From the book Graphic Design Makeovers by Poppy Evans
© Poppy Evans/North Light Books

Shakespeare Goes Contemporary

Making Shakespeare a marketable commodity is easy if you know how to present him within the context of today’s media. John Baxter, of Wichita, Kansas-based Acme Design Company, discovered this when he was faced with the challenge of creating a poster to promote the celebration of William Shakespeare’s birthday. Says Baxter, “It’s an annual party that was initiated by a man who works for the local paper.” The party has grown substantially since then. In fact, in recent years the party has drawn 1,000 to 2,000 people.

In 1996 the party’s primary sponsor, the Wichita-Sedgwick County Arts & Humanities Council, decided to put more effort into its promotion. Baxter was recruited by his former high school English teacher, who serves on the council’s board, to design a poster worthy of the party’s elevated status.

Baxter’s solution was to reposition Shakespeare in a contemporary publicity venue. “I thought about Shakespeare casting characters in stories about the human condition,” says Baxter. “I thought that turnabout was fair play, so he became Jerry Garcia.” Baxter’s first poster replicates the psychedelic look of posters used to promote Grateful Dead concerts in the 1960s and 1970s. He started by colorizing a black-and-white engraving of Shakespeare, supplied as a transparency by Archive Photos. To preserve as much detail as possible when the 4 x 5 inch (10.2cm x 12.7cm) image was enlarged to poster scale, Baxter had a service bureau make a high-resolution line art scan of the image. The type is set in Desdemona, a typeface originally designed in the 1970s, which Baxter altered and added a gradient to on the computer.

The following year yielded a characterization of Shakespeare as “Bard & Bard” in a parody of a Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus poster. In 1998, he became the subject of tabloid gossip (“Shakespeare in Love Triangle”) shortly after the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky affair came to light.

“My greatest dream has been to design a cover for Rolling Stone,” says Baxter, regarding his most recent poster. Although the council liked the Rolling Stone concept, Baxter was concerned that the magazine might not grant permission for the use of its name. After contacting Rolling Stone senior art director, Gail Anderson, Baxter was surprised and delighted to find out that not only could he do the cover idea, “She also sent me the logo art from the cover,” says Baxter. In exchange, Baxter ran a small credit line at the bottom of the poster and forwarded ten copies to Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone publisher and cofounder, “because he collects parodies of the cover,” Baxter explains.

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