Keeping your brand current and on trend is extremely important in staying relevant in a competitive environment like the arts. Sean Dowling is a highly sort after freelance graphic designer who, over the last 6 years, helped reinvigorate the La Boite brand.

At Queensland Touring Showcase 2015, Sean presented an engaging Marketing by Design session - he discussed significant design trends, unpacked what makes good design and how to achieve cut through. Continue reading and view the presentation slides for a summary of the presentation.

What is Graphic Design?

Beyond simplistic notions of communicating a marketing message, Graphic Design is a fusion of artistic skill, psychology, sociology and semiotics applied in a deliberate, purposeful way to achieve a specific outcome.  It is not the meandering, exploratory art form of a visual artist but much more like the patient and exacting craft of a skilled tradesman.

Five Pillars of design

There are five basic tenants of Graphic Design


  • the invisible grid
  • the way your eyes move through a document
  • eyes are drawn to circles, faces


  • using the same typeface 
  • consistent formatting
  • use of colour


  • the size and placement define what you look at first, second, third… 


  • can create tension
  • can create symmetry (neatness)


  • when things are opposites in size/shape/colour it helps the hierarchy, creates meaning
  • must be strong and obvious

What is a design trend and why should I care?

Keep Calm
The Keep Calm poster is an excellent example of a trend both as a positive and negative force.  We are all aware of the meme that was spawned by the rediscovery of this wartime era British propaganda poster. We have all seen applications of this visual style in increasingly bizarre and irrelevant ways, every step getting further and further away from the original.  However, the thoughtful and deliberate application of this concept to the posters for the 2010 film The King’s Speech doesn’t feel forced. In fact it reminds us of what the original ‘Keep Calm’ poster made us feel, harkening back to an era of British ‘stiff-upper-lip-ness’.

Problems with Trends

  • Can Cause Complacency: (‘We have always done it this way’).
  • Copy cats: Work starts to look the same for completely different products (Example of Keep Calm)
  • Can Stifle Creativity:  Different becomes tantamount to ‘bad’
  • Less effective: The shoe doesn’t always fit a different foot


Positive Aspects of Trends

  • Pre-existing visual language (internet memes are a great example of this)
  • Better designers have already solved these problems (booking forms example)

How do you make people take notice?

“Keep it simple”
Think about how many things you want the viewer to read/see before they get to the ‘sell’.  In the example ‘The Man Who Couldn’t Keep His Hands Still’ (view PDF) there are four basic parts of the poster

  • The supporting quote text
  • The hero image
  • The title lockup
  • The Business (the sell)

For many organisations this doesn’t feel like it is enough to sell the work and they will want MORE incentives.  Often this can be something like a pricing offer. So that gets added too and now there is one more thing for the customer to read before they get to the part where they know to go buy a ticket. What if someone want to urge people to hurry, the classic, “RUN! Don’t walk to your nearest… blah, blah, blah”.  We this sort of message can be added too. What about some extra credits so people know who is involved in the work and thus potentially have more people interested?

So after all these extra ‘selling points’ have been added the questions should be asked:

  • “Which do you expect the viewer to look at first?”
  • “At what point did the selling become more important than the work?”
  • “Do you think that the viewer will feel at any point like you are just trying to pry open their wallets and purses rather then inform them of a quality product they would be interested in?”

“Stop shouting at your audience”
Let’s say that each element of your design adds up to 100%.  The image, the text, the booking line etc all add together in various ratios to be part of the whole.  But what if something needs to be bigger (in order to give it prominence).  The design STILL totals to 100%, not 120%...  something has got to give.  Increase the size of one thing to give it more prominence and something else needs to loose it. This is a dangerous process and knowing when to stop and how to find balance is key.  If you keep increasing the size of various elements to make them more and more prominent, to get more of the viewers attention the various elements start to become more and more like a room full of people shouting over each other to be heard.  The message gets drowned out, the actual work being sold gets obfuscated and in the end the audience just feels like the poster is bellowing at them and thus it is easy to ignore.

Some Simple things you can do

  • Develop a suite of collateral as no one thing sells a show.  Posters, flyers, press ads, billboards (if you can afford them), direct mail, e-news all work together in a coordinated way to remind people of a shows existence.
  • Sell the show first and your great, low price later.  If the show has a great price it is irrelevant if the viewer isn’t interested in the show. People don’t walk around thinking, “Geez I have this $20 in my pocket and I just wish there was something with that great low price that I could spend it on.” Capture their interest and imagination with the product, seal the deal with it’s affordability, not the other way around.
  • Just because YOU would buy a ticket doesn’t mean a member of the general public would.  Understand your bias that exists. Know that if you are an artists, or a marketing executive that you have knowledge and understanding of the work/product that is fundamentally different to members of the general public.  Advertise to THEM, not yourself. 
  • I know it’s kinda simple and obvious but we really don’t need to put ‘www’ at the beginning of web addresses anymore… the internet is pretty well understood now.
  • Stop putting your phone number on your collateral. Drive your sales and enquiries to you online presence.  The overwhelming majority of queries and bookings can be handled online. Web traffic costs practically nothing compared to the expense of having staff wasting time on calls.
  • Don’t ‘design by committee’. The more voices without a clear leader muddies and clouds the work.  Design is not a democracy, it requires vision and decisive leadership.