About This Class

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.

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

Demystifying Graphic Design: How Posters Work

Focus the eye
One of the most basic ways designers make a viewer take notice is to make the image big and put it in the middle of a space, as illustrated in Gottlieb Soland’s 1957 poster “Grammo-Grafik.” Designers also use color and form to bring attention to a central element, as seen in Lucian Bernhard’s famous 1909–1910 “Adler” poster, which features a centered product name at the top, counterbalanced by a starkly rendered typewriter.

Overwhelm the eye
Designers can engage the viewer in an optical experience and lead the eye on a restless journey by incorporating dense patterns, wandering lines and competing colors. Highlights of the works on view in this section include psychedelic posters of the 1960s, such as Victor Moscoso’s 1966 “Junior Wells.”

Use text as image
In poster design, typography is often used to enhance or obscure a message through the size, style and arrangement of letters. Featured works on view in this section include Michael Bierut’s 1999 poster “Light/Years” and Josef Muller-Brockmann’s 1959–1960 poster “Der Film.”

Designers use various techniques to conjure illusions of depth within the flatness of two-dimensional space. The most basic technique for simulating depth is to overlap two or more elements, as seen in Paul Rand’s classic 1951 poster “Dada,” which creates a rudimentary sensation of depth as black letters float in front of white ones. A similar technique is used in a more elaborate way in Felix Pfäffli’s 2013 poster for the Weltformat Poster Festival (Lucerne, Switzerland).

Cut and paste
Splitting images apart and combining bits and pieces to create new meaning is central to the design process. Ladislav Sutnar isolated photographs against bold patterns and flat fields of color, transforming halftone images into tightly contained illustrations, as seen in his 1958 work “Addo-x.”

Assault the surface
To focus the viewer’s attention, designers may bend, burn, melt and vandalize the image to unlock its power. Examples in this section include Fritz Fischer’s 1973 movie poster for Die Zartlichkeit der Wolfe (The Tenderness of Wolves) and Saul Bass’ 1961 ad campaign for Otto Preminger’s film Exodus.

Designers often simplify an image in order to direct attention to a message or product. In Waldemar Swierzy’s 1973 film poster for Midnight Cowboy, the simplified image focuses attention on the figure’s full, ripe lips while blocking his other features.

Tell a story
Visual narratives inspire viewers to ask, “What just happened?” or “What will happen next?” Featured works in the section include two posters created for the U.S. Office of War Information during World War II, which tell the same story from different perspectives. Anton Otto Fischer’s poster “A Careless Word” (1942) depicts a lifeboat loaded with distressed and wounded sailors pulling away from a burning ship. Frederick Siebel’s “Someone Talked” (1942) pulls viewers even closer into the story, bringing them eye to eye with a single sailor who reaches out to them from the dark water just before drowning.

Designers may use arresting images and provocative language to communicate the urgency of a message. Lowercase letters can seem calm and conversational, while uppercase letters can project anger or agitation, as seen in “No War” by an unknown designer, circa 1980. Images of screaming mouths can trigger visceral, embodied responses in viewers, as in Art Chantry’s 1982 “Ready for War” poster.

Double the meaning
In order to create humor and tension, designers build multiple meanings into a single image. This section includes Wiktor Górka’s 1973 poster for Cabaret. Górka, a leading participant in the Polish School of Poster Art, created a Swastika out of dancing legs to promote the Polish release of Bob Fosse’s famous film.

Manipulate scale
Designers often exaggerate scale differences in order to amplify the illusion of depth or create visual tension among the elements of a composition. Featured works include Jacques Delisle’s 1970 movie poster for L’Initiation, which uses a large head to establish a point-of-view character and smaller elements to suggest thoughts, memories and actions.

Activate the diagonal
Diagonals help the eye cut across the surface and penetrate its depths, as illustrated in the 2008 poster “Jonathan Jones,” in which designer Mark Gowing used angled text to create three-dimensional letterforms.

Make eye contact
Graphic designers intuitively grasp the emotional draw of eye contact and the human brain responds to images of eyes, even when they are hidden or distorted, such as in Richard Avedon’s 1967 “John Lennon” poster. A face can emerge from minimal ingredients, as evidenced in Paula Scher’s 1994 poster for “Him” at The Public Theater.

Make a system
Designers create a system of colors and forms to create a recognizable identity and address spatial relationships among visual elements. Visual systems allow for uniformity and change, repetition and variation. A contemporary example by Experimental Jetset showcases a system created for the Amsterdam concert venue Paradiso in which the designers cut holes into each poster to allow the surface underneath to show through.