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9 Tips for Designing Artwork for Your Next Musical or Play

With 1,001 items on your “putting-on-a-show” checklist, getting professional, effective marketing materials to promote your show can be a challenge. Some theatres like to try their hand at designing their own artwork, and we love to see the creativity that comes out of theatrical people! But with the complex licensing rules regarding logos, artwork and billing credits, it’s not for the faint of heart.

Subplot Studio comes to the rescue for theatres and school drama programs, offering an easy and affordable way to customize professionally designed artwork for hundreds of musicals and plays. No design skills are needed with our online customization tool, and you can have the marketing materials to start promoting your show within minutes.

If you’ve decided to take on designing the artwork for your next show, we’re here to empower you with nine tips to ensure your show’s art will pass the test, and be able to effectively promote your show and fill your seats.

1. Narrow Down Your Themes: Brainstorm on the key themes and elements about your show. The more audiences understand and feel connected with what the plot is about, the more tickets you’re likely to sell. Narrow it down and focus on just one or two themes so your artwork doesn’t get too busy and distracting.

2. Design Your Imagery: You’ll best represent your show, and visually create the most appealing artwork, by sticking with a straightforward design concept that represents a more complex, broader subject. For example:

  • Les Misérables: A pensive, disheveled Cosette is a single image that represents the larger themes of desperation and despair that motivate the characters.
  • Cats: The subtle dancing cats within the pupils of golden cat eyes personify the intrigue and peculiarity that unfolds onstage.

The key themes we discussed in Tip #1 will assist you in narrowing down one or two images that will represent your show and become your artwork. And remember, while it’s normal to find inspiration online, it’s completely prohibited to take images from search engines or websites and use them to promote your show, unless you receive permission or purchase it from the designer. The safest bet is to assume any artwork or logos you find online are copyrighted and illegal to reuse for your promotional purposes.

3. Colors Tell a Story: The colors in your artwork can tell almost as much about your show as the images:

  • Red invokes passion, strength and daringness. Think of the artwork from West Side Story, Chicago, Miss Saigon or even The Music Man.
  • Gold gives off power and confidence. Think of the artwork from Hamilton, The King & I or A Chorus Line.
  • Blue conjures themes of love, trust and loyalty. Think of the artwork from The Sound of Music, Aida or Mamma Mia!
  • Black exudes mystery and drama. Think of the artwork from Disney’s Beauty and The Beast, Cabaret and The Phantom of the Opera.
  • Purple gives off ambition, royalty and luxury. Think of the artwork for Disney’s Aladdin, Memphis or Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella.

Are there colors that are inextricably tied to the audience’s understanding of your show? For instance:

  • Red pairs so well for Annie artwork with its main character’s fiery red hair and pistol of a personality.
  • Green is a must-have for your Shrek The Musical artwork, with the unforgettable and lovable green ogre at the center of the story.
  • Using pink in your Legally Blonde The Musical artwork is a sure bet with its central character, Elle, and her preppy pink costumes and bubbly personality.

4. Logo Legality: Sure, there are plenty of logos for your show title out there on the web, but it’s illegal to take or copy an existing logo from the Broadway musical/play, another theatre, or the movie, unless you have explicit permission or you’ve paid for the rights to use it. The licensing house where you purchased the rights to produce your show will often sell an officially-approved logo, if you choose to buy the approved logo versus designing your own. And some show titles require that you use only the officially-licensed logo when producing their show, prohibiting you from designing your own, such as Billy Elliot and American Idiot.

5. Movie vs. Stage: If there is a popular movie associated with your show, we know it may be tempting to mimic the movie poster to easily create recognition for your show, but it is illegal and a violation of copyright to do this. Animated characters from movies such as Disney and Dreamworks (think Ariel or Shrek) are not allowed to be used in artwork for the stage version. There are some instances where you can use animated characters, such as:

  • Some official logo packs include character artwork, but it’s important to recognize that these characters look different from their movie counterparts and have been designed by the parent company, who take great measures to ensure proper branding.
  • In most cases, you can create your own design of a character from your show – a mermaid with a green tail for instance – as long as she isn’t a clone of Ariel from the animated film. But it’s best to manage your audience’s expectations by not designing your own animated characters in promotional materials. Audiences are coming to see a live theatrical event with live actors on stage. If in doubt, consult your licensing house representative for specific rules associated with your show title.

Grease is a good example of a title with very strict copyright laws prohibiting imitations of the movie artwork or characterizations of the film’s actors, such as John Travolta, for the stage production artwork. The general rule of thumb is to have your artwork speak for the stage version – it will educate ticket buyers and set their expectations that they’re coming to see a wonderful live performance, not an imitation of a movie.

6. Focus on Fonts: Just as color tells a story, so do fonts. For example – thick block lettering or capitalized fonts can give off a powerful, commanding, energetic presence. Think of the logos for Rent or Disney’s The Lion King. Lowercase fonts, thinner brushstrokes, or curved serifs can give off a more whimsical, softer feeling. Think of the logos for Once, My Fair Lady or A Little Night Music. Most importantly, ensure the font is easy to read, avoid using busy backgrounds that can distract your viewer’s eyes, and limit yourself to 2-3 fonts maximum on any given material – one for headers and one for sub-headers or body copy. A great resource for downloading free fonts is dafont.com.

7. License Compliance: Each show license includes requirements for listing the authors and billing credits, which often have stringent guidelines on things such as the font size of the authors relative to the logo size. All of the professionally designed posters for MTI titles available through Subplot Studio are pre-approved by MTI and compliant with billing requirements.

8. Calls to Action: No theatre marketing material is complete without letting potential attendees know what the call to action is, such as “Tickets on sale now,” “Opening night: Friday, April 7,” “Tickets available at SouthShoreTheatre.com.” Essential messages to include in your show’s promotional materials include:

  • Theatre/company name
  • Show location
  • Performance dates and times
  • How to purchase tickets (phone/website/in person)
  • Ticket prices or price range
  • Website/Facebook page for more information

9. Artwork Guidance & Approval: Send your designed logo and artwork to your licensing house representative to get their approval before promoting your show. If it’s not approved on the first round, don’t despair. They’ll likely give you feedback on suggested revisions to make your design workable within their licensing standards.

Happy designing! And if you decide that creating your own artwork is too big an undertaking, visit Subplot Studio’s catalog of professionally designed artwork for hundreds of musicals and plays, available to customize in minutes so you can start promoting your next show.

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