Bart van Lieshout

Poster design

November 2011

Every concert needs an audience to make the next program financially possible.

Designing a poster is a treat. Posters are little graphical challenges, competing for the attention of the by-passer with commercial billboards, well-lit storefronts and not to mention whatever is on the mind of the by-passer as the poster moves into his field of vision.
A poster should clearly appeal to the audience it is meant for. Using pictures of naked women will attract attention no doubt, but will not fill the seats of a classical concert. And a poster is not only a graphical element that should appeal and attract attention, it contains vital information to be absorbed by whoever looks at it. This information is usually extensive. Try writing down all the text on your favorite poster on a piece of paper and you will find out that the poster designer did a good job concealing the size of the amount of data he was feeding you.

Poster design is fun! It forces the mind to bridge hobbies and challenges me to try to capture the essence of a much loved musical composition in a worthy graphical counterpart. I have never had any education in graphic design, so my choices are purely driven by personal taste and feeling and in no way backed up by any theory or schooling on the subject. Nevertheless, I love to order the information in clear and coherent blocks, shuffle them around until they seem to make sense and fiddle with their font until the type face and the selected image coexist on the page in a logical and appealing composition.

It is hard work to produce a poster. Especially when there is no series your design has to blend in to, no template to start with. But it is the digital equivalence of a blank sheet of paper that never fails to motivate me. I will try to illuminate the search for an image, the information architecture and the different graphical choices I made for the first poster I made for the choir I started a couple of years ago.

Poster for the Johannes Passion – J. S. Bach

There is a large number of performances to choose form every year. Both the Matthäus Passion and the Johannes Passion (st Matthew Passion and the st John Passion) by J.S. Bach are very popular here in the Netherlands. All concerts take place in the weeks leading up to eastern, so competition is fierce, not only with all other Johannes Passions, but also with all the Matthäus Passions – traditionally the more popular of the two. To stiffen the competition even further, there are performances by both professional and amateur ensembles.
A catchy poster should help to distinguish your performance from everything else that is on offer in this tight cultural arena. Most professional ensembles reach large audiences through season brochures, advertisement in the cultural hot spots where they perform etc. The no-budget amateurs have to be creative to catch the eye and attention from their potential concert audience.

Finding the right visual

So how do you create a catchy poster on a non existent budget? First step is to select an image that will carry your message and does the attention-attraction trick. Finding a great and powerful image that somehow relates to the Johannes Passion and has the potential to use for a poster layout was on top of my list.
After scrutinizing images from crucifixion scenes from different styles, painters and levels of abstraction I had settles on a rather famous 17th century crucifixion by Velasquez to use as the base for my poster design. By incidence I stumbled upon an impressive scene by Caravaggio, picturing Christ being tied to a column receiving a beating. The atmosphere of action and torment appealed instantly. Unlike what most cd-covers suggest, both passions tell in great detail about the mocking of Christ and the trial-like proceedings that precede his iconic death. The dramatic quality of the Caravaggio suddenly made much more sense than the rather serene atmosphere of the man-on-the-cross static postures I had reviewed so far.

Since I was aiming for a poster in portrait format (that means the heights surpasses the width), I set out to find an alternative for the Caravaggio that would emit the same energy and drama. So I returned to the image search tools on the amazing fabulous interweb. Just imagine going to a library to find something like that, amids volumes of paintings organized by artist or century or something of similar uselessness…

Searching for the right image Crucifixion by Velasquez (left), The flagellation of Christ by Caravaggio, Christ mocked by a soldier by Carl Block

My search ended on the site of the Hope Gallery – a venue I never heard of. But fortunately the search engine was in on all the secrets of their collection. And this collection contains a rather stunning piece by Carl Block (1880). It shows a frontall view of Jesus, complete with a crown of thorns on his head and the serene looks we’re so used to from his depictions. Left of the Jesus figure is a rather cruel looking creature with a twisted face who seems to be in control of the physical situation and gives the whole piece a rather sour twist. This mean looking soldier figure was a perfect embodiment of the hateful and cruel atmosphere displayed in some of the key choruses in Bach’s Johannes Passion.

Block’s powerful scene grabbed my attention immediately, even displayed at thumbnail size it stood out from the crowd of pictures presented by the search engine. The perfect characteristic for a poster!

The information design

A poster design does not stop at finding the right image. There is a lot of text that needs to be communicated, from the title of the performance, to where you can buy tickets, what they cost, who will be singing the solos and so forth. Anyone who ever bothered to try to make a poster can tell you that the amount of information is massive. When you type it out, it covers the better part of a page, but on the poster you want it all to disappear into the graphics to allow maximum attention to the one or two words the poster is all about: what are you selling and when?
First step is to organize the information in accordance to importance. I always try to cluster information on posters into blocks that can be placed on different graphical locations, making sure the when, what where en who information is represented in an orderly fashion. Some blocks are more important then others, and most blocks have an internal hierarchy as well.

Finding the balance between the image and the text is the real juice of poster design. I usually try to pick one title for the poster and organize everything for maximum attention on this title. If we are performing many equally important pieces, I try to figure what word will attract most attention, or will trigger most potential visitors. In the poster for May the 13th for example, I choose to make “Mozart” the most important (while the actual musical highlight of the concert was probably the little known Heiligmesse from Haydn). Many people seem to know who and what Mozart is and it explains perfectly the fact that this poster is advertising a concert of classical music.

For the Johannes Passion poster there were no such dilemmas. The title was clear, as was the importance of advertising the date of the concert. People will make the decision whether or not they are interested in the event based on these two pieces of information, I reconned. Who will sing the solo, where can I buy a ticked and who is financing this event is secondary information that will become available when taking a closer look.
So I started with typing the title “Johannes Passion” over Blocks image in a contrasting color and a font as large as I dared. After increasing the font twice, it became clear that to actually connect the text to the drama of the displayed scene, a rather direct and cruel connection with the villain in the painting gave the best effect. I studied the composition of the form of the letters of the word Johannes and the face of this cruel soldier – which I was beginning to like more and more while working on the poster design – to find a convincing way of connecting them rather than creating some sort of comment like text line beneath it.

The final design for the Johannes Passion poster (left) a poster design for a concert with mixed repertoire and the most recent poster design for Mozart Requiem.

Information to be incorporated in the poster design:
12 maart 20:00 uur; Maria van Jessekerk Burgwal 20, Delft; Johannes Passion; J.S. Bach; choir; Gilles Michels; Roderick Blom, evangelist; Martijn Zwitserlood, Christus; Wendy Roobol, sopraan; Carina Vinke, alt; Robert Buckland, tenor; Michiel Meijer, bas; kaarten €20,- via; boekhandel Huyser Choorstraat 1, Delft; Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds; Fonds 1818; Gemeente Delft

After some tinkering I decided to have both words on a single line, selected a type face that would interact with the plastique of the villains face, and pinned image, title, font and size. The basis of the poster was ready, and it’s composition determined what spots on the poster would be available for the rest of the information. Clearly all other information should stay well clear of the title and the dramatic center of the image. The composer is in my view connected to the piece and should be represented accordingly.

The second most visible element should be the date for the concert, on this design combined with the information on where the concert is taking place. To allow for a large font without creating a conflict with the title, I decided to place it as far from the title as possible: on the black upper right corner of the painting where it would contrast nicely.

A final piece in the graphical puzzle of a poster design is the placement of logo’s. As you can see on the three poster designs the dominant red color of the choir logo ensures it will prominently stand out in any graphic composition and therefore has to be placed in balance with the image that carries the poster. Logo, title and image together must lure the unsuspecting by-passer into looking at the poster and absorbing the information on it.

The red logo has been almost everywhere on the Block image during the design stages of this poster. But all positions on a black background would create to powerful a point. The attention would be drawn away from the Jesus figure and it’s violent companion. I considered to replace the color from Jesus’ coat with a more blue-like tint to create some contrast with the logo, but milder than the contrast of the logo on black. In the end I opted for the red-on-red option and aligned the ‘ir’ in the logo with the information on the cast and on the date information block on top of the poster.

Mozart Requiem

As you can see some of the choices I made for the Johannes Passion poster are made differently for the most recent poster design. In the end there are no hard rules as far as I’m concerned. It is of course impossible to measure the quality of a poster design by the number of attendees at the concert. You never know if they even saw the poster at all, or just came with a friend or because their daughter told them to. I think the only criterium to measure the success of a poster design is the enthusiasm of your fellow musicians for it.

My future phone

Will it still be a candy-bar with a touch screen, or could it look entirely different? And strikingly familiar at the same time perhaps.

October 2011

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