Go to your next job interview in jammies. I dare you. The lesson you’ll learn: Our society judges books by their covers. In the same way, badly designed promotional materials say one thing to a prospective ticket buyer: We are amateurs who don’t know what we’re doing. Please just stay home and watch “Lost.” The Realpolitik is that marketing matters to you. Lots.

The sole purpose of the graphic design part of branding (the two are not synonymous, though your visual identity makes up a good amount of your brand) is to make it look like you know what you’re doing. For as much pseudophilosophy the word “branding” inspires in marketing circles, it really just means, “It looks like we have our shit together.”

Make it look like you should be treated seriously.

To whomever sees your postcard, make it look like they owe you the price of two tickets.

Some basic rules before you even start thinking about design

Spend money on a photographer and graphic designer. If you only have money for one, spend it on the photographer and make friends with a graphic designer. If you don’t have money for either, ummmm... find it, borrow it, trade it or barter it. The end result will be stark.

Trust your photographer and designer. When your car’s getting a tune-up, do you insist on looking over your mechanic’s shoulder, directing every move? If you do, you need to chill. If you don’t, extend the same professional courtesy to your graphics people. Defer to the professional opinion. Don’t get into a big aesthetics battle over the postcard.

I recommend hiring professionals because, alas, the result of non-designers doing design work is often... well...:

Example 1

That’s my interpretation of the Standard Minnesota Small-Theater Marketing Campaign. Now if you’re thinking to yourself, “Well, that looks nice. I don’t see anything wrong with that. Maybe Graydon would come if you sent him one,” write to me so that I may stage a personal intervention. Stop hurting theater. Because when you hurt theater, you hurt yourself, and everyone who loves theater, too.

If, however, your first reaction was to wince from the postcard’s lack of focus, inconsistent language or general ugliness, congratulations: You’re on your way to making better promotional materials for yourself! Yay!

So this is how to fix it.

Some rules if you’re designing stuff yourself

Create a sense of anticipation and action. You’re trying to sell your show, not explain it. This postcard is trying to spoon-feed the viewer information. Instead, demonstrate the feeling the show will give your audience. Make them want to keep the card, read the other side, and get in car and come.

If you don’t have a good photo, don’t use a photo. Good typography can go a long way. But, really, nine times out of ten, you’ll want a kick-ass photo. This photo is “meh” at best—though it provides some interesting raw material to work with. But you'll need a steady hand at Photoshop to extract something worthwhile.

Don’t use clip art. It’s tacky.

Unused space gives a sense of sophistication. If you make text as big as possible and cram in a bunch of unneeded information and leave no white space, you make the piece clunky. The more open space and the more space you leave for a photograph, the more your show will be perceived as polished.

Imply information. Our pretend production takes place at Minneapolis Theatre Garage. We have the address on there. Do you need to remind people that the Minneapolis Theatre Garage is in Minneapolis which is in Minnesota? No, you don’t. Does your audience need the ZIP code to drive there? Never. And it’s safe to assume your audience assumes doors open an hour beforehand and that a Web address after the word “tickets” means you can buy tickets (or at least make reservations) online.

Only use one font, maybe two. And if you use two fonts, use one serif font and one sans-serif font. Anything more than that looks cluttered, like a letterpress barfed.

Don’t use the same font you would for a spreadsheet, or for an invitation to an 8-year-old girl’s slumber party. Times New Roman is overused and has no personality. Comic Sans is an abomination. Arial, Verdana, Georgia, and Tahoma are optimized for screen use and were never meant for print. Invest the $30 or whatever for something stylin’ from MyFonts.com.

Check your spelling and be consistent. It’s “p.m.” versus “pm.” Both are correct, but it looks dumb to mix them on one card.

So, following those rules, Standard Minnesota Small-Theater Marketing Campaign could turn into this:

Example 2

This is a nice, straightforward, good, solid postcard, something people would expect from a production of Titus: bloody, dark and gothified. The information is arranged into a heirarchy and the piece telegraphs a clear, unambiguous statement about the show—and about the people doing it. It says, “Ooh, look at how dark this is going to be! And I bet the sound cues don’t have hisses in them. Grab your Fringe button, Ma, we’re a-goin’ to the thee-ater!”

But it’s also nothing new for Titus. So what if the show you’re doing is challenging, unfamiliar, unpredictable?

Example 3

What does this say the other two don't... and how’d we get it to say it?

Why dance postcards are all the same even when the shows are completely different (a lament)

Every last dance postcard I’ve seen in the last, say, six month is the same: wishy-washy colors, white or black background, flowing gowns, flesh, sternly vapid expressions, Helvetica or swirly font. More importantly, they’re all excrusiatingly boring. Left to decide from among promo materials, I honestly cannot tell one from the next. The designs lifelessly echo one another so much that, if there was a leather-bound version of Swan Lake that was set to dance remixes (and I will pay handsomely for someone to make that happen), this is probably what I’d get in the mail:

Example 4

Beautiful, sure, but dreary. I do not fault dance companies, however. Soft-core nudity on a puce background is what dance’s principal audience expects. People who go to dance regularly want to be sold flowing gowns and inoffensive colors and strong lines. Just like people who go to comedy expect big eyes, goofy smirks, and bold red type. And people who go to drama (like our Titus postcard above) expect clean, graphic stoicism. And if you’re doing a dance show that really is all flowing gowns and puce, by all means, put that on your postcard and I hope you make a kajillion dollars. But I’m not going to spend 40 bucks and two hours trapped in a Minnesota-dance-company-as-Calvin Klein-ad show.

There is good money to be had in serving up heaping helpings of the familiar. But art is sometimes riskier than that. Not always, mind you, but when artists take risks, they shouldn’t apologize for it. And they shouldn’t try to hide their edge from their prospective ticket buyers. It’s healthy to have a little contempt for your audience, but don’t lie to them for God’s sake.

When I see a standard-issue, quotidian postcard from a company that I know is innovative, I get a little sad. They’re doing their work a disservice. By trying to be something they’re not, they’re simultaneously keeping people who might be interested away and, too, they’re setting the wrong expectations for the people who do show up. In trying to appeal to the common denominator (which isn’t always lowest, I must say), they’re stripping their show of personality from the get-go.

Everyone’s going to leave disappointed.

But if I received this:

Example 5

Then I’d know I was in for something I’d like. Swan Lake? FUCK YES, COUNT ME IN. But such a postcard may be unlikely to move a standard theater-goer, like John Middleton’s Nancy (though my experience is that Nancy is considerably more open-minded than people assume off the bat). Who do you want in your seats? Who will love you best? When you identify that, then, the real question becomes: What is that person’s shiny object, the kind of thing that gives them a strong enough emotional response that they tack it up on their fridge and, insha’Allah, spend money on the show?

(HINT: If someone you know looks at this last card and their first reaction is something like, “The final E in ‘lake’ is cut off,” never—NEVER—let that person be a part of any design discussion. Such literalism is best left for proofreading the program.)

Ask these questions next time you sit down to make your promotional materials. The last thought that should cross your mind is, “Should we do green this time since we did blue last time?” 

Photos used under Creative Commons license from Flickr users Julio Enriquez (Titus Andronics), Al aka pintofeggs (Swan Like, peach) and Clearly Ambiguous (Swan Lake, orange).