Four Things Every Musician Should Know About Graphics

by Randy Chertkow and Jason Feehan

File Under: Creating and Selling Your Merchandise, Creating and Maintaining Your Persona

Graphics are an important and inevitable part of a musician's life. They are part of your persona, merch (t-shirts especially), marketing, social media, and more. To generate all of this material, you will need to either have a graphic artist on your team or handle all of the graphics yourself.

But even if you hire someone, you need to clearly outline what you want them to do and evaluate their work. There are a few graphic arts concepts that every musician needs to understand. One of the better references for understanding graphics is The Non-Designer's Design Book by Robin Williams (not the comedian). But we can boil it down to four key concepts:

1. The Rule of Thirds

A big part about cropping a photo or making a good poster is to know where to align the important elements of an image. This is simple to do: if you imagine a tic-tac-toe board superimposed on the image, see if the parts that you want to emphasize are on the lines and especially in the places where they cross. For example, the title of your work should be on one of the horizontal lines (usually the bottom.) Many modern graphics apps superimpose these lines to help you align and crop your images.


Photo credit: Michael Miller

2. The Difference Between CMYK vs. RGB

The colors on your computer screen use a Red-Green-Blue (RGB) scheme which produces colors backlit by a light source. If you're making graphics that will only be used on the web or device, using this scheme to create your graphic is fine. However, if you take an RGB image and print it, the colors may not match what they look like on screen. This can be a problem when printing them on merch (for example, t-shirts that you sell at your show) since you want it to look exactly like it does online. To ensure your online and offline graphics look the same, use a Cyan-Magenta-Yellow-Black (CMYK) color scheme. CMYK is an older standard based on ink-printing. Though it's more limited in color choices, the colors you pick can be exactly reproduced in physical printings. The key is to match the CMYK value with the RGB value. You can do that by choosing Pantone colors which allow printers and merchandise manufacturers easy matching.

3. Color Palettes and Pantone Colors

You need to constantly find colors that not only look good, but work well with each other. A key to this is a color palette, which is a pre-set group of colors that are harmonious. This palette is not only a list of colors, it includes their RGB and CMYK values so that you can represent them immediately and accurately with graphics programs. It’s best to use Pantone colors if you can, because merchandise manufacturers can easily make merch using those values as it has become a standard in the industry.

4. Advancing and Receding Colors

Warm and bright colors give the illusion of being closer in the composition, cool and dull colors seem further away. Use this effect to your advantage: when you want to emphasize something so it "pops" out at the person viewing the image, use advancing colors. When you want to de-emphasize elements of your graphics, use receding colors. This technique is used all around the web and mobile: the submit or buy button is always an advancing color that jumps at you; while the cancel button is usually a receding color like a gray. You’ll often find yourself drawn to the buttons that use advancing colors almost by instinct. So if you want your poster to grab a person's attention that you'll be playing your show this Friday only, color that part with advancing colors. See this page for more info on the science of color.

These basic concepts will be useful for you as you work with the graphical elements of your music. As you continue to use them, you’ll find that they become second nature and you will apply these concepts to everything that you make.

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