Music Posters That Marry Nostalgia + Error, From Self-taught Designer Aaron Denton
“I had no intention of becoming a designer.”
Just last year, Aaron Denton was still waiting tables at a restaurant while moonlighting as a poster designer for local bands and musicians. He’d been playing in bands of his own for years, but his relationship with design began by accident.
“In my early 20s, I was booking shows for bands that needed posters for the events,” he says. “Since I didn’t know anybody else who was doing anything like this, I started whipping up flyers myself. I studied art history at Indiana University, and while in college we got Adobe CS for free, so I began messing around in Photoshop. I had no intention of becoming a designer, but before I knew what was happening, things just took off.”
There’s a palpable sense of nostalgia in Denton’s work. He tweaks the tonality of colors, and scans pages from old books to build in texture. A black is never simply just black, but a textural dark grey. “A lot of people say my work has a retro vibe, but that’s not what I’m trying to achieve. Growing up, I never had access to a museum, so I was looking at art through books,” he says. “I remember seeing a Jasper Johns painting reproduced in a book that was printed in the ’80s, which was now kind of fucked up and yellowed. I’ve never seen a Jasper Johns painting in person, so that’s my only perception of it. I loved that feel the image achieved over time and that’s the aesthetic I’m trying to mirror in my posters.”
Since setting out as a freelance designer earlier this year, Denton has carved out a niche for himself through his music work. Mistakes and accidents seem to shape up much of his practice, as does an unshakable fear at the beginning of every project. “Although my background in music helps me vibe out the kind of visuals that would compliment a particular sound, my process is pure experimentation and it’s terrifying, every single time,” he says.
“Whenever I open up a file and stare at the blank screen, it’s the scariest thing ever. I always feel like ‘This is it. It’s gone. I can’t do it.’ But somehow, it always works out. When I look at the posters, especially the ones I like, I’m never sure how it really happened. A lot of the times it’s just mistakes, or the computer messes the design up, and I think ‘That’s it! That’s what I was going for!’ It’s exciting in the end, but terrifying in the beginning.”
Here, the self-taught designer takes us through six of his recent posters.
Devouring The Guilt, Constellation Chicago
This piece was commissioned by Gerrit Hatcher, a tenor saxophonist in Chicago. His group, Devouring The Guilt, were playing with the free jazz musician Angel Bat Dawid, whose music I was aware of, but didn’t really jump into until making the poster. I knew the show was probably going to be experimental in nature so I wanted the poster to reflect that. At the time, I was into experimenting with these neon strip designs. I wanted the text to act as a structure in the design. I’m always trying to find ways to make the text feel more than just slapped on; to make it an integral part of the balance. This poster has aged better than some for me. I’m happy with the color harmony and how the design jumps out at you. I think this one was a first draft winner too, which is always nice.
Louis Prince, The Cordelle
The brief for this one included that it would be in a group of three posters, all celebrating the release of new music by Louis Prince in three different cities. I wanted it to look celebratory and eye-catching. I’ve been keen on this wave form as of late, so I incorporated that.
This was a unique commission, because I sent three options of color variations to the client, which is very unusual for me. Ordinarily one color scheme always wins out and is the obvious choice, but this poster worked with a couple of different arrangements. Ultimately I think they chose the right option. The font here is called Shotgun, a typeface I work with regularly. I liked how it interacts with the waves of the design and is bold enough to anchor the entire artwork in the midst of a rather chaotic image. While I was working on this one, I was also designing a movie poster, and I think that influenced the composition. I love the work of Philip Castle, who did a lot of Stanley Kubrick movie posters including the iconic Clockwork Orange poster, which subconsciously influenced this design.
This was a difficult poster. I remember really struggling on nailing down the color palette. I stayed up super late working on it, finally just making a decision and sending it off. I wanted the text to be spread out and placed randomly. Sometimes I look at old record jacket sleeves and marvel at how they made the decisions on where to place the text—especially when the technology didn’t allow for perfect alignment, I think it was interesting to see what intuition unfolded.
I wanted to include this particular poster in this story because when I look back at it now, I’m not completely satisfied. There’s a lot of things going on here that I wouldn’t repeat today. At the time I was working on this, I was incorporating this cream color into my posters, which is nice, but the yellowness here feels a little heavy handed. I have two different values of black happening in there, which also bothers me. This idea of reflection is key to growth; unless you look back at your work and analyze what you could have done better, you’ll never know how far you’ve come. This ritual has become a key part of my practice.
Helena Deland, Sebright Arms
Maybe it’s just because this design was a fairly recent commission, but I think this poster holds up nicely. This was such a difficult one to finish. I’d been playing with creating shadows on a distorted plane which made the appearance of crinkled up cloth, with highlights on the crest. I’ve been trying not to do the orb thing lately, but sometimes I just can’t help myself. It added to this one nicely though.
I had been commissioned to do a poster for Helena Deland before and really enjoyed their music. With this one, I wanted to take things a step further by aligning the text vertically with a sort of lopsided balance structure. I sometimes get obsessed with balance and I wanted this one to be a little different, with all the elements shifted to one side.
This piece was unique in that in the brief asked for a square version. I designed the original in 18×24 and then had to adapt it to 18×18. It’s always way more challenging than you’d think to change ratios and retain a design’s power. Although I think I pulled it off, and in the end, kind of prefer the square version.
Tame Impala, Desert Daze
Desert Daze Festival, based out of California, reached out to see if I’d be interested in doing a poster for one of the event’s headliners, Slowdive. I typically try not to geek out on clients too much, but this was a huge deal as I’m a big Slowdive fan! I did that one and it went well and a few days later they wrote back saying Tame Impala wanted me to make a poster for them. We were already past a printing deadline so the turnaround time was really quick. I did three drafts and the band ended up choosing the first one. The brief was for a two color design, so I ended up going with something pretty minimal. I wanted to take advantage of the size (18×24) and have big areas of solid color. I like how the middle design pushes the eye back and kind of gives the flat orange color a feeling of depth.
Crumb, European Tour
I was a fan of this band before they contacted me and was commissioned by a London promoter to do a poster for their show there. The turnaround was fast but I took that job because I really loved the group. I was thrilled when they then got in touch about doing a full tour poster. I wanted to do something striking and a little otherworldly. I also wanted the vibe to be a bit comic book-like and playful. The text was probably the most difficult thing to nail with this one. Lila, from the band, suggested doing a gradient color swirl on the letters, which I think really helped tie the design into the type. There’s four versions of this poster that all look different. It took forever, but I’m happy with how it came out in the end.
This article was originally published on AIGA Eye on Design.