creative juice

how posters work


Posters are plastered everywhere—in shop windows, bus and subway stations, hallways, and just about anywhere with blank wall space. But what makes one poster grab your attention over another? It’s the mark of good design that makes you look, and keeps your focus on the text and images.

An exhibition from Cooper Hewitt explains how implementing various techniques can make your posters memorable.

“Featuring more than 125 works from Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s permanent collection, the exhibition “How Posters Work” shows how dozens of different designers—from prominent pioneers like Herbert Matter, Paul Rand, Philippe Apeloig and M/M (Paris), to lesser-known makers—have mobilized principles of composition, perception and storytelling to convey ideas and construct experiences. On view at Cooper Hewitt from May 8 through Jan. 24, 2016, the exhibition is organized by Ellen Lupton, senior curator of contemporary design at Cooper Hewitt.”

Check out the highlights here:
Poster highlights

Take a look at all the posters in the exhibition:

How Posters Work

The exhibition is divided into 14 categories; each one highlighting a principle of poster composition (Cooper Hewitt):

  1. Focus the eye One of the most basic ways designers make a viewer take notice is to make the image big and put it in the middle of a space.
  2. Overwhelm the eye Engage the viewer in an optical experience and lead the eye on a restless journey by incorporating dense patterns, wandering lines and competing colors.
  3. Use text as image Typography is often used to enhance or obscure a message through the size, style and arrangement of letters.
  4. Overlap The most basic technique for simulating depth is to overlap two or more elements, as seen in Paul Rand’s classic 1951 poster “Dada,” which creates a rudimentary sensation of depth as black letters float in front of white ones.
  5. Cut and paste Splitting images apart and combining bits and pieces to create new meaning is central to the design process.
  6. Assault the surface Designers may bend, burn, melt and vandalize the image to unlock its power.
  7. Simplify Simplify an image in order to direct attention to a message or product.
  8. Tell a story Visual narratives inspire viewers to ask, “What just happened?” or “What will happen next?”
  9. Amplify Use arresting images and provocative language to communicate the urgency of a message.
  10. Double the meaning Create humor and tension, by building multiple meanings into a single image.
  11. Manipulate scale Exaggerate scale differences in order to amplify the illusion of depth or create visual tension among the elements of a composition.
  12. Activate the diagonal Diagonals help the eye cut across the surface and penetrate its depths.
  13. Make eye contact Graphic designers intuitively grasp the emotional draw of eye contact and the human brain responds to images of eyes, even when they are hidden or distorted.
  14. Make a system Design a system of colors and forms to create a recognizable identity and address spatial relationships among visual elements.

To read more about the exhibit and the posters featured, follow this link:

The exhibit is also accompanied by a 224-page catalog by museum curator, Ellen Lupton. Get your copy here:


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