Gig Poster Guru: Q&A With John Foster

By Robert Half on September 11, 2014 at 7:00am

Design annuals are full of cool and sexy gig posters for bands. How can creatives land these awesome assignments? And can you turn them into a legitimate revenue stream? We went to gig poster guru John Foster to find out.

Designer John Foster (self-portrait above) devotes much of his time to music-industry projects, including gig posters. But he's also seen piles of the best (and worst) music art from around the globe while working on a series of books about indie posters and screen printing. In this interview, Foster, principal of Bad People Good Things, shares his insights about breaking into the business and how to design gig posters that rock.

How can designers score music poster assignments?

Music, unlike say, beverage packaging, has a lot of easy entry points. The gig poster is an area in which the coolest in cutting-edge design seems to crop up again and again, and is a great place to have your talents noticed.

It's also pretty easy to find a band just starting out that you can help with their packaging, website or promotional materials, assuming you're willing to be paid in guest-list spots and a thank-you in the liner notes. Musicians without budgets and designers still building a decent portfolio are a match easily made and maximized on both sides.

If you can get your feet wet with smaller local acts working their way up, chances are you will have more freedom, learn more quickly, and gain some of the skills needed to work with a musical legend making a career-defining album down the line. Find talent in your town whose music you love and offer to help them out. That's the best place to start.

What's the biggest challenge of designing an effective music poster?


"It is always a massive honor to be included in the collection of designers creating posters for the annual Sasquatch! Music Festival," Foster says. "This one, for the band Best Coast, played up frontwoman Bethany Cosentino's love of her cat while using over- and under-printing techniques."

That's a tough question, as it needs to take into account what the final goal is for the poster, which can vary. Promotional posters are supposed to sell the record or get people to the gig, and should continue the overall feel and aesthetic of the artist. I hate to say "brand," in this case, but you get the idea. Other posters are intended to be sold at and after the show.

The goals of the first type are pretty simple: sell more records, build awareness of the artist and get people through the door to see them. That's easier said than done, but there are very clear-cut objectives and measurable results. The posters created for merchandise are much more challenging, though often more creatively rewarding for designers.

On the plus side for the designer, the expectation is that the poster will be supercool and worthy of a frame when it gets home. It also exists inside the show, only available to folks that already paid to see the artist. Thus, the typography can be as small or as large as you want and legibility of all of the details is not essential. However, these are usually printed in small editions, meaning small budgets. So the designer is often expected to produce an all-star grand slam on a Sunday beer league budget.

Are there any "rules" to designing a successful gig poster?

Again, it depends on the goal. More than anything, my only rule is to try to do something that you haven't seen before. Your poster can reference and riff on something known or a popular style from any era, but make it unique to the artist or the event.

What trends are you tired of seeing?

I am so tired of poorly executed illustration. The poster world sees way more of this than any other, as designers are often trading their services for creative freedom. My biggest pet peeve is stuff that looks like it was traced on the computer but the designer didn't know how to resolve the shadows and nuances in the graphic shapes to suit the predicament they put themselves in conceptually.

Is it better to get into creating gig posters out of respect for the bands or can you turn it into a steady revenue stream?

If you're going to do gig posters, you have to have some deep connection to the music being produced or you won't be able to relate to the band's audience. Gig poster design can be a nice stream of revenue, but I don't know anyone who is making it on that alone. The people who have really used it effectively have leveraged that work into other areas with bigger budgets, whether that is apparel, vinyl toys or other forms of packaging.

Who are some of your favorite poster artists working right now?

I love the typography of Felix Pfaffli. I never tire of the stunning work and printing techniques of Zeloot, Sonnenzimmer and The Little Friends of Printmaking. Ryan Duggan has a humorous outlook on life matched by a blunt illustration style. Seripop has moved out of posters and into fine art installations with breathtaking results.

People like Zwölf amaze me and David Plunkert still stuns me every time, as well. I love the stuff Damien Tran and Casey Deming are doing. Then, in the more traditional poster arena, you have someone like Jennifer Sterling who blows everything being done by 99.9 percent of designers in the world away.

Besides your books, what are the best resources for designers to see lots of great music posters?

Gig Posters serves as a great resource for anyone interested in music posters. It is the closest thing there is to a comprehensive overview of what is going on out there, and that is what I love about it. You get to see all of the bad with the good instead of just seeing a tightly curated look at the best of the best. The truth of the matter is that the bulk of gig poster design is kind of terrible. To me, that makes the great work even more valuable and important ­– and that's what anyone looking to enter the field should be striving for.

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