Demystifying Graphic Design: How Posters Work | Ellen Lupton | Skillshare

Demystifying Graphic Design: How Posters Work

Ellen Lupton, Curator, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Demystifying Graphic Design: How Posters Work

Ellen Lupton, Curator, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Play Speed
  • 0.5x
  • 1x (Normal)
  • 1.25x
  • 1.5x
  • 2x
12 Lessons (1h 5m)
    • 1. Introduction

    • 2. Assignment

    • 3. Tell a Story

    • 4. Activate the Diagonal

    • 5. Simplify

    • 6. Overlap

    • 7. Focus the Eye

    • 8. Assault the Surface

    • 9. Visiting Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum

    • 10. Creating a Poster

    • 11. Final Thoughts

    • 12. Learn More with Ellen Lupton

349 students are watching this class
  • --
  • Beginner level
  • Intermediate level
  • Advanced level
  • All levels
  • Beg/Int level
  • Int/Adv level

Community Generated

The level is determined by a majority opinion of students who have reviewed this class. The teacher's recommendation is shown until at least 5 student responses are collected.





About This Class

Join museum curator Ellen Lupton for a one-hour class exploring how posters work! You'll go inside New York City's Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, explore the six moves that make modern graphic design so compelling, and create a film poster of your own — a surprising and powerful homage to a cinematic masterpiece.

This course is inspired by Cooper Hewitt's 2015 book and exhibition How Posters Work, presenting works from the museum's astonishing collection of over 4,000 historic and contemporary posters. Every lesson is filled with inventive and authentic pieces from this astonishing collection, from Polish film posters to political propaganda. Ellen shows you how to tell a story, excite the eye, and use visual language to create emotional, effective design. Plus, Ellen shares her own poster design process in a hands-on design lesson. Explore the museum's collection at

This class is perfect for graphic designers, illustrators, and enthusiasts alike. All you need is a passion for design, a curious eye, and love for a visual story.


What You'll Learn

  • Introduction. People may tell you that posters are dead. They’re not — they’re all around us, telling visual stories, announcing events, and bringing ideas to life. In this class, you’ll learn graphic design as it applies to poster making by working on your own poster and exploring the poster collection from the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York.
  • Assignment. Ellen Lupton will assign you the task of making a movie poster for a film with a simple object name in its title. You’ll start by coming up with the story you want your poster to tell before moving onto iconography, simplification, overlapping, and making your poster dynamic.
  • Tell a story. When you design posters, you’re using a single frame to communicate an entire story arc. You’ll learn how to bring action into your poster through suspense, surprise, and by focusing on essential elements. “Knowing how much to put in and how much to take out,” says Ellen, is key to ensuring every piece of your poster contributes to the drama.
  • Activate the diagonal. You can add energy and motion to your 2-D design with diagonal lines. You’ll learn how angles can suggest motion and depth and how to think about taking viewers’ eyes on a journey when you’re designing graphics for your poster.
  • Simplify. You’ll learn how to represent items in their simplest forms. Whether you’re out to design book covers, billboards, or TV posters, using pared down icons can help you communicate big ideas while staying low on clutter. You’ll consider the “iconic” forms of everyday items and figure out what’s worth highlighting and what’s worth eliminating.
  • Overlap. You’ll learn how to create illusions of depth in 2-D spaces through overlap and transparency. Ellen will look at posters that employ multiple planes and collapsing design elements.
  • Focus the eye. You’ll explore various ways to use design to direct how people look at your poster, drawing inspiration from psychedelic posters of the 1960s to single-focus posters of the early 1900s. Ellen will explain how you can choose between having a single focal point and no focal points, depending on what you want viewers to pay attention to first.
  • Assault the surface. Graphic designing is an active process, and you can show that in your poster. Ellen will teach you how to transform your work into a physical artifact by transforming the making of the poster into part of its own narrative. You’ll establish the mood for your movie poster.
  • Visiting Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. You’ll take a second look at many of the posters examined earlier in this lesson and see how you can physically experience design with interactive projects.
  • Creating a poster. Now it’s time to put what you’ve learned so far to use. You’ll watch as Ellen designs her own movie poster for Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and get inside her process, from brainstorming to sketching to final product.
  • Final thoughts. Now that we’ve studied these universal principles of design, Ellen encourages you to take what you’ve learned and apply it! Through this class, you’re able to recognize the action and emotion of a movie to create a poster that accurately represents the movie’s personality.


This class is presented in collaboration with Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

Meet Your Teacher

Teacher Profile Image

Ellen Lupton

Curator, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum


I am a curator of contemporary design at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City and director of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. An author of numerous books and articles on design, I am a public-minded critic, frequent lecturer, and AIGA Gold Medalist. My book Thinking with Type is used by students, designers, and educators worldwide.

See full profile

Class Ratings

Expectations Met?
  • Exceeded!
  • Yes
  • Somewhat
  • Not really
Reviews Archive

In October 2018, we updated our review system to improve the way we collect feedback. Below are the reviews written before that update.

Your creative journey starts here.

  • Unlimited access to every class
  • Supportive online creative community
  • Learn offline with Skillshare’s app

Why Join Skillshare?

Take award-winning Skillshare Original Classes

Each class has short lessons, hands-on projects

Your membership supports Skillshare teachers

Learn From Anywhere

Take classes on the go with the Skillshare app. Stream or download to watch on the plane, the subway, or wherever you learn best.



1. Introduction: I'm Ellen Lupton. I'm a curator, writer and educator. I'm Senior Curator of design at Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City, and I'm director of the MFA in Graphic Design at MICA. I create books, and exhibitions, and lectures, and courses about graphic design. I'm excited about engaging people in the world of design thinking. This is a course about poster design, and we're going to look at amazing posters from the history of the medium, and we're going to explore them in terms of the language of visual communication, to excite the eye, to tell stories, to convert a complex image into something really powerful and compact. This is a class that you can jump in and give it a shot and discover these basic creative tools that can help you to communicate with pleasure and ease to people. So, all the posters that I'm going to show you today, come from the collection of Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. We have over 4,000 posters in our collection. So we're going to be taking a trip to the museum, and seeing some of the real stuff on the walls and the beautiful Andrew Carnegie Mansion, and we're gonna look up close at posters created by some of the great the masters of the medium. Sometimes people say, "Oh, the poster is dead, it doesn't exist anymore." If you're saying that, then your eyes aren't open because posters are everywhere. Pay attention to how they grab us, to how they bring us in to a special world, even for just a few seconds. 2. Assignment: Your project is to design a film poster. We're going to ask you to pick a movie that has a simple object name in its title. We picked out some movie titles for you to consider, but you pick what you want, pick something that you love. I'm going to do the birds, and we're going to show you how to create your poster from the very beginning of thinking about the story you want to tell, and then look at different ways to create iconography that expresses that essential emotional message that you want to get across. Then, we'll look at simplifying. We'll look at overlaps. We'll look at how to make your poster more dynamic by adding diagonals. We'll look at how you can manipulate the surface. You'll have a whole group of directions. You'll have a whole series of well-worked out sketches or proposals. From that, you can choose what excites you most to create a final piece. We really want you to share your work as you go, to ask questions of other Skillshare students, look at their work, answer their questions because the goal here is not just to create an amazing final poster but also, to develop your own design process and that's really an important outcome of this course. 3. Tell a Story: So, the first lesson is how to tell a story. Nearly, every poster has some story to tell. It could be very literal like these two posters, they have good guys and bad guys, they have illustrations that show a very clear action taking place, paired with a headline, a title. This is an amazing political poster. I want you to imagine what might be the image that goes with this great headline, Two-Headed Monster Destroys Community. You want to see it? Here it is. So, the image is a surprise, it's not what you would expect to go with that headline. Storytelling needs to be active. Right? A story is always takes place over time, and there's people doing something. These two great posters by Seymour Chwast, you can see somebody walking, somebody moving, right? And they're moving in the direction that type moves in. So, here's the peace dove, has lots of legs to show a community moving, people moving together. Here's more legs moving, making an action. This is an amazing poster for the movie Kabaret. This is a famous diagram of how stories work. So, stories begin low. They begin with the period of introducing the reader to what the challenge, what the conflict, what the goal of the story will be. Then, the action moves, so it's up, it builds energy, it reaches a peak, and then it declines. Right? And gives us an opportunity to find out what happened at the end, what was the impact of this big conflict that drove the story, is it a happy ending? A sad ending? You want to tie up those loose ends, right? At the end of the story. So, if you look at this poster of Vignelli, you'll see he'd pick that point at the very height of the triangle, the highest point of energy, that's where he leaves Fred Astaire. We know what happens next, Fred Astaire is going to come back down onto the stage, right? But as a visual storyteller, Vignelli gives us the action, right? He gives us the point of highest energy. Now, usually, when a graphic designer creates a poster, we have to tell our story in a single frame, right? We don't have multiple pictures that we can tell our story in. So, designers and illustrators have to think about, how can they represent that point of action, right? The emotional essence, the point of energy in a story, by choosing this single image. This is an amazing poster from the Spanish Civil War. The illustrator has chosen to represent the hero of our story at his point of highest energy, and that's the point of action. We don't see him bent over digging a hole, right? We see him wielding his tool like a weapon, the point of maximum energy. Some stories are much more complex. This is an amazing poster created by the US government during World War II. So, this poster has three characters. Here, we see this young boy he's the point of view, he's the character that we're supposed to identify with, right? He has these two little brother and sister. They are naive, they don't know what's about to happen, but he has the knowledge, right? He's a child, but he's looking up, and he can see what's coming. As a point of suspense in the narrative. The big Nazi swastika is overhead, right? This representing a plane, right? It's a threat, we're at this point that suspense in the story. In that action, that danger is represented indirectly through a shadow, not through a literal threat, but through this implied threat and finally, this call to action. This is another world war II poster, and there's a whole series of posters which were about getting people to shut up. So, posters like this were about preventing people from talking too much, because you could give away a secret that would cause Johnny's shipped to saying, right? The U-boats would sink his ship. So, here's a poster that tell us that story, a careless word, a needless sinking. But I want you to look at the image and think about the storytelling, and the point of action in the story, right? The terrible thing has just happened. The ship has been hit, it's burning, it's about to sink, and we are in the boat with these guys, who have escaped the ship, they're watching this terrible event unfolding before them, some of them are wounded, they're going to die. The illustrator has created this whole story, right? And there's one moment with the burning ship, and the guys in the boat, and we're in the boat with them, okay? Now, I'm going to show you a poster that tells the same story, but in a different way, and in my opinion, a much more powerful and exciting way. So, do you want to see it? There it is. All we have is the one sailor about to drown in the water, he's our point of view character, and he's looking at us, because it's our fault. That is a much more intense emotional grab to the viewer, this single moment, and he is looking right at you. This is an amazing movie poster. It's for Rosemarye's Baby. A lot of Polish poster designers were creating posters that advertise Hollywood movies, but did it in their own way, they created their own unique artwork. So Rosemary's baby was an amazing horror film about this woman Rosemary, who becomes impregnated by Satan, and gives birth at the end of the movie to the devil. The artist here chose to show this moment of personal connection between Rosemary and her baby. Here's another amazing poster. This is a theater poster. What you see here is a image of the actors in the play, assembled as they might be on the stage, but the artists hasn't just left it at that. The artist has used visual techniques to heighten that emotional message, right? The emotional drama of this picture. The challenge in creating a visual narrative is knowing how much to put in and how much to take out. You want to capture people's attention quickly. You want to make sure that there's enough their, right? To convey this emotional feeling in the sense of time and action, but you don't want to clutter your poster with unnecessary stuff that isn't part of the poster, isn't part of the story. A stage designer doesn't put a lot of stuff on the stage that doesn't contribute to the drama. The stage designer uses light, right? To focus on what we're supposed to look at, to focus on the action. Likewise, a graphic designer wants to choose imagery, and color, and contrast, and light, to focus on that inherent drama, that inherent action. So, when we look at this poster of the dad chained under the table, the composition, the blocking of the other faces, the eye contact, right? That emotional contact, all those decisions are helping us to see that this is a story about a messed up family. Dad is the guy that we want to identify with, we want to identify with his predicament. How are we going to get him freed up from under that table? So, we looked at how to tell a story, how to find that essential action at the basis of a poster. Now, we're going to look at how to focus the eye, how to bring the viewer in to that story that you're trying to tell. 4. Activate the Diagonal: The diagonal is an incredible tool for adding energy and motion to 2-dimensional design. These are some posters by E McKnight Kauffer who has an amazing American designer working in the UK in the 1920s and 1930s, these are posters he did for the telephone company. He's used the diagonal to create this really dynamic composition. This is a poster he did for tea. If we took away the angle for the type it will be super boring. That's what it looks straight. That's what it looks like with an angle and it's so much better with that angle. It really gives it energy and dynamism. Angles suggest motion, they also suggest depth and that's one of the most essential cues in linear perspective, that lines converging into space take us into space. It's part of our perception part of how we see the world. Here Kauffer is using these converging gridlines and angled shapes to take us into the space of his poster. This is an earlier poster by Kauffer which is really very conventional and he's using a technique here that landscape painters have used for centuries, which is putting a winding path in the middle of his landscape to create a place for the eye to go. Literally, a path for us to travel. As designers I think our work becomes more effective as we become more conscious of what happens when you put something on an angle or you make lines converge. As we started to notice the power, the transformation of a flat page into a experience in time and space, we become more in control of the resources of design, you become a better designer. Here's a more modern poster where Kauffer has applied the same technique. So, think of that path going through the poster as a story, a journey that the eye is taking. The motorcycle takes a trip up that roadway and that's how the diagonal introduces the sense of narrative into two-dimensional design. This is a poster by Philippe Apeloig, it was produced in the late 1980s and it's very early example of using computer software to manipulate topography to send it into space. So, he has wrapped this word Chicago into the space of this wonderful historic photograph, to create this dynamic effect of letters occupying three-dimensional cityscape. Here's a more recent poster by Philippe where he's represented the Eiffel Tower, which is a cliche image of Paris, but by rendering it in type, he's made it into something really fresh, new and original. The angle there allows him to make the tower taller as well as creating this mirage like sense of motion and emotional excitement in the poster. Designers use diagonals to create a sense of motion and a sense of depth. That motion and depth can stay on the surface, can be flat on the surface but lead the eye across the surface or it can penetrate the surface and create an illusion of depth. So, I want to bring back the subject of narrative because narrative is always about time, about something happening. The diagonal helps to introduce that element of time into two-dimensional space by creating this sense of motion, by leading the eye through a path. Taking the eye through a journey which is a kind of story or implying that the elements of the poster are in motion, like the Eiffel Tower tilting and casting a waving shadow. Sometimes parallel lines don't converge. Isometric projection is a type of architectural drawing, in which lines are all at the same angle allowing an architect to create a drawing like this one that you can actually measure in space for the distances remain the same. In a sense it's an intellectual depiction of a cube. It's a cube as we know it, not as we experience it. This can be applied the topography in wonderful ways. This is a beautiful Japanese poster where the designer essentially took a piece of typography and used it as a plan view, and then projected up these building forms from those base letters to create this beautiful city of letter forms. When we take a letter form and create a city out of it, that's a story. Those letters have been transformed into something different. Into a place that we can visit. A place that we can wander around with their eyes. You can see a similar technique in these beautiful designs where an architecture has been created again, by treating the letter form as a plan view of a building and simply projecting up some of the negative shapes at different levels to create this postmodern city scape. Here's a designed by, Mark Gowing, a contemporary designer, where he's created these letter forms that are tilting back and forth in space to spell out the name of the artist, he was depict, ed in the poster, Jonathan Jones. Again notice that the parallel lines do not converge, they all stay parallel because this is an isometric representation. Now that we've looked at how to tell stories with shape and line and color and create a sense of motion, we're going to talk about how to make a story about the poster itself, about the surface itself. 5. Simplify: Let's look at how designers simplify. How they create a core image for a poster that gets rid of a lot of unnecessary detail to create a very clear and commanding iconography. This is a series of posters by Albert Exergian. He creates these print on demand and they are fan posters for American TV shows that he has represented each of these shows in some kind of stark simple Swiss style icon. So, in each case, he has thought about this TV series and thought about what kind of object or image could exemplify the drama of that show. So, for example, MacGyver which is about a guy that makes cool machines and weapons out of everyday objects. It's just a giant paperclip. But that paperclip has this little twist in it because MacGyver has messed with it, or representing Mad Men with a glass of scotch. In each case, the object itself is represented in the simplest possible way. These are really funny to me. The Simpsons is just the shape of Bart Simpson's hairstyle. So, reducing that whole television show to this jagged line or reducing True Blood to these triangles which become Fang's. So, that very simple reduced style. So let's think about how you represent things simply. Take a look at this image. I wonder if you can guess what it is. Actually, it's a coffee cup. The scientist Stephen Palmer went around the world and asked people to draw pictures of coffee cups. Basically, they drew it looking like this. Most people have a kind of iconic image in their mind of what a coffee cup looks like. Even though we're often in real life looking down into the cup, that might be our experience, our icon in our mind is about seeing it from the side. We don't usually draw a coffee cup like this. So, as a designer, often we want to think about what is that iconic view of an object but then maybe give it a twist. Do something special with it. By way of a walk around now in the city and see how many times a coffee cup is represented iconically, the way we carry it around in our brains. Think about a light bulb. How might you represent a light bulb? It's a pretty basic object with a very familiar shape. Here is a poster by a famous Japanese designer and as a poster for an exhibition about light fixtures, inventive new exciting light fixtures. So, he used a light bulb as an icon for his poster but he did something weird, he made it black. Light bulbs we think of as being the brightest thing in the room, not the darkest thing. So, he inverted that and gives us a little bit of a surprise. All around the edge of the light bulb, you see this rainbow of colors that suggest light and suggests a sense of that black heavy thing in the middle glowing. Here's a beautiful poster with a spoon in a blob of honey or pudding dripping off the spoon. Incredibly simple in a way. It's printed in just two colors of ink and yet there's this wonderful complexity to the way the gradient creates a sense of volume and movement. So, again, if we think about narrative and we think about a poster trying to convey some kind of action, this spoon has an implied action through that piece of delicious sweet shiny stuff dripping off the edge. This is a poster with a lamp in the middle by Alexander Gelman. It is this incredibly simple stark iconic representation of a lamp and he's using it to promote a poetry reading. So, the icon is really simple and recognizable but it's a surprising connection to the meaning. What if we want to make an emotional connection? Here is a polish poster for a King Kong movie and the artist has created his own representation of King Kong, this very stark iconic outline of King Kong. But instead of having the face go dark, he gives us the eyes. That creates this emotional connection. At the end of the movie, we want King Kong to win. So, by allowing him to see us to create that emotional length to us as people, it makes the posters so much more interesting, so much more compelling. This is another polish poster, it's for the film Midnight Cowboy, highlighting his beautiful sensual mouth, but blocking his eyes. His eyes are shadowed by his cowboy hat. You may be surprised how much you can eliminate and still have your image makes sense. I mean, look at this portrait of the Midnight Cowboy and all is left is his mouth and yet we have no doubt that this is a cowboy. We've got so much information from the outline and from the subtle sense of shadow. There's a poster by Paula Scher and she's reduced her character to just his hair and right there where his eyes would be, that's where she puts the type because that's where our eyes go. Our eyes are looking to make contact with the guy's face. So, often as designers, we're looking for ways to make one element do two jobs and Paula Scher has done that beautifully here by making the eyes also be the title of the poster. Here is an amazing political poster. Here the designer has put together that image of a skull and created teeth made out of the White House. So, putting these two icons, these two very famous simple recognizable symbols together creates a very powerful image, an arresting image. Here's a poster from the 60s from the great Paris uprisings of 1968. This has become such a symbol of revolution, of uprising, of power from below right at the fist and you can almost hear this poster like pow, we're going to bam capitalism with our fist. So, using that again very recognizable icon really communicates to people. There's a poster by Seymour Chwast where instead of showing violence, he's showing these points of light and his hands holding up light, illuminating the night and suggesting peace, a kind of peaceful revolt. Here is another take on the same kind of image is by M/M Paris. Is a poster they did for the artist Liam Gillick. So, if you want to learn more about icons and the incredible richness of how they represent things with simple forms, check out Bruno Munari again. He was a master at finding very compelling boiled down graphic art to represent complex ideas. For example, look at all the faces that he made and he would make these wonderful sketches and create all kinds of variations and they all represent the human face but with a very rich range of elements. Learn to take things out. Learn to get rid of the stuff that you don't need. Apply it to your whole life but start with poster design. Get rid of the junk and stay focused on what you're trying to say. Next, we'll look at what you do with these simple elements and how you can create a magical sense of depth by overlapping image and text. 6. Overlap: Let's talk about overlap, and talk about how human perception works. So, take a look at these rectangles on the screen. They're all just floating there, they're disconnected, they take up space. These are the same rectangles, and if you're like me, and like most other people, now you see something different. Those three black squares are lining up to become a strip that passes behind the lighter ones. But once those black squares are no longer aligned, you lose the illusions, and now they're separate elements again. Graphic designers play with this all the time. There's a poster by Paul Rand, where he has two layers of type, and we read the white letters as behind the black letters. We read that overlap as an indication of depth. Here is a poster by Alexander Gelman, much more complex but same idea, and he's representing type, this printed on two layers of paper and one layer has been torn away. But because the lines of type line up, our eye connects them, and puts those planes together, right. Creates these two layers of texts and space. Here's a poster by Felix Pfaffli, and he's created these enormous tall condensed letter forms that are jammed together onto the surface and they're weaving in and out of each other, moving in front, moving behind. Again they create the subtle sense of depth within the two-dimensional image. Here's another poster by Felix Pfaffli, where he's showing you sheets of paper that have been glued on top of each other, and then torn away, and we get this sense of depth. Even though it's actually flat, it's all done digitally because those blue stripes lineup, it connects as one plane, and we read that as a plane in space. Here's just one bar right by itself. Now, here's another one running through it. This is transparency, and now we have the sense of these two elements occupying the same space, beautiful magical tool of transparency, and designers do a lot with this. This is a famous poster by Massimo Vignelli, where the ink is literally transparent, and that transparent ink prints on top of itself to create these beautiful overlaps where the color is more intense. There's a poster by Michael Bierut, where he's taken these two words, and collapses them into a single plane, and created the effect of light of illumination, again using software to create the appearance of these two overlapping words occupying the same space, so amazing, so beautiful. Here's a poster by Eric Nitsche, a Swiss graphic designer, and he's created this sense of these two paths of the airplane passing through each other, again through transparency. Here's a transparency effect created, not with transparent ink, but with transparent patterns. All the elements appear to occupy the same plane, and so we have to pull it apart one from the other through color and shadow so that we can read the word open as separate from the word air, for example. So, as you work with depth and transparency, it's helpful to think about how many planes, how much complexity are you trying to create? Here, Paul Rand, gives us just three planes: the background, the foreground, the middle ground. Here Alexander Gelman gives us really three planes: the background, the middle ground, and then that little block of Hebrew right on the top, which becomes the closest thing to us. With transparency, again you're collapsing into a single plane that can be crazy but you still want the viewer to be able to pull apart the message. I can still read the word "knoll" here even though the letters are collapse together into a single transparent plane. I can still separate here the two words because they have a different level of intensity. Right. So, I can connect the two patterns, lighter and darker into two words: light and year. Overlaps create depth. Next, we'll look at diagonals, which also create depth and movement, movement for the eye, and movement through space. 7. Focus the Eye: Let's talk about how to focus the eye, how to create a design that shows viewers where to look. This is an amazing poster from the early 20th century by Lucien Bernhard, who invented a whole style of posters called placket steel, where they just put one thing in the middle of a poster, and you knew that that was the thing that the poster was selling. So, instead of a pretty girl typing on a typewriter, you just got the typewriter, and was a very direct brutal design style. Here you can see how Bernhard made this beautiful simple clean illustration, and the typography is also part of this focus, right? The product name, and you can see how he used outlines around his letters and this red box around the whole logo to bring the eye to that text. So, at first glance, this looks like a really simple poster, and it was radical because it was simple. But there's also still a lot of detail there, which is about bringing focus, right? Bringing emphasis to the letters and to the image in the middle of the poster. These are two war posters. The one, "Food Is A Weapon" is about not wasting your food. It's from World War II and about conserving resources. It has a single object, right? An empty plate in the middle of the poster. The artist has used light to really focus our eye on that single event. Again, if you think about the stage set and think about how a stage designer puts light at the center where the action is, that's what the illustrator has done in this image. The other poster is for the Spanish Civil War, it's a very rare poster from the 1930s. So, here you see this giant glass of clean water in the middle of the poster. Again, light is used to bring our attention, right? Like lights on the stage, bring our attention to that beautiful object at the middle of the composition. Both of these posters though have a kind of angle in them, a diagonal. So, the object isn't just sitting there static, but there's a sense of motion and a sense of movement through the poster that makes it more interesting. So, if we look at this image for example, imagine if that glass of water was just sitting straight in the poster. Well, I'll show you. It looks like this, super boring, right? Adding an angle creates this element of dynamism that really shakes up the poster and creates motion. This is a great book by Bruno Manari. He was amazing Italian designer and writer design critic and he wrote this article in the 60s called, posters with essential image, in which he makes fun of posters that look like this. He calls it the Japanese flag principle of poster design. Poster designers in the 60s were making these posters that just had one big round thing in the middle. This is a Swiss poster from the 1960s, it's for exhibition about album cover art. Instead of showing the art, the designer just put this big round album in the middle of the poster, but there still is an element of dynamism to it. Notice how the designer has dropped a central line down to the middle of the poster right through that big album, and the typography is set up on either side of that center line, and that creates a dynamic asymmetry. So, even though the poster seems at first glance very static, right? Very controlled by that giant round thing in the middle, there's still this element of dynamic very modern typographic design. Here's one of my favorite posters, it's by Felix Pfaffli, who is a young Swiss graphic designer working now. This is a poster he did for the band, "Future Island" and his poster has a big round thing in the middle, but it's empty, right? So, instead of being a solid disc, or a solid symbol, or icon, it's just a big hazy void, right? And the typography is forced to wrap around that, and you get the sense of that, that void is eating away at the middle of the poster. Sometimes designers don't want to focus your eye, and there some amazing examples from design history of posters that make you crazy, posters that don't give you one place to look. So, these are some really famous psychedelic posters from the 1960s. You can see how the artist has used vibrating colors, right? Colors that are very close in value to create this optical sensation to make it hard for your eye to know where to look. You can see that here with this flame shaped lettering that is swirling and writhing across the surface of the poster, we don't know where to look. These are two contemporary designs which feature topography very prominently, but the letter forms are in this swirling crazy space where it's actually quite hard to read them. This is Michiel Schuurman's exhibition poster, and you can see here how he's made letters out of hundreds of these 3D spheres, and creating this very restless hard to look at environment. Okay. But you can also see that Schuurman has put bubbles around that little text right in the middle of the poster so that we can't see it, and that's a technique a little bit like we see on Bernhard putting outlines and boxes around his type to draw the eye to it. So, it's really important as a designer to think about, where do you want people to look? Do you have a single most important element? Do you have an anchor point? Do you want to create a single focal point? Do you want to bring people in to the center? Do you want to bring them to one strong message? Or do you want to create a more complex optical experience? Both of them are great ideas, great strategies for a designer. Most posters do take that more focused and purposeful route. But really for you creatively, it's important to decide which end of the spectrum do you want to be on? Because often the really boring posters the designer hasn't really made up his or her mind about which way to be, right? They just have a lot of stuff competing for your attention without a real point to it. One of the ways to create focus is to simplify your imagery, and that's what we'll talk about next. 8. Assault the Surface: Design is an active process of making. Sometimes we can add narrative to our piece by narrating the making of the work, by doing stuff to the surface, by transforming the elements that we're working with to create another kind of narrative, another kind of story. This is a famous poster by Saul Bass, the great film title designer and corporate identity designer. This is a poster he made for the movie Exodus in 1961. What he wanted to do was, make it look like the poster itself was on fire. So, he designed a poster, but then he submitted that image to another narrative, a narrative of burning. He ended up using this imagery for the film titles and for all the marketing materials around the movie. It became this very identifiable signature. Here is a poster where the designer has put this kind of violent paint swashes across the bottom of the poster to suggest a kind of assault or graffiti. You come in close and you see that, the designer has allowed the sprockets of the film to show. So, the designer wants us to see the poster as a physical artifact, as something that's been made, and that the making of the poster is part of the story, it's part of the narrative. This is done in a more graphic or pop way where the artist has created this sense of dripping, where this big red square in the back of the poster is melting into the space below. It's a movie about vampires, so the poster is bleeding out. It was bleeding out of itself, into the whitespace. Here is a poster that uses graffiti and spray paint to create this complex layered space, and to create this sense of something raw happening on top of a very polished digital image. That contrast between the perfect and imperfect, the digital and the handmade, is a wonderful piece of conflict, emotional conflict, visual conflict, for designers to work with. That again, adds this kind of narrative tension to your work. In this poster we have a sense of a wall that's been painted over, and the designer has given us this texture. We can see through that texture to what's behind it, but then there's this very clean cool image superimposed on top, which again creates conflict between the perfect and the imperfect. Right? We can see the whole that's very clean, but we come in close and that surface has a story to tell. Here the designer has taken letters and stretch them. It looks like it's stretched on a xerox machine, or pulled apart physically, and that becomes a kind of story. The subject is in between and our eye is drawn to that gooey stretchy, sort of tracks that the letters make as they're pulled apart, as that space between becomes the hero of the poster. Or here the letter forms have been smudged, and that gives us a sense of time. Right? Of something that's happened. The letters make a track, they leave evidence of themselves on the page. That's really what gives this poster it's emotional power. It's that sense of the letters being part of some kind of action. Or here this photo montage, where the act of cutting the image creates a kind of action, a kind of violence to the image. So, the poster by itself feels very serene and static, but by cutting through the figure's face and putting the text there, we get this sense of action and narrative. Finally, this poster takes a very kind of traditional art historical image, but cuts it up into pieces to create this sense of violence, this erotic sense of violence. By adding that red ink to the face. Again, we have a sense of of something bad happening, right? Something explosive and negative. So, simply by taking apart a conventional image and adding jags and space and fragmentation to it, we get a different emotional impact than we would get from simply the image by itself. So, designers think about what kind of mood they want to create. Do they want a harsh violent mood? Do they want a fast, noisy mood? Do they want something to feel soft, taking place over time? Adding these kinds of actions can be done in a very deliberate way to help build that mood. Is it hard or soft? Is it gentle or quick? Is it sudden or did it happened a million years ago? So, try to think deliberately and intentionally about what you want to do with action. So, these effects can be physical. You can literally splashed paint on your poster, or they can be purely graphic. They can be done entirely with digital tools. You can imply motion. You can use real materials and reduce the real gesture of the hand into your work, or you can use digital techniques to stretch, and manipulate, and distort. But what we're looking for here is the sense of action, of something happening to the visual materials of the piece. That's another form of narrative, it's this narrative of making. When you go this route, you have to prepare yourself for failure. Not everything is going to work. Not every experiment will bear fruit. You run over your poster with the Big Mac truck, it may be ruined forever. So, this is a risky business. Go have an adventure. Try it and see what happens. Part of the pleasure is not knowing quite what will happen. 9. Visiting Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum: Hi, welcome to the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. We are here at the Historic Andrew Carnegie mansion where our museum is located. I'm really excited to walk through the exhibition with you and show you some of the great pieces that we have on view. These are posters inspired by psychedelic, music and by graffiti where designers are really making a mess visually. Where they're crowding the whole surface with color, shape, line, and images. They try to actually get you like inside somebody's brain, kind of like crazy thought process of this artist. So, this really great interactive piece, shows you design in relation to your body. So, everything that's designed is actually created for human beings to interact with physically. So, this interactive piece invites you to make a gesture and then it finds an object from our collection that shows you how somebody has created an artifact that responds to your body in that way. So, here is like a teapot. I love how graphic designers can take a really simple image, but by cutting it and pulling it apart, it creates this sense of again action, and emotion, and tension. So, simple taking his face and creating space, and putting the type in the middle. It's this incredible gesture that brings us into the emotional world of the image. So, this simple act of overlapping, of putting one letter in front of another, creates a sense of depth. This amazing sense of space right there on the two dimensional surface, and it can become quite complex. Where you really have to work with your eye and make the connection of letters on different layers, different planes. So, it can go from simple to complex, and yet it's the same idea. It's this magic, this power of overlapping and putting one thing in front of another to create a sense of space. So, we're used to seeing posters out on the street, in the subway, on phone booths, and in a magazine. We're used to seeing commercial design. It's kind of fun to come inside the museum and see these things framed and on a wall. They invite you to slow down and really look at them, and look at them as a kind of art, but it's not art, because unlike art, a poster is always trying to tell you something. Today, we mostly use digital tools, but in the past, letterpress printing which is relief, so the ink will always hit that top surface and that footprints. You'll see here that is backwards because when you put the paper on top, then that receives the print going the right way or lithographic printing which is still used today but is a flat printing process. Basically, what you do is put an image onto that flat surface that resists water and then you get the whole thing wet, and then ink it tracks to the part that has the image on it. Then you press paper on top of it that picks up the ink. With silk screen printing which a lot of people use today, and you can actually do in your own apartment if you have the right equipment. So, silkscreen is essentially a stencil, and part of the screen is blocked off and the other part allows ink to pass through it. So, as you press through the screen that creates the prints. Everyone of these media, has its own kind of aesthetic that it encourages just like Photoshop and Illustrator encourage you to work a certain way, the final print process that you use to create your work has an aesthetic to it. You can see that in poster design, how technology influences the forms that people create. These posters are made in Paris during the famous student uprisings of 1968. The students would work in their studios at night, cutting these very simple stencils and then screen printing them and the next day they would be all over the streets of Paris. You can see the simplicity of this and how the design is actually created to maximize the silkscreen process and the simplicity of creating just one path of ink. It's really fun to look at book covers because they're the same thing as a poster only they're small, but just like a poster they tell a story. They have to convey emotion. They have to connect to people in an immediate way of a very short time to see it and be interested in it. Today posters aren't just printed, they appear online, they appear on giant lit up signs on Times Square. So, designers today are taking the same principles of focus the eye, overlap, use the diagonal, make eye contact. All those ideas are still being used in other media where posters are animated, and moving, and changing over time. Here, you can see how the designer took the letter forms and distorted them digitally. So, they go into the space of the poster. They become this dynamic, three dimensional aspect of the poster, and then the whole photograph behind is also on an angle which creates a sense of the dynamic city, this great city of Chicago that built the first skyscrapers in the early 20th century. So, this poster has these giant eyes you cannot get away from it. All the posters here are looking at you. They're trying to connect with you. They are making eye contact. They are reaching out to you with this gaze, this stare you cannot escape. These posters by Massimo Danieli use the grid and make it actually part of the design. So, lots of designers use grids to organize their space. But we don't usually see it. It goes into the background, and Danieli was really famous for taking these elements of the grid and making them visible, turning them into part of what you were looking at. Designers use color, shape, form, image, and type to tell a story, lay emotion, get your attention, and you can see it all in posters. We have thousands of posters here at Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. You see them on our website, and you can come to the Museum and see our exhibition how posters work. Welcome, have fun, and do your own stuff. 10. Creating a Poster: Now we're going to actually do a project. I'm going to take you step by step through the process of creating your own movie poster. So you're going to choose a movie that you like and we want a movie with a noun in the title. Nice simple object oriented title. I'm going to do Hitchcock's The Birds. You could do Rear Window, Blue Velvet. There's all kinds of movies and we've provided you with the list. But the idea is to choose one where you can focus on this kind of very simple singular image. The first thing we're going to want to do is some warm up research. So obviously, you're going to want to watch the film. To spend a little time soaking up the movie and figuring out what its big idea is. Then the next thing that I recommend that you do and which I did is, I made a kind of verbal brainstorm. I made a whole list of nouns related to my movie crow, predator, swarm, beak, claw and then I made a whole list of verbs because I really want our posters to be active and to convey some kind of action around the film. So attack, swarm, overwhelm, crowd, invade. We're going to spend a little time just, thinking about which of these really excite me, like this word swarm, that's a noun and a verb. So I like that because that seems like a very active idea. Scratching, that seems important. Bird cage, I'm interested in that as a kind of image. The next thing I want to do is really think about what is the main action of this film. So for the birds, the main action is these birds attack civilization. It's like a terrorist uprising of nature against man. The next thing I want you to think about is what is the main emotion of your movie? So there's action, right, what happens, but what kind of emotion is this movie trying to stir in people and how can you in your poster design try to stir that emotion too? So, for the birds, the emotion is really-this idea of menace and menace lurking in everyday things. Even we want to do some visual research to begin, Google searches are really helpful because you plug in a word and you kind of instantly feel like what is the cliche l, like what automatically comes up? Now you have immersed yourself in the movie and the ideas and the emotion and the action. Now you want to do some really loose sketches to get your own ideas. It's really important to sketch by hand because these sketches are casual. They're not a big investment. You're not already committing to fonts and you're not worrying about how well you draw, how you're going to come up with these illustrations. So, I made a bunch of sketches and I like some of them, some of them are really bad. I'm definitely not going to do that. I like some of these ideas. I feel like I have a lot I can work with here. So I picked this idea. This is like a really cute bird. But this cute bird has a worm in his mouth, like this bird is a predator. This bird is a killer. I have to think like well how am I going to represent this little guy? Sometimes it's fun to make sketches with paper because you get a different kind of line. I made a vector drawing based on this guy. Then I started to put that into a poster. It's okay. I don't think it really conveys the menace that I'm looking for but it's kind of the start. So I found this engraving that I like and I thought this engraving conveys again birds as kind of friendly sweet animals. But I want to put those wicked worms in their mouths and make it ominous. So, I did that and this guy made the worms. I actually made them with ink. They have this really natural flow to them which is kind of nice. So you can draw things by hand. But it's nice to draw things other ways too and see how, well, if you want to make a fluid line, make it with fluid. So I made my worms by playing with ink. So, this is a sketch that I like and now I'm thinking about the principles that we've been talking about like focus the eye. I want to make a little town around the image that kind of brings our attention and also gives that background a little bit of presence, right. So, I sort the surface. But here are some of the other idea like who's with the bird cage. I like the idea of this bird cage as a kind of image of domestic life where that these birds are taking over society there. This assault on civilization to this bird cage that shaped like a house. I think that's kind of a neat idea to work with. I definitely want my bird cage to have more of an ominous feeling to it. So this is like the sketch that I made initially and I could make a beautiful vector drawing of that but I actually like the hard sort of harsh feeling of it. I'm going to make a very rough kind of image of my bird cage. Again, my ink is really fun to work with. So I get to make an ink drawing. just with brush and ink. I really think the line quality is really nice and conveys again the emotional feeling that I want. So, here's a sketch. I have that bird cage image there and I have scanned the image as a bitmap. So here's kind of a basic design. It has a lot of diagonals in it naturally but I'm looking at my type and thinking that would be kind of nice to have the type have a little bit of a diagonal to it. I want like what's going to happen? Where's the action? I need some birds. I need some bird action. So, I made this drawing of a bird so to represent it just as ink dots, ink slots that become a kind of abstract representation of a swarm of birds. Again, if I scanned this drawing as a bitmap very high resolution, and because I've scanned that as a bitmap, I can change the color of that image. So, I'm going to change it to white and now it separates from the cage which is really exciting. I'm working in design. I really enjoy that. I like how easy it is to make new pages, to create very quickly variations of one design. You can do the same thing in illustrator with multiple art boards whatever you're comfortable with. Then I can play with it and in design and so my birds are white against that red background. I think that looks pretty cool. I think like what if I put the type inside the bird cage? I think that's interesting. I then added this gradient sort of the idea of the sun setting. So, adding a simple gradient is a way to create a sense of time and motion and change in a two dimensional image. So, here's another idea I had. I found this great engraving from a 19th century magazine with lots of birds in it. To me that conveys more the sense of personality and these birds as individuals but the birds are scary in the movie because there are so many of them. So I find this kind of ominous and I put the type here in this little box which is kind of elegant and scientific. So yeah. There's my Burchett's splat. I think that's kind of neat. What if I put the type right in that splat? Yeah. Now I like that. Now it all kind of goes together. I have that focus the eye, write that splat becomes this frame for the title of a movie and it's action, right. It's a surface, it's something active, something physical in the poster. So, that's three different ideas and that's something I'd like you to try with your project. Just come up with three ideas and really work through them all. See if you can find three that you really like. I really like this bird cage shape like a house as a kind of metaphor for what the movie is all about. It's really almost an ecological movie. It's really about the birds fighting back against human beings. So I like this idea of this kind of domestic cage. Okay so, if you're thinking about the type, you'll see I put in the name of the movie and the director and that's really the bare minimum. If you wanted to look more like a real commercial movie poster, it's endless. You can put the stars and the producer and the company that made the whole thing, whatever you want to put on there. But at the bare minimum, we want the title of the movie and the director. So, I'm going to take my three favorite results of this exercise. I'm going to post them in the gallery to share with all of you and I'd love to have you do the same. So, work up some ideas, really take them to their limit and then put the best stuff up there. It's really nice to see a range of solutions to one problem. Share your sketches, if you want to share your sketches. If you're working completely by hand, take a photograph of your poster. But we really love to see what you have and have a chance for everybody to comment on your work and to learn from what you did. 11. Final Thoughts: Thank you so much for doing this with me, I had so much fun. We went to the museum, we looked at real posters on view at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, and then we studied these universal principles of design: focus the eye, overlap, activate the diagonal, tell a story, that's what it's all about. Then, we look step by step how you can make your own poster, find the action of a movie, find the emotion of the movie, and create some simple clear assets, simplify. Play with them, see what you can do to create your own poster and share them with us. We really want to see the work that you do. Find the action, find the emotion of the movie, and see how you can make it real in your poster. 12. Learn More with Ellen Lupton: