Taped to the Tyvek wrapping of a downtown St. John’s telephone pole, a poster that catches the eye is a successful piece of marketing. Framed on the wall of the Sprout as part of the restaurant’s latest exhibition, 50 posters created by Perfect Day Canada, a local design studio, are successful pieces of art.
It’s a perspective that posters aren’t often afforded; at one time, hanging posters on city poles was even considered an act of vandalism. But more bands and organizations are embracing the art of the poster, and turning to graphic designers and artists to make them.
“The poster can encapsulate the experience of the event that it is created for,” says Alex Pierson, drummer for the Pathological Lovers and a graphic designer. “If an audio recording is a snapshot of a song, then a poster is a snapshot of a band's career. The poster becomes a token of a memorable performance, for the music and the moment in time.”
The Perfect Day pieces at The Sprout were all hung downtown at some point, advertising theatre productions and concerts at the Arts and Culture Centre. The designs are sleek, clean and vibrantly coloured, with careful attention paid to the graphics, fonts and layout — a far cry from the D.I.Y. style of the late 1990s when then-mayor Andy Wells tried to enforce anti-postering bylaws with a $500 fine.
Geoff Younghusband, bassist for Fur Packed Action and Jigger, designed a lot of the posters on the poles in the 1990s. He has a huge collection of gig posters from that era, many of which have been scanned and used on set in the bars and strip clubs on TV’s “Republic of Doyle.”
“I actually made posters for other people’s bands before I was in a band myself,” he says. “Hardship Post was who I started making posters for, and then Bung and Lizband.”
Back then, he didn’t have the help of Photoshop or its font libraries.
“I did hands-on graphic design using Letraset and hand illustration and photocopying,” he says. “I would start with an image that I had created — I did a fair bit of photography, so I might have a print or I’d make a collage out of a magazine or I’d make a drawing — and we’d work the show idea around that image. Other times, I would make fonts for the band by stretching and breaking the Letraset or photocopying it and blowing it up.
“With my band Potbelly, I used a lot of flower imagery with sort of warpy, psychedelic imagery that played on classic ’60s posters, like for Hendrix. Fur Packed Action was a lot more coloured photocopying, tweaked images of pin-up girls and collages of pulp novel covers.”
Now, he says, the show posters are much more clean cut.
“Certainly, colour digital copying becoming affordable and the fact that everybody has a computer that can do some sort of graphic design certainly changed the game,” he says. “Before, we’d hand-letter everything and we’d have to figure out how to get it done with one-colour copies. When I started doing it in 1990, you couldn’t even get 11 by 17 inch copies done anywhere — 8.5 by 11 inch was the only choice. So when the colour thing came along, with the 11 by 17 inch copies, there was a lot of pow up on the pole.”
John Devereaux, creative director at Perfect Day Canada, says that a computer can really only get you so far.
“People think, ‘I can whip a poster together, I’ve got a computer and Photoshop,’ and some people make great posters that way,” he says. “But it’s not about the program. It’s about what you’re trying to communicate.”
And when it comes to designing that communication, with software or without, there are few set guidelines to help.
“A poster is just a super simple idea to promote a show,” says Devereaux. “It’s got to be visually appealing so that somebody actually looks at it, and it’s got to be well designed and well thought out, so they read it in the right order. It needs to broadcast a clear message, in the least amount of time possible, to the largest audience possible.”
“The poster, as a tool, is designed to catch the eye of passers-by,” adds Pierson. “It is competing amidst all the distraction and noise of the street, to the point where it resembles the other street signs: large type, and a central graphic set against bright colours. The poster must communicate its story, clearly and memorably, over long distances in an astoundingly short amount of time, and it has to look cool while doing it.”
And therein lies the art, Pierson and Devereaux say.
“With our posters, we might use a nice big, graphic image, or sometimes just type,” Devereaux says. “Something that doesn’t look like it’s been done before, and something that might portray what the contents are about. For example, the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra designs we did always have some kind of musical theme.”
A designer can work with the aesthetic of the band or the show, and they can also work against it. New York graphic artist Mike Joyce’s much-lauded “Swissted” project takes old black and white photocopied punk rock gig posters and redesigns in the Swiss minimalist tradition, which uses blocks of colour, prominent fonts, clean lines and simple geometric shapes.
Jud Haynes, a St. John’s graphic designer, has been attracting national attention for his album covers and poster designs, which use both illustration and graphic design elements. Haynes often uses soft colours and hand-drawn text. He’s designed posters for The Shins, the Polaris Music Prize, and the Wolfe Island Music Festival.
The kinds of bands and festivals that Haynes designs for often sell prints of their posters and silkscreen the artwork onto shirts, and the artist winds up being just as important as the music they create images for. He has a listing on gigposters.com, a site that archives thousands of well-known gig and theatre poster designers’ work. “It’s an entirely different pressure, because advertising the event is only a small part of it,” he says. “It becomes more about creating something that someone loves enough to hang in their home.”
But the posters, he says, still have to communicate a sense of the band or the event, and their music. “I usually only do them for bands that I’m a huge fan of,” says Haynes. “Then I have pretty good understanding of where they want to be positioned and I can come up with a cool idea that would look amazing and represent both me and the band.”
Just as Haynes’ designs reflect the band or event behind the design, as well as his own artistic sensibility, Perfect Day’s posters carry an unmistakable signature. So, too, do Jacob Rolfe’s posters for the Idlers and illustrator Jose Gonzalez’s intricately and exuberantly drawn posters for the Skylarks.
“The ideas are usually really personal,” says Gonzalez. “At the beginning, I was really playing around and I used distorted images of the musicians playing, but then it started to be more about me and stuff that I see around me. I think anything that can be creative and interesting can make you stop for 30 seconds or a minute at the pole and check out the poster.” That signature works both ways: a band or organization also becomes recognizable by the art they use.
“If you think about certain bands that have kept the same look and feel going throughout their careers, if someone sees something to that style, they know right away who it’s for,” says Devereaux. “For example, with Duane Andrews’ last three albums, we used a paper cut-out style because his craft is so hand done and unique.”
Despite the ease of setting up a free Facebook event for a show, none of the designers feel that the show poster is going anywhere but up — on the poles.
“The combination of nice visual, music you enjoy, a unique piece of artwork — it’s a win-win-win situation,” says Devereaux. “There will always be that unique moment when some kid looks over at a poster on a telephone pole and finds out that the band they’ve always wanted to see is coming to their town.”
The Perfect Day Canada poster exhibition at The Sprout, on Duckworth Street, ends Feb. 9.
To see more poster art, and other work, visit