. Make Your Typography Shout
When you’re concentrating on making an image the focal point of your poster design, fine-tuning your typography can be a secondary concern. However, getting the details of your typography just right will not only ensure that the details of your event are legible (even when read from a distance) but also make a reader more receptive to your message.
These are a few failsafe typography tips to make sure your poster text is always on point:
- First of all, make sure to get your font size just right. Aim to make your header fill at least 25% of the page to ensure its readability and prominence.
- Set your title text in uppercase characters, and consider using a specially designed display font or at least a bold or heavy weight.
- Center the text on your layout or position it in the top-left corner of the page to ensure it’s the first thing a viewer’s eye lands on.
- Consider making your typography the focal point of your poster design, especially if you have a lot of important details you want to communicate to a viewer, such as place, date, ticket pricing, etc. This festival poster design by Swedish agency Snask is a great example of this approach, making colorful 3D text the main design feature of the layout.
11. Simple Can Be Strong
A fussy poster layout rarely has the same impact as an ultra-simple, pared-back design. Perhaps this is because posters are designed to grab someone’s attention when they are passing by — busy designs are quite stressful to look at, while simple designs are more memorable — and drive home the message more quickly.
If you have a strong concept for your poster, you should try and communicate this in as simple a manner as possible to do it justice. A single strong image or type heading is usually sufficient.
If you’re struggling for ideas, try using simple shapes to communicate an idea pictographically. A silhouette-based design gives you the freedom to experiment more creatively with colors and type styles, as the shape is doing much of the communication work for you. This poster for a ping pong tournament is a lovely example of doing just that — it ensures there won’t be any confusion about the event.
12. Build Anticipation With a Series
Posters don’t have to be one-off designs — a series of related designs can generate buzz and excitement in the days or weeks leading up to your event.
TV networks often employ this approach in the lead-up to a new show or season because it’s so effective at building anticipation. These Game of Thrones character posters are great examples of series poster design. Note also how the fundamental elements of the design don’t alter, with only a different image inserted in each, creating a consistent brand look for the whole series.
You can take a similar approach in your own poster designs by swapping out different images or using different color palettes. Displaying a different design in different areas of a city or putting the designs up in succession over a period of time are really effective ways to keep people interested in your event. This also works extremely well for social media campaigns, if you want to circulate your posters online.
Go Forth and Make an Awesome Poster
With these tips in mind, you should have more confidence to create effective, professional posters for your upcoming events. Because posters are such a creative media, you can really get experimental and have great fun during the design process.
For more poster inspiration check out these incredibly creative poster designs for the D&AD festival that use stock imagery, or why not discover the design secrets behind some of your favorite movie posters here?