The Role of Graphic Design in Theatre Marketing

There was a time when the design of your show’s title art, the poster, and maybe a mailer could be as much as 90% of your marketing. People would look at the pieces and decide if they wanted to buy a ticket. They didn’t need or expect to know more about your show than that before making a decision.

In most markets today design is more of a foot in the door. It still has to be eye-catching. People will still judge (rightly or wrongly) how competent your production is by the quality of your design. The big difference: great design no longer earns you a ticket sale. It earns you someone’s attention for a moment, and what are you doing with that attention?

I met with Daniel Hoffman (part of the marketing team at the esteemed Indiana Repertory Theatre) last week, and our conversation roamed across all kinds of arts marketing topics. In fact I’m sure there are several future blog posts spawned from that 90 minutes we sat talking. The idea that’s sticking in my brain right now, though, is the role of graphic design in theatre marketing.

As marketing budgets get cut, it’s certainly tempting to have one of your interns with some available time take a stab at creating a poster, even when they may have no design experience. The design software is simple enough to learn, but is that really all it takes to be a designer? Is this why so many arts districts are littered with posters that don’t inspire confidence in the the production they are promoting? Or is the lack of investment in design a reflection of the fact that great design doesn’t sell as many tickets as it once did?

We came up with more questions than answers before the conversation moved on to other topics, but I’ve thought about that point repeatedly since Daniel and I met. What is the role of design today?

Design is no longer the whole message.

It’s part of how you communicate with people, but it’s not enough on it’s own. We’ve grown accustomed to knowing a lot about any product or service we’re buying before we open our wallets. Incredible design does move us to take further action, but that action is usually not to start shelling out cash.

Design is a conversation starter.

You can still (and probably always) grab someone’s attention with great design. Now what? You’ve made people curious, and they want to know more. You have to be able to back up that great design with more information about your show. There’s something about your initial design that they liked. Convince them you have another 2 hours in store for them that they will like as much or more. The call-to-action on your postcard should not be “buy tickets now”. It should be “learn more here”.

Design is a reminder.

People don’t take action the first time they come across a piece of marketing. We’re exposed to way too much stimulus in our daily lives to stop for every strong design our eyes fall on. We notice a good design, and probably file it away in our brains to process later. It’s when we keep noticing the same billboard all over town, that our brain tells us we need to find out what this repeating visual image means.

Design is a touchstone.

Although I often attend productions by myself, I’m in the minority. Most people like to have some company when they go out to the theatre. So once you’ve convinced someone to attend your production, how does that person tell their friends or significant other about the show? Pointing out the poster when they are walking down the street or forwarding your email announcement are easy ways. A good design by itself may not be enough to close the deal, but a good design plus the endorsement of a friend who wants you to come with them can be compelling.


Design is a tool.

Even the best tools are worthless if they sit unused, and the way to use design correctly today is more than simply putting the imagery up everywhere you can afford. That’s like holding a well-crafted hammer in your hand and not swinging it. The purpose of design is to grab people’s attention so you can then explain why your show is going to deliver entertainment value far beyond the trivial price of a ticket. Make sure you are using your design pieces to lead people to that explanation.

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  1. Pleasure chatting Clay, great read and article. Look forward to many more talks!

    Daniel Hoffman on Wed, Apr 10th, 2013 at 7:47pm
  2. Wow, great article, Clay. I have preaching this for years :”What do you want the audience to do after they see the poster/card/image/whatever?”

    Ideally, it’s buy tickets. But there is so much more opportunity to start a conversation these days. And, if your organization doesn’t, someone else’s will.

    Matt McKee on Tue, Aug 6th, 2013 at 11:18pm
    • Great point, Matt. People want to engage with you. They don’t want to just by a ticket. They want to have an experience that spans beyond the 2 hours they’ll be sitting in the audience.

      And spot on: if you don’t provide that conversation, they will gravitate to someone else who does.

      Clay Mabbitt on Wed, Aug 7th, 2013 at 8:05am
  3. How do I find a graphic designer in theatre marketing in my area?

    Robbi D'Allessandro on Tue, Feb 3rd, 2015 at 2:59pm
    • Good question, Robbi.

      If you’ve seen any good posters or show art for local productions in your area, you can track down who created those images by just asking the theatre. I will say, though, that it’s probably more important to find a designer who has talent and that you can work with. If they have experience with theatre, so much the better, but it’s not necessarily a deal-breaker if they don’t. (For me, anyway.)

      Depending on the types of graphics, you also may not need to restrict yourself to your geographic area (although there are likely excellent designers there). If the art isn’t built around photos of your actors, then distance need not be an issue.

      Brian Atkinson who appeared in episode 5 of the podcast ( ) is good. 🙂

      Hope that helps!

      Clay Mabbitt on Wed, Feb 4th, 2015 at 4:56pm

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