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  • What are posters and flyers?

  • What are the advantages of posters and flyers?

  • How to create your poster or flyer

  • A few basic tips on poster design

  • Mistakes to avoid

You're on the bus, sleepily persevering through your daily trip to work. For what seems like the thousandth time you look up at the poster from a local G.E.D. training program. "Maybe if I got my G.E.D.," you think to yourself, "I could start taking some classes at the community college and get out of this factory job?" You pull a pencil and paper out of your purse and write down the number on the poster.

You're at a coffee shop with a friend. On your way out the door, you pass by the crowded bulletin board covered with flyers about local event. Then you notice one lone, colorful flyer with a funny cartoon of a dog on it tacked to a telephone pole just outside the coffee shop. "Check this out," says your friend, stopping to read. "The Humane Society is having a battle of the bands fundraiser this Friday! Want to go?"

You're having a party for your daughter's eighth birthday. While you're cleaning up the cake crumbs and paper plates in the dining room, the kids are playing outside. You hear a commotion and go running out into the yard, where your daughter's friend Timmy is sitting on the ground looking a bit dazed but otherwise okay, with a large burn mark on the front of his t-shirt. He confesses that he took the matches you'd used to light the cake and, while playing with them in the yard, set his shirt on fire. Luckily, some of the other kids remembered the "Stop, Drop, and Roll" poster hanging in their classroom at school and helped him put the fire out right away.

These are all examples of the ways that posters and flyers can be remarkably effective in getting your message out to the public. Read on to find out how you can make and use posters and flyers as part of your organization's communications plan.

What are posters and flyers?

You probably already know what posters and flyers are: printed sheets meant to be posted in a public place or private workplace. Posters tend to be fairly large and professionally printed, and almost always feature an illustration, while flyers (also known as miniposters) are usually 8 ½" x 11" or so, might be simply photocopied or e-mailed, and often rely solely on words to get their point across. Posters and flyers are usually informational in nature. They can also be used to affirm positive behaviors or draw people to an event.

What are the advantages of posters and flyers

Posters and flyers can be displayed almost anywhere. However, places where you have a "captive audience" are the best:

  • school classrooms (particularly when you're targeting younger children)
  • examination and waiting rooms at dental and medical clinics
  • buses or other public transit
  • community service organization offices
  • community bulletin boards in markets and laundromats
  • windows of downtown businesses
  • anyplace where people will be standing in line

A good poster can have staying power for years. You probably won't want to use the exact same content for years at a time, but using a coherent theme, the same artist, or other elements to make your group's posters recognizable is a good idea. For example, posters of Uncle Sam pointing his finger and saying "I want you!" have been used as a recruitment tool for the military since World War I.

Flyers can easily be mailed to almost anyone. It's simple to fold, staple, and slap a stamp and an address label on an eye-catching flyer about an upcoming event.

Flyers are cheap. You can create a simple flyer on the computer in a few minutes, and either print the copies you need yourself or have them photocopied inexpensively (1000 for $50 or so -- compared to print advertisements and most other media, that's pretty good.)  You could also e-mail your flyer to a list of hundreds or thousands of people for free with one keystroke, and/or post it on your and others’ websites.

Flyers can be projected from the computer or photocopied onto transparencies for use as overheads. This is convenient if you're using flyers to supplement a more formal education or public awareness campaign that involves presentations.

How to create your poster or flyer

Decide on your communication objective.

While you may want to jump ahead and start working on a cool image or a catchy slogan, we can't emphasize enough how important it is to clearly identify your communication objective from the start. If you ignore this step, your entire campaign could be rendered ineffective. Take the time to define a communication objective first and foremost.

Ask "What event or benefit are we promoting?" or "What attitudes or behaviors do we want to change or promote?" This is the essence of your message (e.g., "Smoking can cause cancer," or "Breastfeeding is good for your baby").

Examine what benefits the communication objective holds for your target audience. For example, for "Breastfeeding is good for your baby," some benefits would include: breastfed babies are less likely to develop respiratory infections, childhood diabetes, and childhood lymphoma; they have fewer learning disabilities; they're 1/3 less likely to die of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome; and they have fewer ear and diarrheal infections.

Use these answers to come up with benefit statements -- the reasons why your audience should want to do whatever it is you're trying to get them to do. Make sure that your benefit statements are accurate too -- otherwise, you risk undercutting your message with false or misleading information.

Decide on your target audience.

This is essential. You will probably need to do some pretesting with that audience as well. This will help you decide how the entire message will be conveyed. Make sure your benefit statements are understandable to that audience. If a statement like "Breastfed babies are less likely to develop respiratory infections, childhood diabetes, and childhood lymphoma" is too complicated for your audience, try something like "Breastfed babies are less likely to get sick" instead.

Develop your concept.

  • Sketch out some ideas. Don't get caught up in making it look perfect at this point -- that comes much later. Just use lots of paper and let your imagination run wild.
  • Look at what you have and play with other words. Puns, double meanings, and other types of word play often work very well in poster campaigns. Try to think of ways that the visual elements of the poster or flyer could play on the words as well.
  • Let your mind make associations freely with the words, without criticizing yourself and without worrying about neatness. Get others involved with the brainstorming process. Keep in mind that whatever you come up with needs to be something that can fit well in the amount of space you have for your poster or flyer. For example, for a detailed explanation of the health benefits of breastfeeding, you might want to make up brochures instead.
  • At this point it's a good time to toss ideas around with friends. If you know anyone who's a graphics pro, here's where that person can step up to the plate. Also, check out what other groups have done.
  • Leave it for a day or two and come back to it later. Once you have it in the back of your mind, you could find the perfect idea comes to you at an unexpected time.

Consider what pictures or other graphics  you might want to use (if any).

It's not absolutely essential that your poster or flyer even have graphics. Generally, it's more important for a poster to have a graphic than for a flyer, simply because it grabs your audience's attention.

If you do decide to use a graphic, your choice of image is very important. According to Adbusters, a magazine run by a media activist organization called The Media Foundation, 70% of people only look at the graphic when viewing a print ad or poster, while 30% only read the headline. Therefore, the image you use is going to be the most important part of the process in making a poster.

Some thoughts to consider about images you might use:

  • People often respond to pictures of people like themselves engaged in the activity you want to promote or encourage. If you’re going to use that kind of image, the people involved should be people the target audience can identify with. If you want to reach African-American youth, for instance, a picture of white middle-aged adults is probably not going to grab them.
  • Celebrities – especially those who, again, the target audience can identify with – can often command attention. Think of the “Got milk?” posters with famous faces wearing white milk mustaches.
  • Bright colors leap out at viewers. One of the reasons the psychedelic posters of the sixties and seventies were so successful was their neon color scheme.
  • In most cases, the image should fit the message.  You may have a clever idea about using a picture of a flower to promote smoking cessation, but no one will understand your idea unless they stop and read your poster.  You usually have to make your message clear from the image, because that’s what people will see when they first look at your poster, and if it’s not arresting, they won’t look any further. If, on the other hand, they see that image everywhere, even if they don’t stop to read the rest, it will begin to make an impression.  Do you want them to think about flowers, or about trying to quit smoking?

Types of graphics:

Clip art is "canned" artwork designed for use in publications or web pages; using it is usually free or very inexpensive, although you may be required to credit the creator somewhere on your poster. Using clip art can save time for artists and makes art both possible and affordable for non-artists. Clip art can be purchased in cd-rom or book form, it is often packaged with computer software (Microsoft Word, for example, comes with a sizable collection of clip art images), and it can be found at a variety of web sites (see Resources at the end of this section for a list of web sites offering free clip art).

Photos can be extremely effective, but they can be cost-prohibitive. Don't use photos unless your group can afford to pay for a good photographer and quality printing to make it look right.  (On the other hand, there are literally millions of images on the web that can be used, with or – often – without permission, that might fit your needs perfectly.  It’s worth a search to see what you might turn up.)

Original artwork can also be very effective, but like photography, it can get expensive. Ask around -- it's possible that someone within your organization has artistic talent and would love to design your poster. You might think also about holding a community-wide contest, if your area offers a large enough pool of talented artists to do so.

Other graphics you might want to use include calligraphy, abstract and background designs, graphs and charts, and maps.

Write your headline and, if using any, text.

  • The headline should be short, snappy, connected somehow to the reader's life, and should affect the reader emotionally.
  • Make your case for the communication objective in the copy. Make compelling arguments and state strong facts. It's better to have one or two very strong statements than to try to rattle off a long list and risk diluting the message.
  • Decide on what type of lettering to use. Here are a handful of tips:
    • Remember, if this is a poster, it will need to be easily readable from a distance -- so big, clear lettering is the best.
    • Whenever possible, use a serif typeface for the body text -- most typography experts feel they're easier to read for most folks. A serif typeface is one in which a stroke added to the beginning or end of one of the main strokes of a letter, such as Times New Roman, Bookman Old Style, or Courier New. A sans serif typeface is simply one without serifs, generally with a straightforward, geometric appearance, such as Helvetica, Arial, or Impact. Sans serif fonts are very effective in headlines.
    • Although these days of computers and word processing might make it tempting, don’t go too crazy with the fonts -- use no more than 3 or 4 fonts at the most, and the fewer the better.  (In general, one,or at most two, is fine.)
    • If you have a lot of copy, break it up with smaller subheadings within. This keeps it from all blending together in the viewer's eye and makes it easier to read.

Lay out your final poster or flyer.

There are many different ways you can lay out your poster or flyer. Again, this is a good  time to check out posters and flyers done by other groups and to get suggestions and feedback from others.

Include your group's name, logo, address, and phone number. Your group's name and logo should be prominent enough for people to remember who it was that put this poster or flyer out. The address and phone number can be printed very small, but it should appear somewhere on the final piece.  If, in fact, there’s a number you want people to call, it should be in large type – large enough to see from a few meters away.

If you're just doing an informational flyer to send out to a mailing list, it can be done very simply and plainly, as in the example below.

It’s almost here...The Neighborhood Hunt...will begin!

Are you ready to play?

Watch for details on your doorstep next week!

Sponsored by the Eastern Whoville Neighborhood Alliance

Questions? Call Rakim at 555-9876

Later in this section, you'll find some more tips on poster design and mistakes to avoid.

Circulate drafts and get feedback from others.

Be sure to have several other people -- including people from outside your group -- look over your finished photocopy or flyer. Get their honest opinions and use their feedback to help you decide on the final version.

Have it printed or photocopied.

It's possible to avoid, or at least reduce, the expense of paying a professional printer. Find out if anyone in your group works for a printing company or knows anyone who does. Approach area printers to see if any of them would donate or offer reduced fees for their services.

Distribute your final product.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but it's an unfortunate fact that community groups often go to a great deal of effort and expense to print out stacks and stacks of flyers, and then they end up just sitting forever in a box or on someone's desk. Have distribution be a part of your communications plan before you even start.

Form a committee, if necessary, and make a list of the places you want to distribute your posters and flyers. Find out for each place on your list whether you should just send the posters and flyers for them to post or if you'll be expected to come in and put them up yourself. If possible, try to arrange to put them up yourself anyway, so that you can pick highly visible spots. And finally, assign specific individual volunteers or staff members to be responsible for getting the posters and flyers out by a set deadline.

A method that many groups use for distributing flyers is to send them by e-mail to a number of core group members – a board of directors, for instance, or a group of volunteers – who then print out a number of copies and post them in their neighborhoods or at pre-assigned locations. They might also hand them out to individuals, put them on car windshields in parking lots, or send them on to people in their e-mail address books.

A few basic tips on poster design

  • Simplicity is key -- try not to have too many different elements vying for the reader’s or viewer's attention.
  • Large, colorful images will grab your viewer's attention. Lots of contrast helps too.
  • A novel image is another good way to catch your audience's eye.
  • Your poster should be easy to read from a distance. Colors that can be easily read from a distance include white on red, black on yellow, dark blue on white, green on white, and the ever-popular black on white.
  • Colors can have different effects: greens, blues, and purples tend to be soothing and calming; red, orange, and yellow tend to excite and attract attention.

Mistakes to avoid

  • Visual clutter -- it's okay to have a lot of different elements on it, but not so many that it looks junky or chaotic. Be sure that you can look at it from a distance and get at least a general idea of what it's about.
  • Unclear or easily misunderstood wording or images -- again, you want the audience to at least get the general idea on a first glance. If they have to think too hard about it, they may not take a second look.
  • Typos or spelling errors -- as with any of your printed materials, you should strive for accuracy and professionalism.
  • Bad art, photography, or production values -- if your poster looks cheap or shoddy, it's bad for your group's public image. Don't do posters if you can't afford to do them right!

In Summary

Posters or flyers can be remarkably effective in getting your organization's message across. Try distributing a poster of flyer with a simple message, an eye-catching image, and a catchy slogan -- see how many people you can reach!

Contributor 
Chris Hampton

Online Resources

Adbusters is an organization working to change the way information flows, making it more democratic and less directed by corporate and other powerful interests.

Microsoft Design Gallery

Tips for creating posters, fliers, and stickers from the Rainforest Action Network

Vandelay Design Tutorials on poster design using Photoshop, for users of that program.

Flyer/Poster Guidelines, by Three Rivers College, helps you keep track of the dos and don’ts when creating your own flyer/poster. It has a number of specific positive and negative layout examples.