From an article in Step-By-Step Graphics by Poppy Evans
©Step-By-Step Graphics/Poppy Evans

Poetic Justice

Shakespeare never hesitated to lampoon the hero, and Acme Design takes the entertaining approach when they create posters for the bard’s birthday bash.

Modernizing a historical figure and assigning him an outlandish personality isn’t the type of project most designers encounter in their entire career, but it is a challenge Acme Design has faced for the past four years when designing the posters for the annual William Shakespeare birthday celebration in Wichita, Kan.

Started at The Wichita Eagle and Beacon’s headquarters approximately 15 years ago, the event has grown substantially since its beginnings due, in part, to the popularity of Acme Design’s posters. What started as an afternoon get-together at Wichita’s Botanica park now encompasses six weeks of activities, including an evening of music inspired by Shakespeare, three theatrical productions, and an art exhibition drawing nearly 2,000 people to the park, as well as the involvement of thousands more in Shakespeare-related activities all over the community.

Acme principal John Baxter was initially approached in 1996 by Scott Marshall, his former high school English teacher and a board member of the Wichita-Sedgwick County Arts & Humanities Council, the organization behind the event. “Scott tried to teach me Shakespeare during the ’70s. It bored me back then, but I wanted to help because he was a real inspiration for me,” Baxter notes.

As a non-profit group, the council was in no position to pay for commissioned work, so Baxter and Printing Incorporated volunteered to do the work pro bono. Of course, donating his time was one thing; finding usable art for the poster was another. “I knew we would have to use existing art,” he relates. He searched stock agency websites to find an appropriate image, finally tracking down an engraving of Shakespeare through Archive Photos and negotiating a discount for its use. “I told Archive Photos what a great cause this was, and they reduced their llicense fee,” the designer says.

From there, Baxter came up with the idea of portraying Shakespeare as a contemporary character — a cool dude caught up in significant events of the century. “I thought about Shakespeare casting characters in stories about the human condition,” the designer says.

Casting Call for Shakespeare

The first reincarnation of Shakespeare was born in the spring of 1996 as the Grateful Bard. Baxter drew his inspiration from a poster promoting a Grateful Dead concert in the late ’60s using typography and gradient effects reminiscent of the psychedelic era. The poster featured a colorized version of the black-and-white engraving sporting a pair of purple-lensed glasses.

“It was so popular, we decided to continue to try to place him in [present-day] situations,” Baxter says. So the following year he characterized Shakespeare as Barnum and Bailey in a poster that promised “The Greatest Prose on Earth.” Using graphic elements from a vintage circus poster, the designer featured the Shakespeare engraving from the previous year, duplicated and juxtaposed, to replicate the treatment of the circus company’s original poster.

Baxter continued the approach in 1998, when Shakespeare became the subject of tabloid gossip. Besmirched with taletell lipstick on his face, the familiar engraving appeared beneath a headline declaring, “Shakespeare in Love Triangle.” Baxter wrote poster copy revealing the poet’s involvement with a “Dark Lady.” Although the poster alluded to the movie Shakespeare in Love, it was created about six months prior to the movie’s release. “When the movie came out, it seemed like we were imitating it, but we weren’t,” Baxter says.

In 1999, he created two posters. “My greatest dream has been to design a cover for Rolling Stone,” says Baxter who created a cover that portrays Shakespeare as the subject of the magazine’s cover story. “It’s loosely based on Mick Jagger when he appears on the cover at the age of 435,” jokes Baxter.

Because he was unsure of whether or not the publication would grant him permission to do a parody of their cover, or whether the council would be happy with his idea, Baxter developed a backup concept featuring Shakespeare in another magazine parody as “Man of the Millennium” on the cover of Tyme magazine.

Rolling Stone not only granted permission for the use of their name, they sent him digital art of the logo. 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 co-founder, because he collects parodies of the cover. To Baxter’s delight, the council liked both posters, so they were printed on the same press run and used to promote the event.

The latest in Baxter’s series is a campaign poster that has Shakespeare running for president, To drum up design ideas, he browsed books on campaign memorabilia and searched the web. “I finally went onto e-bay and downloaded campaign posters and used those as references,” he relates. “They all had the same style.”

The Bard Draws Crowds

In addition to helping promote and further the popularity of Shakespeare and the Wichita celebration, Baxter’s posters have helped raise revenues. They are sold at the event as souvenirs, and collectors can purchase the entire collection. In fact, the posters are so highly valued that the most recent in the series kept disappearing from its posts.

They have succeeded in drawing a more youthful crowd to the event as well. “Recently, the council did a survey of people attending,” says Baxter. “Those 18 and under came because they learned about the event from the posters.” And the event has become an educational forum for local schools. Wichita middle and high school students earn extra credit for their History and English classes by attending the activities, and many students purchase a poster as proof of attendance.

Although the theme of placing the image of Shakespeare in a variety of humorous contexts has been a factor in the posters’ popularity, Baxter says he never planned to do a thematic series when hefirst got involved in the project. But when he completed the first poster, the idea of repeating the theme made sense.

“I took great pains to colorize the Shakespeare engraving and create a background with gradient blends,” he relates. “I wanted to be able to use that again if I could. The poster turned out so well, it was a logical step to come up with something modern using that old engraving for the next one.” And local residents look forward to each poster, anticipating where the Bard will turn up next.

Baxter acknowledges that it’s been fortunate that the timing of the poster series has coincided with tthe release of movies such as Shakespeare in Love, Elizabeth, and a contemporary version of Romeo and Juliet. “People come partly because of the modern interpretations of Shakespeare in recent years. It’s a wonderful thing,” he says.

Pro Bono Pays Off in Satisfaction

While Baxter is pleased with the success of the posters and how they have helped to popularize Shakespeare, he also appreciates the creative control that comes with pro-bono projects. “They’re so much fun. I can do whatever I want,” he says, noting that he’s involved in all aspects of the prospect, including copywriting. “I love the idea of doing everything myself.”

There’s also added value in contributing something to the community he grew up in. “Having lived in New York for nine years, I was on the receiving end of a lot of Kansas jokes. ‘Where’s Dorothy?,’ and so on,” he says. A lot of people thought Kansas was culturally dried up. It’s gratifying to find that the same level of cultural sophistication exists in my hometown.”

Poppy Evans teaches graphic design at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, and she frequently writes for graphic design magazines.

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