Behind the Scenes at the DAM

4 Surprising Things About Creativity I Learned from Poster Designers*

One recent morning, I woke up and started scrolling down my Twitter feed (don't judge) and ran across four posts in a row that were titled something like "top 10 things to...", "5 ways to...", and "the 20 most popular," and I felt annoyed. Why? Because I clicked on them all. There's just something so alluring about the promise of knowing everything you could possibly want to know in just a few little bits of info, right?

Fast forward to the next day. I spent the morning Skyping with poster artists in the exhibition, Drawn to Action. This exhibition ranks among my favorites of all time. It is a smallish exhibition of posters that were designed to address issues that have to do with war and peace, the environment, politics, and human rights. So as I was saying, I had the pleasure of Skyping with Luba Lukova, Woody Pirtle, and Lanny Sommese; three of the poster designers* that have work in the exhibition. Each one of them, on their own, had really powerful things to say about their creative process, how they make design decisions, and what they think makes good work. Each of them had their own take on things, and each of their posters are wholly unique.

But when you see their posters side-by-side, you begin to realize just how much they have in common visually. Each poster is designed to grab your attention, to be timeless, and to be easily understood all while delivering a real punch. So, over the video sessions, I asked them all about this. And guess what, four common themes emerged. Of course these tid bits were shared in the context of a conversation about poster design, but I suppose they can apply to different areas of your life's work as well. So without further ado, the top four things poster designers* taught me.

1. Do your homework. Find out all you can about a topic or issue. Steep yourself in it, soak up all that you can about it. What words, sayings, and images are associated with it? What are the core issues? As the poster designers say, you have to know what you're working with in order to create something that really speaks to the issue.

2. The answer is in the problem. A well-defined challenge or problem will tell you what success looks like. Spend the time to describe your challenge and then look for solutions that address the constraints of the problem directly. The designers all talk about this and strongly feel that the solutions are there in front of you.

3. Less is more. You've heard it before and these designers say it again. Choose your words for punch, your images for impact, and your colors to evoke. Keep it direct and to the point and don't be afraid of tried and true symbols, classic sayings, or recognizable emotive design elements.

4. Don't try so hard. This one is harder than it seems, right? When you are immersed in a challenge and passionate about the solution, it's tough not to overthink things. The designers agree, but over their years of experience all of them said in one way or another, keep it simple, don't try so hard. If you're creating a message about poverty and nutrition, select images that make sense. The nutrition label, the nutrition information, a human face with an open mouth in the shape of a country struggling with such issues.

*Not all of them refer to themselves as designers. Some don't care about having a label, others like the term, "artist" or "image maker" and still others think of themselves as illustrators. Check out the videos in the gallery or on our YouTube channel to see them discuss this and many other topics.

Lindsey Housel is the manager of digital engagement programs and master teacher for architecture, design, and graphics in the education department. Lindsey has been at the DAM since 2002 and her two favorite exhibitions that have been on view here are Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective and the photography exhibition Robert Benjamin: Notes on a Quiet Life.