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Craig Gibson: Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Features / Graphic Design

Funny how? The art of the Edinburgh Fringe comedy poster

Words by

Rob Alderson

Photography by

Craig Gibson

I first went to the Edinburgh Festival in 2005. The immediate thing that hits you as you get off the train is the smell of hops from the breweries – “Don’t worry, we’re making more!” as comedian Andrew Lawrence once memorably put it. The second thing you notice is the posters, plastered on every spare surface to advertise the thousands of offerings that make Edinburgh arguably the best arts festival in the world. With more than 3,300 comedy shows heading to the Scottish capital this summer, most of these posters are advertising the stand-ups, sketch groups, improv troupes and character comedians that take over the city. If Edinburgh is the most important event on the comedy calendar, then posters are still – somewhat surprisingly – the chief promotional tool, but until recently the quality of these visuals left a lot to be desired.

In 2008, Paul MacInnes writing in The Guardian said there are three certainties of the Edinburgh Fringe: “It’ll rain, you’ll fail to pack enough warm clothes and you’re bound to experience the most appallingly designed posters known to humanity.” But in recent years it seems the quality has increased, a view held by comedy producer Gina Lyons. “We are seeing people doing more creative things and comics are thinking more carefully about what their posters say about them, what kind of comedian they want to be seen to be, who they want to attract in their audiences.

She adds: “The poster is the first way of selling themselves and what they’re about before people even set foot in the venue. To some comics, the poster is how they sell themselves to TV producers too – what type of show or channel they want to be on.”

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Craig Gibson: Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Last year Gina started the Edinburgh Comedy Poster Awards, to recognise those designs that really cut through in an increasingly crowded marketplace. She thinks that posters do slightly different things depending on the status of the comic.
  
“For the really big comedians who are only there for two nights and who sell out before they even get on the train, it’s about having a presence in Edinburgh,” she says. “But for almost everyone else it’s about getting bums on seats – whether that’s award-winning comedians who aren’t really on TV or people doing shows for the first time on the Free Fringe.”

This year the awards are expanding with different categories to be judged by industry professionals, journalists and punters but Gina is wary of setting out strict criteria – the key thing is to reward posters that resonate. But she does admit that too many posters follow a tried and tested formula that can feel quite cliched up at the Fringe.

“There was a funny Buzzfeed article asking what’s wrong with comedians – have they all got dandruff – because there’s this look where they’re scratching their heads,” she laughs.

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Craig Gibson: Edinburgh Fringe Festival

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There’s a good reason why so many posters go for the same combination of title, press quote and headshot (often with a self-consciously “comedy” twist like the aforementioned head-scratching or the ubiquitous shoulder-shrugging). Comedians have to submit titles and 40-word write-offs for the official programme in January, seven months before the festival kicks off in August. Many will have only the vaguest idea what their show will be about, and even those that do will see their ideas change and evolve as they workshop the routines in the run-up to Edinburgh.

“Maybe that’s why a lot of posters are generic; they don’t know what the show’s really going to be until they start doing it and so the safe image of a headshot is going to cover it,” says designer Serge Seidlitz, who likens it to the way in which illustrations develop from initial sketches. He created the poster for Alex Horne’s 2014 show Monsieur Butterfly, an extraordinary production that saw Alex build a Rube Goldberg machine live on stage.

The core idea of Alex’s show was quite fixed, but Serge still only had a sense of what would happen in it, as opposed to say designing a film poster when he can milk it for every reference, “screengrabbing stuff and bringing all those things back into the design.” Serge was commissioned via Alex’s management company Avalon, who sent him some work Jim Stoten had done for Noel Fielding as a reference and “loads of photos Alex took of his face in his garden.”

And crucially seeing as Serge has never been to the Fringe, they also gave him the context in which the poster has to work, or rather fight for attention. “They told me that there’s so many shows in Edinburgh that when you walk around you just see posters over the top of posters over the top of posters and they all sort of blend into one,” he says.

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Craig Gibson: Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Pulling in references from Heath Robinson and the Mousetrap game packaging, Serge’s illustrative treatment used the wings of the titular butterfly to invoke an intricate, mechanistic contraption. But although he had plenty of time to work on the commission, he felt the pressure that comes with working on such a personalised artform – comedy’s appeal is that it boils down to one man or woman and a microphone.

“Sometimes if you’re doing commercial jobs you just have to get it out, but I remember with this one because it was such a passion for him, I felt real passion for it too.”

For his part Alex remembers it was the most he’d ever trusted a designer to work up ideas on their own, although as a fan of Serge’s work he was confident in his skills. Still he admits: “There was a terrifying moment when he sends over the first draft and you click open on the attachment, praying you’re going to like it. He got it bang on straight away.”

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Craig Gibson: Edinburgh Fringe Festival

As Edinburgh changes and the nature of promotion changes in a social media-dominated world, Alex is unsure what role posters still play, describing them as neither “crucial nor obsolete.”

“A lot of it is guesswork and a lot of it is vanity; you want it to look nice and you want it to look cool and you want to be proud of it. If the show’s really good it doesn’t matter what the poster looks like, and if the show’s really bad, a good poster won’t make any difference. I think you can think too much about what the audience might read into it,” he adds.

He agrees with Gina that in some ways the overall quality has improved and that the stereotypical comedy poster pose is thankfully less common – he credits photographer Idil Sukan for broadening the kind of portraits you now see around the Fringe. But Alex also thinks that with more and more people taking shows up on a shoestring, people are increasingly making their posters themselves which can look amateurish.

This creates a challenge for the professionals, such as the Invisible Dot, a London-based agency and venue that’s taking ten acts up to this year’s festival. “We’re quite fortunate that we can afford to work with designers – we like to stand out,” head of marketing Daniel King says. The company, founded by Simon Pearce in 2009, looks to champion “creative, clever, interesting, adventurous and brave” comedy, theatre, and site-specific pieces that blur the lines between the two.

It’s also an organisation that takes its visual brand very seriously – from its bespoke typeface Riso to its trademark serial numbers – and is often referenced by comedy aficionados as producing the best posters around. “Our aesthetic is quite anti-comedy norms and our poster-making reflects that,” says Daniel’s colleague Charlotte Broomfield.

The process starts with initial conversations with the acts going up under the Invisible Dot umbrella in January, followed by a photoshoot in early February.

“We use someone who’s not usually synonymous with this industry and we like all of our acts to be shot by the same photographer because we feel it makes our brand identifiable; if you see one of our posters you can connect it with another,” Daniel says.

That person – who this year was Sun Lee, a product photographer – is allowed to develop their own creative vision for the shoot and suggest the final images to be sent to the designers; previously the Dot used the Julia agency but this year Jack Llewellyn has taken it on.

“But there’s so much noise up there. Edinburgh exists in its own world, and when you’re online that world is so much bigger because there’s so many other voices. People quite like the bubble. Can a festival exist online, if it’s defined by the experience you’re having?”

Daniel King

There are certain elements that need to be included – both as common sense and on the insistence of the festival organisers and specific venues – but again the Dot likes the designer to take the lead, rather than having too many people chipping in.

“We feel it dilutes it if there’s too many voices,” Daniel explains. “The comedians get final sign-off but we’re quite strong-willed about what it should look like.”

“In that marketplace, it needs to stand alone and look beautiful and eye-catching and make people want to touch it and be a part of it,” Daniel continues. Because a lot of the audiences are there for artistic reasons, it makes sense to make something appealing on those levels.”

And despite the relentless march of digital advertising and social media, Daniel doesn’t believe the poster’s days are numbered.

“Our brand is probably best exemplified when we have printed materials. You can’t really get across those qualities in digital so much, or perhaps you can but we’ve yet to find a mechanism for doing that.

“But there’s so much noise up there. Edinburgh exists in its own world, and when you’re online that world is so much bigger because there’s so many other voices. People quite like the bubble. Can a festival exist online, if it’s defined by the experience you’re having?”

And still for most Edinburgh-goers, as it was for me in 2005, that onslaught of posters is very much part of that experience. Along with the smell of hops of course…

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Craig Gibson: Edinburgh Fringe Festival

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Craig Gibson: Edinburgh Fringe Festival