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Exciting new thoughts on visual language

I'm being glib, but honestly I do find this very interesting and the scope for development exciting.

My Summer poster campaign, the creation of which I spoke about on this blog, has gone up in shops in the last few weeks and seeing it in situ has prompted some questions and lines of thought for me, As ever there are some shops who fail to use the posters very effectively, but I tend to read that as a little bit my problem. Because I'm a designer, my job is not to create art that other people work around, but solutions to problems; square pegs to fit square holes.

You can't make an image foolproof. This challenge is always going to rely on the people combining what I do into the wider context of a display to have their own visual nous. But I've realised that while I've thought I was doing all I could to make sure these posters work in situ, I was being a bit wrong-headed about that.

I've always known that one of the inherent formatting restrictions to creating posters is that all essential information has to be in the top half - really the top third - of the poster. Any copy featured has to sit above the halfway line, the illustration should have points of interest up there too. This is because in all but the tallest windows, books get stacked in front of the posters like this.

Now to be fair, my posters as they already are could have been incoorperated much better into these displays. The wooden blocks and books could have been moved so books were sitting in front of empty space instead of hiding the figures so much, and so forth. The window dresser could have done a better job of picking up on the colour and vibe of the posters that are forming the backdrop and created more cohesive, less crowded and confusing, displays.

But at the same time, I've failed to take something into account in these posters: I've only thought about what is in the top half as a secondary, not a primary, priority. I've tried to make sure there's something going on up at the top, but not worried about how that top part actually gets framed by its situation. These posters are a good example of that. There's Stuff in the top half but it doesn't form a nice grouping, it falls apart into random elements without the context of the whole poster being visible. Covering the bottom of the posters mean the viewer's focal point shifts upwards and, oh hey, right onto an area of empty background (on both Adult's and Children's posters). Damn.

I shouldn't be treating this area of secondary concern to the whole poster looking good, something just to tick the boxes on, I should be designing this area first and treating the bottom half of the poster as largely irrelevant.

And the thing is, I've done this thinking once before: when I redesigned the Gift Card range. I decided along with my colleagues working on the project that we wanted to go with full-bleed artwork across the whole carrier and the card that sits on top of it; a single portrait image across the whole thing, but out of which the part of that artwork that sat on the card itself (which is attached on the upper half of the card) would also work in isolation. Because of course people take gift cards off the carier and put them in their wallet.

For example, I knew I wanted a card featuring a quote about the joys of reading, but in looking for a good line to use I had to make sure it also split nicely so the first clause the part on the card itself - makes sense in isolation. I had considered a Cicero quote before: 'a house without books is like a room without windows'. The problem there was that when split into two clauses, the first clause - the one that would be isolate on the card without the context of its second part - simply read 'a house without books' Not exactly a sentiment appropriate to a Waterstones gift card. But the Erasmus quote is perfect: 'when I get a little money I buy books' is perfect on a bookshop gift card without needing the second part of the bon mot ('and if any is left I buy food and clothes') to make sense.

And I've realised the posters should be operating on almost exactly the same principle. They should be designed as if the main event is the centre of the top half and the rest is noise. I've drawn templates for the posters (6040s ) and banners (6020s) accordingly:

The white boxes frame an area that should still work as a poster even if everything else is missing. And anything really important should fall within the inner purple box.

So this is where I come back to the image at the top of this post.

To test my thinking I've been sorting through my old work, mostly through the Waterstones poster stuff but also trying a few other images of mine against it, and even the odd image I didn't create.

If the text in the image isn't clear at the size, the stuff at the top are the images that work perfectly tested against this visual principle: everything important falls neatly into the white box area. The bottom row is that which doesn't work at all tested against it, And the ones in the middle are those that almost do but I get the sense could be improved for purpose by pulling them more into line with this visual principle.

And it turns out the groups match my existing 'favourite' to 'least favourite' ranking quite closely. You can't account for all the factors involved in creating something you're super happy with, and the posters that are my favourites aren't favourites just because on this one compositional point. But I am particularly interested in the middle category, which are generally posters that feel like they should be favourites, but just feel unplaceably unsatisfactory to be. Or posters that have been real favourites but I've questioned more in the time since completing them.

So I took one of these, the bus poster from Autumn 2015, and had a look at what happened when I spent an hour rearranging it very slightly so it fit the white box principle better.

The version on the left is how the version that went out looks under this microscope. It's not bad; the main detail of the illustration gets into the white box. But what fits in the box doesn't form a very pleasing composition.

The orange rectangle containing the copy (supposed to be a bill advertising on the side of the bus) needs to have all its edges inside the white box area, it looks awkward bisecting the area as it does in the original version. The reading girl, the most important detail of the illustration, could do with being brought further into the white box area. The detail that balances her in the diagonally opposite corner, the man getting onto the bus, could do with edging into the white box. The bus stop sign wants to be more comfortably inside the box too. The bus shape generally needs to shrink in a bit to frame this white box area more clearly.

And cropping down to the essential part of the illustration also highlights ways to improve the image I didn't spot when looking at the wider context of the whole poster: the original font is all wrong. The jaunty, stylised, boxy (and slightly 60s) vibe of the poster need a font with those same qualities, and one with enough weight to dominate the white box area, making the visual hierarchy clearer.

The second image isn't perfect. It's an hour's work and there are details that would need to be ironed out (e.g. the girl with the umbrella needs to not be in front of the bus's wheel; I wonder if the bus stop sign is adding or detracting etc).

And of course these kinds of principles are there to guide rather than dictate. Once I've pulled the image in this direction hard, I can compare the two and decide which merits each has - and split the difference like this third image:

So I'm excited. If I can apply this white box principle to posters I already like a good deal and end up with something I think would work even better, it's a good one to follow closely going forward.


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