“If I’m not having fun, I scrap it”: Emma Bers on the joys of using Play-Doh to make posters

This Chicago-based graphic designer taught herself how to use Photoshop over lockdown, and just two years later her colourful, juicy, type-filled posters are going down a storm.

20 April 2022

Looking back to the hazy days of the first Covid lockdown, it’s hard to remember exactly what, if anything, we all achieved. Emma Bers, on the other hand, recalls it well. She was fresh out of a film and history degree when the pandemic hit and she ended up moving home with her parents. “I decided to teach myself Photoshop as a way to stay creative,” she tells us. Feeling nostalgic for the live music which disappeared over lockdown, she started making posters inspired by her favourite bands and albums. Then, at the beginning of 2021 when she started putting her work up on Instagram, things really started to take off: “I never looked back!”

Now Emma has already got a few commissions under her belt and, despite not having an ounce of training in graphic design, she has intuitively taken to the field like a duck to water. Her style, which she describes as “colourful, youthful, messy and fun”, is instantly lovable. In this case, Emma’s lack of training might just be her greatest strength, as it allows her to approach compositions with a fresh perspective. Instead of turning to other graphic design work for inspiration she delves into a rich field of artistic references: “abstract expressionist paintings, funky furniture and architecture and occasionally children’s book illustrations”. She adds: “I have almost no interest in anything super minimal or super technical. I try to never use direct references for specific pieces, though, so the art comes from me.”

The guiding principle for every project is enjoyment: “If I’m not having fun with my personal work, I scrap it!” When she’s in a creative rut, Play Doh, construction paper and pastels come to Emma’s aid. For example, in one of her favourite posters which was inspired by Saba’s new album Few Good Things, she made the lettering out of Play Doh. The visible finger marks on the moulded letters give the poster a tactile energy and add an interesting sense of depth to the composition. “The fact that I’ve been able to incorporate these materials that I used to love to play with as a child into my actual work has been great.”


Emma Bers: Sabba Poster concept (Copyright © Emma Bers, 2022)

Another material she likes to revisit from her childhood pen-pot is the humble oil pastel. When she hit a creative wall in November last year, she began making abstract pastel drawings. “It was so fun that I decided to share those little paintings even though they were completely different from the posters I’d been sharing until then,” she explains. “They turned out to be a great little detour for me to explore composition, texture, colour theory and (clearly this is a theme here) just have fun again.” Now, whenever she gets stuck, Emma prescribes herself a little time with her oil pastels. It's a sure-fire way to get back into the creative swing of her practice.

Unsurprisingly, Emma sees colour as the “defining characteristic” of her work. So when she discusses one of her first commissions – a cover for Broken Social Scene’s new album – we’re interested to note the monochrome colour palette. In fact, Emma made various options for the band to choose from, and the one they chose was the least colourful. “It was a cool moment to see how other elements of my work like lettering and composition spoke to people as much as the colours do,” she tells us. “It’s also a very messy design. It gave me a lot of confidence to pursue that messy unrefined style, which is great because it’s the type of work I have the most fun doing.”


Emma Bers: Old Dead Young - Broken Social Scene (Copyright © Emma Bers, 2021)


Emma Bers: Television Poster Concept (Copyright © Emma Bers, 2021)


Emma Bers: Built To Spill Poster Concept (Copyright © Emma Bers, 2021)


Emma Bers: The Big Moon Poster Concept (Copyright © Emma Bers, 2021)


Emma Bers: George Harrison Poster Concept (Copyright © Emma Bers, 2021)


Emma Bers: Foo Fighters Poster Concept (Copyright © Emma Bers, 2022)


Emma Bers: Beirut Poster Concept (Copyright © Emma Bers, 2021)


Emma Bers: Pastel 6 (Copyright © Emma Bers, 2021)

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Emma Bers: MF DOOM Poster Concept (Copyright © Emma Bers, 2021)

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About the Author

Elfie Thomas

Elfie joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in November 2021 after finishing an art history degree at Sussex University. She is particularly interested in creative projects which shed light on histories that have been traditionally overlooked or misrepresented.

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