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January 4, 2016

If you’re new to the design process or a seasoned veteran, starting to design your film’s poster can be both exhilarating and overwhelming. Whether you have 25 concepts you’d like to explore or one specific direction in mind, being concrete about what you’d like to communicate and preparing to express it to your design team will help you get the most out of the collaboration.  

Here are some key areas to explore that will help you prepare for your early conversations:

Story: What story are you trying to tell about with your film? How can you convey that in a single image viewers can absorb with a glance?
Reducing your film to a single image is no easy feat. But it’s helpful to remember that your poster doesn’t have to tell the whole story — just enough to pique a viewer’s interest, and hopefully, make them curious enough to want more. There’s no one right way to do this, and it often helps to look at a wide range of ideas in the brainstorming process. The poster can tell a story that is different than, or parallel to, your film, depending on how you decide to approach it. Posters and films are vastly different art forms, and convey different (though complementary) experiences.

Tone: Should this story be told with a particular point of view or mood?
What emotion should the poster communicate? Is it serene or full or life? Is it bold and in-your-face, or would something more subtle be appropriate? Does the film advocate change or action? Maybe it’s more complicated than that. But wherever your film falls on that spectrum, design elements can make a world of difference communicating the emotional aspects of your film. Color, contrast and typographic treatment will impact how your story is perceived.

Style: Are there any stylistic qualities of the film that should be represented in the design of the poster?
The art direction of your film can drive the art direction of your poster. The same stylistic questions you answered when making the film are relevant. Is there a particular color or color palette that stands out in your film that helps tell the story? Are there any particular styles of design or eras of history that you’d like to reference? Answering these questions will help you and your designer come up with the best plan for choosing a color palette, typography and other graphic design elements for the poster.

Audience: Who do you hope to target with your poster? Who do you hope will see the film, throughout its festival life and beyond?
It’s important to think about context for your poster design. Is this the design you hope to use throughout the film’s life, or will it will it be limited to festivals? Understanding your ultimate goal will help you identify the audience. The poster might need to be translated into different formats across print and digital platforms throughout the film’s life. Think about the different places for poster art on platforms like iTunes, Netflix, and other streaming services. You might also consider using your poster art on your website or social media platforms. If your film is picked up by a distributor, they might want input or to create an entirely new poster to position the film differently for a new phase of the project’s life.

The team: How do I choose the right designer or designers?
It’s smart to have some idea of what you’d like to get out of your poster before approaching a designer so you can work with someone who specializes in what you need. Do you need someone with ace typography and photo editing skills? Or are you looking for an illustrator who can create your poster from the ground up in a particular style? Maybe you need a Photoshop genius who can bring some magic to your film stills? Most designers aren’t specialists in every single area of design and illustration. Take a look at their portfolio, ask for recommendations and most importantly, talk to them about your project and see if you think you’re a good fit for each other.

Once you’ve selected your designer, considering the below carefully will keep communication and expectations clear:

The process: How do I give feedback?
Communicating feedback well is crucial. The instant reaction you might have of loving something or hating something isn’t as important as the reason for that reaction. Take a moment to explain what you think is successful or not successful about a particular color palette, photo selection, or part of an illustration. What does it communicate well? What’s missing? Giving specific feedback will make subsequent design rounds more successful and get you closer to your goal.

Timeline: When do you need printed posters in hand?
Logistical concerns, like your deadline and budget, can sometimes impact your poster design as much as anything. It’s not exciting, but it’s necessary part of the brainstorming process. You can have the most amazing concept in the world, but it might not work out if you’re on a tight deadline before your festival premiere. Make sure you understand what the designer can provide on the schedule and for the fee you propose, including how many different design directions he or she will be able to offer in the first round of the process, and how many rounds of revisions on a chosen direction will follow that.

The creative process

Clear communication is the key to a successful poster design process — not just about creative intent, but also about content and deadlines. The more prepared you are, the more successful you’ll be, but don’t be surprised if you if you hit some roadblocks along the way. Creative processes are challenging and subjective, and disagreements are a natural part of the process. Clearly communicating your ideas and feedback will lead you on your way to a poster your whole team is a happy with.

Theresa Berens

Theresa is Cinereach’s graphic designer. She is responsible for the company’s branding, and for the visual identities of Cinereach produced films. Prior to joining Cinereach, she was head graphic designer for the True/False Film Festival for four years, and has also worked in editorial design for several publications in New York and the Midwest. She earned her B.J. and M.A. in journalism at the University of Missouri.