The THUMP Guide to Designing Club Posters That Don't Look Terrible

Some industry experts gave us a few guidelines on how to get it right without spending loads of money.

by Kristian Dando
02 November 2016, 12:04pm

Over the years, we've seen some incredible pieces of design created in the name of club culture. Think Peter Saville's work for Factory and the Hacienda in Manchester, or the amazing posters for Ku in Ibiza in the 1980s—positively ripe with all the sexual and chemical excess of an era most of us can only access visually. The iconography of nights like Gatecrasher were as much a part of the age of the superclub as Ibizan sex shows and ponytailed billionaire DJs who lived in helicopters and drank diamonds for breakfast. Everyone's favourite designer du jour, David Rudnick, pushes boundaries—in his work for nights like Evian Christ's Trance Party, and Tiga's Turbo Records imprint—and gains admirers by the tonne. A good poster, flyer or sleeve is enticing, enriching, and ultimately extremely satisfying.

But more often than not, these things tend to a bit rubbish. Especially the posters. You know the type—limply plastered to the shutters of permanently-shut shops, or stuffed loosely into a flyer-pack stuffed into your sweaty hand as you make a heads-down dash towards the nearest taxi at the end of the night. These, largely, are an aesthetic abomination.

There's a few tropes you'll recognise—a moody looking press shot of a DJ, who's more often than not a bloke in his 40s wearing an expression like he's about to confront a neighbour over an encroaching privet. Your ear-clutching superstar'll be surrounded by naff fonts, perhaps with liberal use of 'drop shadow' effects. The real stinkers—the worst of the worst of the worst, the posters so bad they have you contemplating both just how much a rusty nail to the cornea hurts, and how much you'd miss the sight of your own mother—usually involve silhouettes of the hands of 'revellers' waving, or a glamour babe type wearing headphones, rapt in an approximation of near-orgasmic delight.

But the fact that so many club's posters leave much to be desired shouldn't be too much of a surprise. By the time your errant local promoter has spaffed their budget on the talent's fee and other wallet-sapping sundry costs, paying an agency to craft a carefully considered visual identity is usually the last thing on their mind. And if you're reimbursing a designer mate with a few cans and the promise of guest list...well, you get what you pay for.

"One of the issues is that over the years most promoters don't have huge amounts of cash and connections inthe design world—which is the reason you find that 'moody DJ' you find on posters," says Seb Marling, founder of London-based design agency Village Green, which worked with fabric on its posters and artwork from the clubs inception.

But you don't have to spend a fortune to make a club poster that bangs. To save you endless nights in front of MS Paint and a whole load of heartache, we decided to ask a few of the industry's best practitioners to put together a few guidelines on how to get it right without spending loads of money.

Work by Seb Marling

1. Look What Everyone Else Is Doing (And Do the Opposite)

Fabric got its oft-imitated-but-seldom-bettered aesthetic from giving its visual collaborators a brief to produce something outside the realms of traditional club artwork.

"One of the guiding principles for fabric was to do something far away from club culture in its approach—to approach it in an unexpected way. There was always quite a dark underbelly which runs through it—referencing folk art, surreal art, a lot of collage, mixing things up," says Marling.

It wasn't just fabric that put visuals at the forefront of things. Long-running Leeds institution Back to Basics held its first party back in 1991, and was founded on a contrary mindset which was reflected in its posters, which riffed on the punk rock music that promoter Dave Beer grew up on. "Back then, the criminal justice bill had just come in. All the nights were called things like Sunrise and had all these colourful posters—I thought I was going to be sick if I saw another", recalls Dave Beer. "So I went back to my roots and my punk rock identity. It was unlike anything else at the time."

A few years backs Basics' posters were exhibited at a gallery in Leeds, which was as much as a surprise to Beer as anyone. "Did I think I'd see them in an exhibition? Not in a billion years —it's quite flattering that people want to see them, I suppose they've become part of the culture of Leeds. Putting the art in party; that was always the whole idea."

2. Don't Be Afraid to Do It Yourself

If you're running a small scale techno event in a basement club with a guest headliner you've paid over the odds for, with you and your mates putting in the hours as support DJs, there's very little point in going about the flyer like you're booking Hakkasan in Las Vegas.

"In a way it's appropriate to keep it 'home made' and you don't want it too polished," reckons Seb Marling. "You want impact, and you want it to be memorable. Clubbing's a youth market, and people respond to what they see as 'their own'."

One long-running club night which takes the DIY aesthetic with its artwork is long-running house and techno event Just Jack in Bristol. Tom Rio is the club's co-promoter and has also been a resident for the night since the night's inception. He's also been responsible for the club's visual direction since they threw their first party in 2006, even though it was more by accident than design. "Back in the day I probably shouldn't have been doing it—the first flyer I made I had to get a copy of Photoshop off a mate. I was just into art in school, so I ended up doing the flyers," explains Tom. "We were really cheap, and we made no money so we just did them ourselves. I'd like to think they're good now, but we never had any cohesive vision. It was just our mood at the time."

Work by Tom Rio

3. Channel the Spirit of Blue Peter

Now, obviously we're not condoning this, but, it's not hard to find a hooky copy of InDesign or Photoshop and look at a few YouTube tutorials if you're so minded. But just like with sampling sound, cutting up and repurposing older material can make for incredible results, and it's easy enough to do with actual scissors and glue. It's an old-fashioned collage approach which both Dave Beer and Tom Rio have used for their posters and promo materials.

"I learned how to do it on the cheap—going through old copies of National Geographic magazine and trawling through the internet, cutting things up and playing with them until they look good," says Rio.

When Beer, a former art student, first worked on the initial posters for Basics, going digital wasn't an option. "We were physically cutting stuff up because we didn't have a computer—well, nobody did in those days," he recalls.

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4. Don't Take Yourself too Seriously

So, back to those moody press shots of scowling DJs. Seb Marling reckons that the po-faced approach is one to steer clear of. "Playfulness is always a good route to go down—taking yourself too seriously can be a turn off."

Mixing the sort of imagery you use works well too. "One week we'd do something really shocking, then something lovely the week after," says Beer. "It's all about anything that identifies you—your own footprint. As long as its provoked an emotional reaction then done the job."

Work by Dave Beer

5. Keep it Simple

The club, dates, address, price of tickets online, price of tickets on the the door, Facebook address, the Instagram details of each of the 12 support DJs: there's a lot of info to squeeze into a poster, but less really is more. As Tom Rio puts it:

"I think when you're starting out there's always a temptation to make the text massive so it can be easier to read but you learn that what's more important is to look at what draws eyes in more."

So there you have it—there's your complete guide to making a visually arresting nightclub poster which will have the punters queuing outside the door to your night and set you on a career which will culminate in your hair-raising memoirs being serialised in a tabloid newspaper and the posters being exhibited in the National Gallery as artefacts of great cultural importance. Perhaps. Just don't forget to thank us, right?

Kristian is on Twitter.

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