Designing for Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures

Joseph Zhang
Sep 14 · 10 min read

01 / Overview

Over the course of two weeks, I dug deep into the context and mission of Pittsburgh Arts & Lecture with the intent of designing an event poster for their New and Noted lecture series. This project is an exploration of typographical hierarchy, color theory, and form, and how one can apply these principals to successfully communicate certain ideas or emotions.

Duration: 2 Weeks

Skills: Secondary Research, Typographical Hierarchy, Color Theory

Design Collaborators: Individual

Role: For this project, I conducted research on the typeface Galliard and developed a visual persona around the typeface through traditional poster design practices.

02 / Attending a Lecture

On September 5th, I went to one of their events highlighting renowned editor and author Jeff Gordinier. At this event, Jeff talked about his book Hungry, a four-year travelogue talking about his experiences following one the most celebrated chefs in the world, Rene Redzepi.

Below is an image of the Carnegie Lecture Hall, where the event occurred. Though the image looks a bit dark and lonely (blame camera quality), the atmosphere inside the room filled with curiosity and question immediately upon Gordinier and the chat hosts walking on stage. There are were about 60–100 people, many sitting behind me. The age range for this specific event revolved around 35–70 years old, but after talking to staff, I learned that different events can vary widely depending on the author and topic.

Pittsburgh Arts and Lecture on Sept. 05
Maximum seat capacity at another PGH Arts & Lecture event.

Through my experience attending this event, I learned that the conversation, yes, is about the book and its narrative, but its more so about the author and his life changing experiences described in the book. It’s about the meta realizations that come from wild adventures and the transformation in thoughts that follow, that Pittsburgh Arts and Lecture is about inspiring curiosity. It’s about sharing audacious moments and how those experiences can help others better broaden their perspective on the world. With this in mind, I developed this mission statement:

Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures endeavors to inspire curious ideas and experimental thinking by connecting wildly diverse authors with passionate readers.

03 / Exploring Fundamentals

Type Explorations

I started experimenting with weight and proximity in type. Given strict limitations for a number of type exercises, I gathered utilized the principles of visual hierarchy to cluster and distinguish type. As a design cohort, we began conversations about type and its relationship to negative space.

Third Column/Cluster — Mine


A big part of of my research process was exploring color and how I can influence the way information is conveyed emotionally and informatively. I approached my exploration of color in two ways — through print and web.

I believe it’s a completely different experience to pull color from print compared to pulling it from the web. Both have their respective nuances, such as the manual work necessary to color sample from magazines which makes decisions a bit more calculated. In contrast, the web has a lot more sources to pull ideas from, making the process about broad exposure more than anything else.

Paper Cutouts from Magazines
Digital Color Inspirations

After taking a step back, I noticed that a lot of what I picked out involved vibrant hues contrasted against bold blacks and whites. I knew the color direction I was going was probably pretty reflective of my personal design preferences, not necessarily what fit Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures the best. However, I did note the attractiveness of these colors and how that I could use that to my advantage.

Combining Typography + Color

Given another series of strictly-ruled color exercises, I began playing with the situating of color with type, as well as manipulating the type color itself.

04 / Mid-fidelity Experimentation

So far, I’ve played with color and text under quite restricted limitations. The next step in my process, I began pushing the limits more in terms of hierarchy and imagery. Similar to my color research, I began arranging type both in digital and physical form.

Upon discussing with mentors and fellow designers I extracted a few takeaways from this process:

  1. Hierarchy is king — that type guides a viewer’s eye and your primary design decisions should revolve around how to best do that.
  2. Posters should to be designed for multiple viewing distances — A poster hanging on a coffee shop window has to be able to attract someone walking by the shop. The poster also has to pull someone in when they’re walking just by it. And finally, that poster has to reveal information to viewers standing a foot away.


Below are a series of higher fidelity iterations that explore the relationships between imagery, color, and type. With their mission in mind, I tried to convey the organization’s goal of driving curiosity through the use of bold text and vibrant colors. This involved the usage of all caps, bold weights, and image selection.

Key Critique Takeaways

I further collaborated with others and learned a view things:

  • One thing that didn’t work as expected was use of one type size. On screen, I loved the top left version (the red and blue one). When printed out, though, everything flattened and the lack of size hierarchy made the poster feel shallow and bulky.
  • Imagery and color set the mood. My choice of imagery was either too literal or too abstract. They didn’t embody the organization identity that I had defined in the original.
  • How do I better utilize negative space???

05 / Expanding on the Grid Stricture

Moving forward, I decided to iterate on the three column grid structure (bottom right version), and how I could better utilize negative space to create more engaging compositions.

In the three images above, I further explored imagery and reduced the full width images to a third of the page. The increase in negative space created more breathing space, but when printed out, almost a bit too empty — so I increased the image width from 1/3 to 2/3.

Information Hierarchy

During the process of working on this project, I engaged in several conversations regarding which piece of information should be the most important — Author, Book Title, or Date? In all of my recent iterations, I prioritized the author because that’s what I believed readers came to these talks for: to listen to the author share their experiences. However, I also realized that highlighting the book titles as the primary piece of information would better embody the idea-driven goals of Pittsburgh Arts & Lecture for creativity and curiosity.

“Hungry / Over the Top / Imaginary Friend”

These are thought provoking titles that intrigue viewers much more than the name of an author. Furthermore, the New & Noted lecture series showcases up and coming authors, meaning that not many people may recognize the author names.

Utilizing Summary Blurbs

With my desire to go more suggestive with imagery, I wanted to somehow include an effective poster blurb to allude to the the visual used. Below are further explorations of type placement.

Placement of the ‘Carnegie Library Lecture Hall’

Type Size

Though it’s not quite evident on screen, the type size of the event details played a huge roll in dictating the breadth of the page. What I currently had was a bit too big and didn’t really pull the viewer in. Going 2/3 points down, they became too small and the columns began to feel disproportionate. After much tweaking, I decided to settle at a 10-point body font size and a 12-point title font size.

Color — Word Board

I think personally, I have a strong personal preference for simplistic, minimal visuals. This was one of the hardest parts of the project for me: choosing appropriate color and imagery. Much of my time was invested in these two aspects of the poster.

I began reflecting on my visit to the Jeff Gordinier lecture event and tried to recall the observations and sensations I experienced that day. This included, very tangible things such as touch, smell, sight, sound, as well as intangible traits such as atmosphere, conversation, and mood.

Desperately Idea Dumping :’)

06 / Semi-Final Draft

Below is the semi-final draft of my poster design. The use of red and blue conveys playfulness and though I can’t really explain my reason in words, I also felt like these two colors, in comparison to my other options, best delivered the feeling of boldness and forward thinking without being too wild and disorganized.

Though I felt like this iteration was a big improvement from before, there was still a few things I wanted to improve.

Issue 1 —Disconnected Information,

When defining the information pyramid I completely neglected the relationship between the book title and the book description. When receiving critique and feedback, this disconnect caused confusion on whether the book description (ex: “Eating, Road Tripping, and Risking it All with the Greatest Chef in the World”) was meant to describe the book or the lecture event.

Currently, the order goes:

  • Book Title, Date, Author, Book Description, Additional Information

When it should really be something like:

  • Book Title + Description, Date, Author, Additional Information.
Left: Before / Right: Solution

Furthermore, placing Carnegie Library Lecture Hall on bottom suggested that only the Imaginary Friend lecture would be at that venue. This is problematic considering that Carnegie Library Lecture Hall is the location for *all lectures.

Left: Before / Right: Solution

Issue 2 — Negative Space

Due to the varying amounts of information per lecture event, following a rigid grid structure created an illusion of imbalance.

Left: Before / Right: Solution

Issue 3— Imagery

I realized that I initially chose the triangular architecture primarily for its form. However, it never seemed to be the right image, and eventually I realized it was the type of architecture portrayed that was throwing it off – it was just too modern. From there, I dug through my inventory of personal photos taken last year, looking for one specifically, resulting in a compositionally identical image, just with a drastically different texturing.

Final Draft


Overall, this Communications project taught me the significance of iterating and how to utilize the prototyping and refining process. There were various points in my journey where I hit creative walls with no idea of what direction to go in, and quite frankly, I just had to do it — to keep trying new things.

    Joseph Zhang

    Written by

    Carnegie Mellon School of Design’ 22

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