How to write a brilliant poster in five minutes flat

Here’s how to write a poster, based on something we see on every street…

We’ve all seen them, the desperately sad home-made posters pinned to trees and lamp posts. “Lost cat. £250 reward. Call 0123 456 7890” Plus a picture of the hapless feline.

These are a perfect example of how posters should work. You get what they’re about in a nanosecond, thanks to the headline and picture. They have a totally clear call to action, the phone number. And a powerful incentive too, the reward. Instinctively the person making the poster knows what are the important things to focus on.

You see the same thing in the newsagent’s window. For Sale: Ikea Sofa £100 or nearest offer. Call 0123 123 1234. There’s a picture of the sofa and, bingo, job done.

And yet, when people become marketeers, or designers, or copywriters, they suddenly lose the ability to do posters as effective as this. They start trying to be clever or, heaven forfend, “creative”.

Suddenly we get meaningless headlines, obscure pictures, type you can’t read because it’s in capital letters or white type reversed out of a coloured background, and tiny calls to action.

So here’s my five minute guide to how to make a brilliantly effective poster.

Headline: What is this poster about?

What is it for? And who is it for? What is the single message we want the punter to INSTANTLY take away from the poster?

It’s probably not ‘about’ the name of your company, or a pun. What are you offering the passing customer who has mere moments, or less, to see it and understand it? Is it something free, is it something delicious to eat, is it a short-term special price?

Look at our lost cat posters. They all have the identical headline, everywhere in the world: LOST CAT. Or MISSING CAT. No more no less. In every nation and every language. What does that tell you about effective headlines? (Of course, if your lost cat poster goes on a wall full of other lost cat posters you might have to think slightly harder to make yours stand out.)

Picture: What is this poster about? The picture and headline should work together to instantly communicate the message you want to get to  your chosen audience. So use a simple, clear image that can be understood at a glance.

Body copy: ideally, a poster shouldn’t need any body copy. People passing in cars can’t read it, people passing on foot won’t read it. But if you must have some additional info, keep it super-short and super-easy to read. Opening times, location, price — the stuff the punter might want to know after her attention has been caught by the headline and image. Again, the Lost Cat poster at the top gives some extra info that might be useful, where the cat was last seen.

Call to action: what do you want the punter to do? Phone, go online, choose it at Tesco’s? Then tell them! Big phone number or big web address. Make it as easy as possible for them. (You won’t believe how often art directors and designers will fight to keep these “hard-sell” elements to a minimum because it spoils their beautiful design. Madness.)

It really is that easy to write a great poster. Naturally, if you’re producing a poster for something a little more nuanced than a lost cat or dog you might have to work a little harder to isolate the key message and make it stand out in a crowded marketplace. But the principles and techniques are identical. LOST CAT £250 REWARD. That’s how to write a poster!


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