We see posters everywhere, but truly remarkable ones are rare. Here, James Victore shares advice on how to bend clichés to create memorable poster designs that matter.
Design legend James Victore does not mince words. “People think graphic design is a visual art and it’s not; it’s an idea-based business and the visuals are just the teaspoon of sugar that we use to get these ideas across,” says Victore, who taught a CreativeLive course titled Bold & Fearless Poster Design.
“My own work isn’t pretty,” says the acclaimed and influential designer, author and activist. “People don’t buy my work because it matches their furniture.”
Victore is well known for his poster designs because they’re often controversial but surprisingly simple. He can twist the meaning of imagery through subtle tweaks. In fact, Victore’s first-ever poster addressed the topic of Columbus Day and it was as raw as it was thought provoking. “It’s my reaction to the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America,” Victore says. “The poster’s very simple and I used the ‘wrongest’ typeface for it on purpose.” He believed so strongly in his message that he used his rent money to print and distribute the poster all over New York City. “I wish I would have kept the eviction notices,” he says. “They are the costs of freedom to doing this job.”
Today, Victore gets paid to create posters for a range of big-name clients. It seems that simple ideas when paired with clever design will stop people in their tracks. “A poster is an opportunity to teach, to comment, to protest, and one image can say it all,” Victore says.
Creative exercises = better poster designs
Part of the charm of Victore’s posters is that he can take common clichés and bend them in unexpected directions. To stay fresh and to avoid falling into design cliché pitfalls when you’re creating posters (or anything else), Victore says you have to regularly exercise your creative muscles. And he’s long practiced what he preaches.
“I worked on commission for a greeting card company when I was just starting out,” Victore says. “If I did one card and it was accepted, I would earn $24 a quarter. But if I showed them 300 sketches on the idea of Christmas and they chose 45, then I got significantly more money,” he says.
“It was up to me to push myself and see how far I could go, and it was a personal challenge," Victore continues. “I realized the more you practice at anything, you become very good at it.”
Doing these visual push-ups, as Victore calls them, yielded big results, but it didn’t happen overnight. He draws a parallel to physical exercise, noting that you can’t just do five push-ups a day and expect to look ripped.
Victore continues to push himself. “If you give me a job today or tomorrow, I can come up with an idea pretty quickly, but I have to go out and think about it and make sure I’m not just getting lazy,” he says. “I ask myself, ‘Is this the best I got?’ I know if I really search I can find other interesting answers. To me it’s just play. It’s a huge part of what we should do. But, unfortunately, I don’t see a lot of play in work today.”
As such, Victore is a strong advocate for play both on the job and when you’re off the clock. Not sure how to play? He recommends starting with “Yesterday/Today/Tomorrow,” a game he learned as a design student, in which you create three boxes labeled Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. You begin by drawing something in one of the boxes and then fill in the other two with related images. For instance, if there’s a tree in the middle box (Today), you might draw what came before it (a seed, perhaps) and what comes after (a newspaper or a wooden bookshelf). Victore says the possibilities are endless, and the game is a great way to train your brain to think beyond the obvious.
Good design is a love note
Another thing he likes to do is a daily exchange of “coffee notes” with his wife, fellow designer Laura Victore. “In the morning I go down and make coffee, and I make a goofy little note for her,” he says. Laura frequently changes the story of the note by adding something simple to it.
“It’s this idea of play, and it goes back and forth,” he says. “I think, ‘Damn, that’s good.’ There is this constant one-upmanship and it’s really fun.” The couple now has boxes full of these coffee-themed love notes and Victore says many of them eventually show up in their work.
“We’re playing as designers and practicing little push-ups, but understanding it’s an audience of one saying, ‘I love you.’ I want all of my work to have that capability. I want everyone to have this understanding that your audience is dying for something authentic and they want to hear something real. They want to know you love them.”
“Notes are just little posters,” Victore adds. “Everything is a poster to me.”
Photo credit: John Ellis