Long Live The Gig Poster
Back in March 2003, I played my first ever gig. My band—a four-piece jazz crew—got paid one-hundred dollars to perform at some run down club, and while it might not have been the best venue, to my recollection, I couldn't have had a more exhilarating time. Years later, though, I couldn't tell you who else was in that band, what songs we played, or what the name of that dingy club was. There is, however, one thing about that show that will stay etched in my mind, beyond the thrill of being on stage for the very first time—the amazing poster my friend created to advertise our performance.
I didn't know it at the time, but I'd later come to learn that the piece of art that made such a profound impression on me was called a "gig poster," and there was an entire following dedicated specifically to this unique combination of expression and promotion. I was instantaneously immersed, learning more about what made a poster effective and taking note of what the greatest practitioners of the art were doing.
Flash forward more than a decade and I find myself asking, "what the hell happened?" I won't point to any specific examples, and I won't go so far as to say there are no good posters nowadays (there are still plenty of dedicated artists putting out good work). I'm not even claiming that every poster from years past was a winner. I've noticed a trend on the regional level, though, of embarrassingly bad posters (the kind that wouldn't even make the grade in an elementary school art class) being passed off as the norm.
You know the type. Low-quality photos, lazy logos, and a slew of (bad) font choices thrown together so haphazardly that you can't tell glean a single iota of useful information from them, let alone get excited about the upcoming show. I'm not sure if the proliferation of pirated copies of Photoshop is to blame, or if bands just stopped caring about whether their posters look like garbage, but enough is enough.
If you want people to get hyped for shows, you've at least got to give them a poster that draws out some emotion. It's time to start taking pride in the art form again, and there are four main points you'll have to keep in mind when trying to craft that next killer design.
You're Designing For Print, Not The Web
Posters, believe it or not, are made to be printed. That means you'll have to adapt your design to the print format. There are already plenty of great guides on the web about what you should do and what you shouldn't do, but here's a rundown of some of the best practices:
- High Quality Is A Must: Print files are supposed to be big. At minimum, we're talking about PDFs at 300 DPI with no compression. High quality image reproduction, however, means that whatever images you've woven into your design must also be of a similar size. Those tiny cellphone pictures, snapshots of a "cool" drawing you saw, and substandard JPGs you pulled off the internet are not going to cut it.
- Watch Your Colors: There's a chance that you won't get laughed out of the print shop if you roll up with an RGB file, but trust me, they'll at least talk about you behind your back later on. It's not that difficult; start your design in CMYK, or at least convert it once you're done laying everything out.
- Watch The Bleed: Do you want to have elements that run up to the edge of the page? Then you'll need to set up a bleed to keep them from getting chopped to hell when the printer goes to trim your posters. Check beforehand so you know how much room you'll need to give the guys at the shop; they'll be more than happy to provide you with a long list of specifications.
- Proofread: You can't fix a mistake once your posters have been printed without doing a whole new run. That costs money, money you could be spending on producing extra merchandise or buying new gear. Give your poster the once over before rushing to print 5,000 copies to avoid paying for a simple mistake.
- Print With A Pro: Unless you've got a shop-quality printer sitting in your home office, you'll want to seek out some professional assistance when getting your posters done. They've got the high-end presses, the fancy paper, and everything else required to make your poster come to life in print form.
You Have To Create Visual Interest Without Sacrificing Readability
One of the biggest gripes against the current crop of bad posters is that they are visually unappealing. For example, five (low resolution) band logos strewn at random across the page over a hideous clipart background. Really? What's worse, some novices have taken to cramming unnecessary amounts of tiny text onto their designs, making them that much more aggravating to look at. Here's the solution—lead with a strong image. Ask yourself, "would I proudly display this in my home?" If the answer is no, then it's back to the drawing board.
When it comes to arranging information on your page, keep it concise, make it large and easy to read, and space it out properly to create that vaunted visual appeal. Size and layout are crucial components to bringing a poster together, so be sure that you know the size of your image area beforehand, and plan your layout to maximize the use of your design space.
Typography Has Always Been Important, And Will Always Be Important
I mentioned it earlier—posters with poor font selection. I'm not talking about fancy fonts (gig posters are intended to double as merchandise, so artistic font choices are par for the course). I'm talking about boring typefaces that are better suited for a term paper than a band promotional—Arial, Courier, Times Roman, etc. Stop using these on your posters and download some better fonts. Plenty of them are free, and the ones that aren't only cost a few dollars to use. You can even create your own fonts if you've got the time and the skill.
Make sure that whatever you select, it complements the feel of the show and the bands in attendance, and it fits in with the imagery you've selected for your design. In some cases, you can give your poster the purely typographical treatment, but you have to bring your A-game. Since you won't have an image catching the eye, you have to use your font selection and layout to create all the visual interest.
Enough With The Crappy Photographs
I'm not railing against using photographs in general here. I'm a photographer myself, and freely admit that with the right treatments, photographs can do a lot to enhance a poster. Low resolution photographs and boring band shots, however, need to go. They don't show up well in print, and oftentimes, they just aren't dynamic. That cellphone photo of your crew staring blankly at the camera after a show? Lame. The "professional" shot of you guys putting on your "serious musician faces" in the studio? Also lame. Don't get me started on using dime-a-dozen stock imagery in your design.
Ideally, you'll have an original illustration you can use as your dominant image. If you can't draw, call up a friend who can, or (gasp) hire a pro to do it for you. If you do have a photograph you really want to put in your poster, make sure it's big, and work it into the design so that it feels organic. Just slapping it on the page makes it feel out of place, but the right tweaks will allow it to integrate into your artistic tapestry seamlessly.
Now Go Forth And Create
I can already hear the excuses. "This is all we had time for," or, "it's the best we could do." Nonsense. If you're going to be in a band, make the effort to do things the right way. Don't have the skills to pull it off yourself? That's fair—now hire someone who does. If you don't know any good designers, drop me a line and I'll put you in touch with one. You owe it to your band and your fans to make sure everything with your name on it is a quality effort. Get it together, take pride in your work, and long live the gig poster.