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Demystifying Graphic Design: How Posters Work

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Join museum curator Ellen Lupton for a one-hour class exploring how posters work! You'll go inside New York City's Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, explore the six moves that make modern graphic design so compelling, and create a film poster of your own — a surprising and powerful homage to a cinematic masterpiece.

This course is inspired by Cooper Hewitt's 2015 book and exhibition How Posters Work, presenting works from the museum's astonishing collection of over 4,000 historic and contemporary posters. Every lesson is filled with inventive and authentic pieces from this astonishing collection, from Polish film posters to political propaganda. Ellen shows you how to tell a story, excite the eye, and use visual language to create emotional, effective design. Plus, Ellen shares her own poster design process in a hands-on design lesson. Explore the museum's collection at

This class is perfect for graphic designers, illustrators, and enthusiasts alike. All you need is a passion for design, a curious eye, and love for a visual story.


What You'll Learn

  • Introduction. People may tell you that posters are dead. They’re not — they’re all around us, telling visual stories, announcing events, and bringing ideas to life. In this class, you’ll learn graphic design as it applies to poster making by working on your own poster and exploring the poster collection from the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York.

  • Assignment. Ellen Lupton will assign you the task of making a movie poster for a film with a simple object name in its title. You’ll start by coming up with the story you want your poster to tell before moving onto iconography, simplification, overlapping, and making your poster dynamic.

  • Tell a story. When youdesign posters, you’re using a single frame to communicate an entire story arc. You’ll learn how to bring action into your poster through suspense, surprise, and by focusing on essential elements. “Knowing how much to put in and how much to take out,” says Ellen, is key to ensuring every piece of your poster contributes to the drama.

  • Activate the diagonal. You can add energy and motion to your 2-D design with diagonal lines. You’ll learn how angles can suggest motion and depth and how to think about taking viewers’ eyes on a journey when you’re designing graphics for your poster.

  • Simplify. You’ll learn how to represent items in their simplest forms. Whether you’re out to design book covers, billboards, or TV posters, using pared down icons can help you communicate big ideas while staying low on clutter. You’ll consider the “iconic” forms of everyday items and figure out what’s worth highlighting and what’s worth eliminating.

  • Overlap. You’ll learn how to create illusions of depth in 2-D spaces through overlap and transparency. Ellen will look at posters that employ multiple planes and collapsing design elements.

  • Focus the eye. You’ll explore various ways to use design to direct how people look at your poster, drawing inspiration from psychedelic posters of the 1960s to single-focus posters of the early 1900s. Ellen will explain how you can choose between having a single focal point and no focal points, depending on what you want viewers to pay attention to first.

  • Assault the surface. Graphic designing is an active process, and you can show that in your poster. Ellen will teach you how to transform your work into a physical artifact by transforming the making of the poster into part of its own narrative. You’ll establish the mood for your movie poster.

  • Visiting Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. You’ll take a second look at many of the posters examined earlier in this lesson and see how you can physically experience design with interactive projects.

  • Creating a poster. Now it’s time to put what you’ve learned so far to use. You’ll watch as Ellen designs her own movie poster for Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and get inside her process, from brainstorming to sketching to final product.

  • Final thoughts. Now that we’ve studied these universal principles of design, Ellen encourages you to take what you’ve learned and apply it! Through this class, you’re able to recognize the action and emotion of a movie to create a poster that accurately represents the movie’s personality.


This class is presented in collaboration with Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

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Demystifying Graphic Design: How Posters Work
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