01 February 2018

Subtle, gaudy, and bold

Last week, I showed a sweet poster from Desi Quintans. Desi added a great question in his email that I thought deserved its own blog post:

I noticed that the posters that did well in real life were made with strong, almost gaudy colours. In particular, the ones with very large blocks of strong colour were quickly noticed compared to the understated ones like mine. How can one walk the line between elegant design and the reality of grabbing a person's attention in a room that's already visually and aurally noisy?

Let’s look as Desi’s poster again, just for context. Click to enlarge!

Desi calls this poster “understated,” which is an apt description. As I wrote last week, I like this power a lot, but I think Desi’s description is apt. You might also call it subtle. What are the characteristics that give it that look? (Click to enlarge.)

A lot has to do with the colour scheme. There are a lot of earthy tones, particularly up in the title. Even when using primary colours in the graphs, they are not saturated, intense colours.

The typography is a straighforward sans serif. It’s very readable, but there is nothing distinctive about it. Indeed, that is the point of many book typefaces: they are supposed to fade away so that you can focus on reading.

Now let’s consider what looks gaudy. Something like one of those unsolicited flyers you get in your mailbox would count:

The choice of colours contributes to the feeling of cheap. These are bright, primary colours that are hard to ignore.

But it’s not just bright colours. It’s the business of it all. There are so many things on the page! There are a lot of fonts, in a lot of sizes and colours.

This is one of the major factors that make so many academic posters look gaudy: too much stuff, too small, too crammed.

There’s the sense that everything on the page is screaming, “Look at me!” 

But the lesson from the above is not, “No bright colours.” Lots of great movie posters and magazine covers mastered the art of being bold without being gaudy, with no loss of their ability to command attention.

This movie poster has lots of bright blocks of colours, high contrast black and white shapes. But it looks classy, not gaudy.

A bold design has focus. It tries to do a few things, not everything.

Bold designs don’t necessarily use a gold font. There may not be a lot of words in such a design, but they can be set in typefaces that are exaggerated in some way. It could be narrow font, a cursive font, a wide font, an italic font, or an engraved font.

Bold designs use lots of space. There is no compulsion to fill every inch of the page with something.

Some designs mix elements styles. Here’s a movie I can’t wait to see:

And here is an alternate design:

The posters for The Shape of Water are both very subtle in their use of colour: the palette is limited, and the contrast is low. But it is also bold in how it focuses on a single, striking image.

Your poster should be bold, not gaudy. This means that you need to edit. You need to find, as much as possible, a strong image that can represent the major point you want to make. You need to give that image space around it to breathe.

Related posts

Critique: Bugs and beans

External links

The hand drawn journey of the ‘Shape of Water’ poster
Gaudy vs. Glam: Guide to Wearing costume Jewelry without looking tacky

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