The Anatomy of Great Key Art

One of the most important assets in any Broadway advertising campaign is the poster. In fact, it is key; we literally call it “Key Art.”

Broadway key art is the visual trigger that ticket buyers associate with your show, and everything that you use to promote it, in any way, will be based on this vital piece of branding.

Back in the 15th Century, posters put town criers out of a job and began a long-standing love affair between visual art and live entertainment. Today, you wouldn’t even consider not creating a poster for an event: it is an advertising must.

However, theatre faces unique challenges. While movie or concert posters can often rely on photography to sell their tickets, theatre has to be a little more creative. By the time most commercial productions are in need of key art, they are still in the throes of casting and set design, with no production photos. This means the industry must rely on a photo shoot specifically for the purpose of creating the poster and/or graphic images to sell their show.

Additionally, many productions are reviving a show that already has a visual element implanted in the minds of the public, and instead must create a way to distinguish this show from its previous versions.

So, how do you create a piece of art that sells another piece of art? Let’s dissect…

How To Start

In the words of designer David Byrd, Broadway key art must “first, catch the eye; second, establish mood; and third, impart a quick message.”

A great place to start is to think about posters you like, regardless of similarity to your show, or even industry. What speaks to you and why? From there, you will begin to discover what you value in visual representation.

Then, apply those values to your show: who is your show talking to? How do you want them to feel when they see the poster?

Finally, get specific:

Are there any ownable visual elements that represent your show? (Anyone else using a phantom mask? No? Perfect.)

What are are the unique benefits of your show? Is it a beautiful love story? A poignant drama about war? Does it star Neil Patrick Harris like you’ve never seen him before (a la Hedwig and the Angry Inch)?

Consider The Elements

Key art breaks down into 4 elements:

>>Color

Image: Visual.ly

Use color to set the mood. Color not only evokes specific emotions, but it can also lead the eye where you need it to go. The simplicity of Wicked’s key art relies on color to lead your eye around the poster.

>>Title Treatment

Title treatment is perhaps the most important element of key art. No pressure but, in most cases, the font you use will tell audiences exactly who you are. For example, when you look at the title for Once, you see trendy, whimsical, romantic, musical. Sounds about right, doesn’t it?

Also, remember that many of your ads may ONLY use the title, so you need to get everything that your poster evokes into those letters and make it memorable.

>>Focal Point

Create a visual hierarchy. Broadway posters come with a lot of baggage: you need to include billing, theatre and ticketing information, website, quotes, tagline, title, etc. Consider how all of these elements will flow together and which need to grab attention first. This may mean getting creative with both the positive and negative space.

Image: Canva Design School

>>Emotion

Your poster must not only turn heads and grab attention: it needs to make audiences feel. This is where the story of your show begins being told.

Successful key art makes you feel the same way as the show itself: take Hamilton, for example. This poster feels very current, yet calls back to another era: it’s powerful and cool, just like the show itself.

How To Finish

The process of key art design can certainly take you down a rabbit hole of options and decisions. When sifting through versions of a poster, it is important to focus on the expression of an idea vs. the visual representation of it. Do you like the brush stroke of a font, but hate it in yellow? Don’t scrap the whole idea: just try another color! Focusing on what works is the best way to get to the final version.

Before you send it to print, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does this key art make me feel the way the show does? (Don’t be afraid to test this with focus groups.)
  • Does this key art work for all the ways you intend to use it? (Can it be both horizontal and vertical? Color and black & white? Full poster and just title? Trust us: you need it to work for every possible scenario.)
  • Revisit the words of David Byrd. Does this key art catch the eye? Does it establish mood? Does it send a quick message that educates audiences about what the show is?

Once you’ve answered yes to all of those questions: congratulations! You’ve just made great key art!