Design Skills: Posters and Outreach

Wooden bench in fall with leaves on the ground. Poster text reads "design skills for public historians"

One of the side projects I’m working on has had me thinking a lot about self-promotion and employment skills.  This thinking has been primarily around what emerging public history professionals should know when they go on the job market and how they can build the strongest resumes and cover letters possible.  Unsurprisingly this line of thought has also inspired me to consider what skills new professionals are bring to the workplace.  I’ve also been doing a lot of outreach events recent and thinking about marketing techniques.

So about those pretty graphics. Online promotion, creating physical flyers, and designing attractive graphics is a huge skill set.  Not every heritage organization is lucky enough to have their own design or communications person.  In smaller organizations with minimal staff one person is responsible for everything from event design, to promotion, to facilitation.  So how are your poster making skills? And how can you build basic design skills without breaking the bank?

Public Domain Images Are Your Friend

Don’t recreate the wheel or steal other people’s work. Seriously. There are a ton of places online where you can access public domain images to use in social media promo or other design projects.  One my favourite go to sites is Unsplash a website which hosts high resolution public domain images created by photographers. These images often work great as stock photos and are also available to remix and reuse as desired.  Check out “made with Unsplash” examples for ideas on how the images could work in promotional material.

I also love Old Book Illustrations, which is a collection of public domain illustrations that have been scanned from out of copyright publications.  The site specializes in Victorian and French Romantic images, they are available as raw scans to download or in a variety of resolutions.  I also particularly love that this site provides information on creators, where the images came from and the techniques used to create the image.  If you’re looking for historical images I would also suggest checking out library and museum collections to see what public domain scanning projects they have started.

Other sources I use for public domain images: Wikimedia Commons, Flickr Commons and the aforementioned archives.

Yay For Templates!

Poster design takes practice.  Knowing where to place images, how large text should be, and how to make everything eye catching takes work.  There are some horrible posters out there and chances are we’ve all been guilty of creating at least one – too much text, an image that is a bit blurry, or just a bad colour combination.  Using templates can take some of the guess work out of this. Most word processing programs include poster template if you’re looking for something basic.

Canva is an online drag and drop design program that comes with a lot of templates for social media, presentations, flyers, and other formats.  You can signup as a free user to access a number of the templates, images, and fonts.  They also have a subscription option for folks interesting in using their resizing tool or accessing additional templates.  This program is really easy to use for beginners who aren’t looking to invest a lot of time into design.

PosterMyWall is similar to Canva in its use of templates. It is a simple drag and drop design setup with an emphasis on building attractive promotional images. I’ve found this site particularly helpful if you’re looking for a event flyer inspiration or templates. I haven’t used it for social media graphics but it looks as though that is an option as well.

Training Options

At minimum I’d suggest that folks should gain basic photo editing skills.  This can be using Photoshop, GIMP or another open source editor of your choice.  Being able to crop, alter file sizes and formats, and alter the colour of images can be easy first steps to building your skill set. Want other design skill ideas? Allana Mayer wrote a great series of posts about how heritage organizations can use public domain images to create print-on-demand products.

There are also more and more design workshops popping up locally.  Check your local employment centre, library, or entrepreneur group to see if they are offering any introduction to design or introduction to online promotion workshops.

Interactive Libraries: the New Halifax Central Library

Image from Wikimedia Commons, Citobun

The Current on CBC has been running a series recently focused on all elements of design.  By Design looks at traditional design as well as new technologies, education practices, and other human constructed ideas that shape our world.  This week By Design featured a segment on designing libraries in a digital era.

The feature focused on the design of the new Halifax Central Library.  Set to open in the fall of 2014 the library is the first of scale to be built in Canada in many years.  The library features gaming stations, meetings rooms, community spaces, cafes, and takes the approach of libraries as gathering spaces and communal spaces of knowledge.

The discussion questioned the future of libraries and placed libraries as much more than a place for books, but as an actively engaged center of a community. This sense of community engagement was integrated into the design process for the Halifax Library. Five public consultations were held which invited Halifax residents to provide input on the design and components of the library. Many of these sessions were interactive.  For example in 2008 library patrons were asked to write down what they wanted in a new library on a ‘graffiti wall.’

Interactive events including knit-ins, talking fences, and community art projects are other examples of the Halifax Library already beginning to engage the community through non-traditional means. The library is position itself as a welcoming multipurpose environment that encourage conversation.

It is great to see such a large scale library project being funded and supported by a community.  As the library opens it will be interesting to hear feedback from the community and see how this new community oriented space is being used.  

For those interested in checking out the design of the new Halifax Central Library a virtual tour is available:

Kilkenny Castle: Architecture and Design Through the Ages

The Kilkenny Castle located on the River Nore in Kilkenny City was built in the early 13th century.  Throughout the history of the castle the building was renovated a number of times as the building changed owners, making the site today a mixture of architectural styles and time periods.

There are guided tours available at the Castle, however I arrived in between tours so the staff provided a map and sent me off on a self-guided tour.  The layout of the castle was a bit confusing at times, mostly because of the numerous renovations and additions that the building as undergone.  Resulting in the walk through the space feeling disjointed.

This disjointed feeling might also come from the fact that because the Castle was occupied for centuries the interpretation of the site tries to include elements from different time periods.  So the medieval period is seen in the basement of the castle where there are arrow loops, defensive rooms, and a wicker style ceiling. This is contrasted with a dinning room that reflects life in the castle during the 1860s and the library which is decorated in late 19th century style.

Perhaps the most striking architectural addition to the Castle is the Picture Gallery Wing which was added to the building in the early 1800s by architect William Robertson.  The high painted pitched roof is remarkable and the Gallery contains many of the portraits and paintings that were collected by former residents of the castle. 

The Castle is surrounded by gardens and parkland that is open to the public.  Elements of the older gardens have been maintained including a rose garden, sculptures, and walking paths.  Though many of the trees have been removed to provide open park space.

Former Carriage Building

Across the road from the Castle are the former carriage buildings and stable yard which were built in 1790.  The former stable buildings are now owned by Kilkenny Civic Trust and feature a number of craft studies, the Kilkenny Design Centre, and the Crafts Council of Ireland. The buildings are beautiful with a number of rounded arches, circular windows, and copper-domed tower being highlights.  The Design Centre also has a variety of handmade Irish crafts, which I could have spent hours looking at — I ended up buying a hat that was made locally. It was great to see the stables buildings being used and the exteriors of the buildings being preserved.

Photographs by Andrew MacKay

Exhibition and Design Skills

I wrote earlier about project management and administration skills that have can be invaluable in a number of public history roles.  Since moving into the Researcher/Curator role in February I’ve also had an opportunity to continue to expand a range of exhibition, design, and outreach practices.

Visualizing space and display design have always been something I have found challenging.  These tasks are still challenging, but like any skill I’ve found that the more opportunities I have to practice these skills the easier they end up being.  Some of basic exhibition and design practices that can be valuable to public history practitioners looking to expand their skill set include:

  • Start small.  Curating an entire exhibit from scratch can be overwhelming.  Filling a display case on a set theme can be a good place to start gaining practice in display creation. 
  • Have a mentor.  Installation and display design can involve a lot of hands on work.  The best way to learn these skills is to do them and having someone around who is familiar with common practices can be a godsend.
  • Familiarize yourself with basic tools and ‘handyman skills.’  That home renovation you’re undertaking might have more value than you know — mudding holes in drywall, hanging artwork, cutting acrylic, building basic shelves, etc are all skills which can be used during exhibit install. 
  • Learn how to plan things out to scale using graph paper.  Or how to use Sketchup or a similar program to map out an exhibition place. 
  • Following museum or art gallery listservs can be helpful.  There are is also a wealth of material in many of these listsev archives which can be useful when looking to come up with options for a specific problem.  (Eg. what type of mount to use when hanging artwork that is mounted on plexi and foam core). 
  • Proofreading and writing skills are key to creating informative and concise exhibit text. 

If nothing else this whole experience has made me take way more of an interest in the house renovations and building projects that partner is undertaking.

Art Exhibit Labels

Exhibit labels take way more thought than most visitors realize.  Decisions about design, layout, wording and content all take time and effort.  My most recent challenge has been moving from the creation of museum exhibit labels to the creation of art exhibit labels. 

Though both types of labels serve similar purposes — to inform patrons about the work on display, the style of the labels can very greatly.  Ideally both museum and art labels should link back to the theme of the exhibit and support a general interpretation plan.  Introductory, background, gallery overview, and individual work labels are all common art exhibit label types.

My history background urges me to fill labels with historical context and biographical type details. Cultural and historical context are still important in art labels but so are references to artistic style, technique, process and linkages to the visual works.  Like museum exhibition labels there is always a struggle to include relevant information in a clear, concise, and appealing way. 

Personally I find introduction and gallery overview panels the most difficult, as these tend to be the most text-heavy labels.  When I visit art museums or galleries I like reading overview labels, but I often find that I skim longer labels and by the end of the gallery I have label fatigue.  There needs to be a middle ground between over explaining/labeling items and not providing any context. 

A few resources I’ve found helpful when just beginning to learn about art labeling practices:

Feel free to mention any resources you’ve found helpful in the comments.

Architecture and Heritage Institutions

Resnick Pavilion

Architecture and design can have a huge impact on how a space is used.  This is true in family homes, libraries, art galleries, museums, and buildings of all shapes and sizes.  How space is configured, materials used, the amount of natural light, and numerous other factors impact how visitors perceive a heritage institution.  Architectural features can also enhance or limit display and gallery space.


Architype Review has recently published issues which focus on architecture in libraries, art museums, and performing arts centres.  The architecture featured in these issues varies greatly; some is very modern and innovative while other featured buildings are very simplistic and classical in style.  In addition to providing great images of each structure Architype Review provides descriptive details on the space and its construction.

Some of my favourite featured heritage institutions in Artchitype Review include:

  •   The Safe Haven Library in Thailand.  This library is part of the Safe Haven Orphanage and was built in 2009 using local materials and labour. The structure is fairly simplistic but the building was designed to meet the specific needs to the library.  A great timelapse video which shoes the construction of the library and be seen here.
  • The Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  The
    Wild Beast Music Pavilion

    Pavilion is a single-story, 45,000 square foot structure, and is currently the largest purpose-built, naturally lit, open-plan museum space in the world.  The fact that the space is naturally lit and relies upon open space is a very unique feature in the museum world.  

  • The Wild Beast Pavilion in Valencia, CA is a unique recital hall and outdoor performance space.  The space is multipurpose and is used for instruction, enclosed concert space, and open air recital space.  The numerous functions of the space combined with the visually pleasing design is what appealed to me about this particular design.

What are your favourite heritage institutions with unique architecture?