How I Made It: Poster design in 8 not-so-easy steps

A sketched self-portrait of Cal Tabuena-FrolliEditor’s note: “How I Made It” is an ongoing series of backstories behind the projects that indie talent creates for the public media system — including work that’s not built for broadcast.

We asked Cal Tabuena-Frolli, an illustrator and one of AIR’s New Voices scholars in 2014, to explain how he balances his clients’ desires against his own taste and training in the design process. (One tip: “If your client chooses a draft you don’t think is the strongest, work on the image they chose and the image you like most.”)

Cal’s done some work for AIR, so we agreed to put our own project (and client behavior) up for scrutiny.


In May, AIR hired me to design a poster for the Localore: Finding America launch party at the Megapolis Festival in San Francisco. Here’s how it happened, start to end.

In 2010 I was a radio intern for KALW in San Francisco. They knew I loved making visuals more than audio, so a few years later they invited me to make graphics for their pledge drives.

Between the drives and other podcast design gigs, I would have my own fun illustrating Love+Radio episodes. I’d email Nick van der Kolk with my fan art and he’d respond very kindly, even using some of them on his site. At the end of the year, I designed a zine for the Third Coast festival, where I was an AIR New Voices scholar — also just for fun.

All of these gigs doubled my portfolio and carved a niche for my design work in the public radio world. That’s how AIR found out about me and paid me to work with them.

My takeaway from all this was to be a fan first and then work my way into collaborating with shows I love by emailing good ol’ fashioned fan art. If you can think of a clever way to work with a show (think posters for live events or editorial art for podcast episodes), it’s likely they’ll think of you as their visual ally for future projects.

As for the actual design for the poster, here’s how I work, step by step.


1. Talking business

After the initial contact, I go over rates, deadlines and the size of the project.

Deadlines and rates vary based to how much my client can afford. Small podcasts often have tiny budgets, but sometimes I’m fine taking a pay cut if it means cementing a professional partnership.

Here’s a great article by HOW Design on wages. I charge by the project so my clients don’t get nervous about deciding hourly rates.

TIP: Always hammer down a price (or agree on an hourly rate) before putting in work. If you’re the client, be frank about your budget. If you’re the designer, ask how much money they have to offer. It may feel awkward, but it’s so much worse to finish the job and not get paid what you were expecting. If it’s written down or in a contract, your worth is not up for debate.

If someone approaches you about work without mentioning money, here’s a useful reply: “Interesting project. What are your budget and deadlines?”


2. A sense of the client’s taste

Talking about color palettes and fonts is great, but concepting is the most important part of the job. I ask as many questions as I can: What graphics are you attracted to? What feelings do you want to evoke? What do you not want to see in the poster?

That last question is crucial, by the way. I once spent two days working on a graphic I thought was perfect. They decided not to run it because it was “too cartoony.” I was peeved, yes, but more at myself for knowing how easy it would have been to avoid the situation

The idea is to have all the material you need to confidently sketch some roughs.

The strongest concepts from my conversation with AIR were “local across America,” “electric creativity” and “making.” In the next step, you’ll be able to see at least one of these concepts in each sketch.


3. Inspiration and rough drafts

Sometimes I send over a few graphics I’m currently loving, just to give the client a view of my visual frame of mind.

For this project, I was really inspired by the “compendium” look in these images. I’m easily engaged by anything that reminds me of a cabinet of curiosities.

A collection of posters and album covers with images in rows or radiating from a central point.

On the other hand, I love strong central images like the ones in these posters.

A collection of album posters with strong central images


With the conversation and inspiration graphics simmering, I connect images to buzzwords.

I make the sketches as broad as possible, giving the client plenty of room to have opinions.

Twelve sketches of different possible looks for the poster -- mostly of a map of the United States covered by objects, or of a central object surrounded by tools.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Rough 01

In this one, America is covered in all kinds of lightbulbs. It implies that regardless of where you live, great ideas are happening. This one is a direct translation of the “electric creativity” concept we gleaned from the concepting stage.

Rough 02

Here, all sorts of creative tools are circling a hand, marrying the “compendium” look with the concept of “making.”

Rough 03

This one’s my favorite! It shows a geographic map of America translated into audio waves. I’ll definitely be using this image again, whether it’s pitching it to another client or making it a personal poster.


4. Selection

I ask for the client to be painfully honest and we discuss what worked and what didn’t with the roughs. They choose two or three designs to expand.

Sketches with check marks and exes across them, indicating client selection

The more they tell me what works, the easier it is to deliver a winner.

AIR really liked some of the images and was clear about what to change. For instance, the team liked 13 from the start, and had simple solutions to cleaning up the image.

Rough 04

Here’s a clip from the feedback:

Favorite one: # 13

-take the names of the cities off  

-replace a few city skylines with rural elements, trees, etc”

TIP: If your client gives you a “blank slate” during the concept phase, don’t feel guilty if they don’t like your sketches. It’s their job to relay their initial expectations. Do make sure you get paid for those drawings, though.

When it comes to the art making, I like to draw my images by hand using pen, ink and my tracing table. Then I scan the drawings, clean them up in Photoshop and transfer them to Illustrator where I color and layer them.

Here’s a schematic of the different layers in the final image:


I lay down a solid color base in Photoshop. Then I overlay an ink texture I scanned, which gives the poster some visual texture. Next, the line drawing I processed in Illustrator sits on top and I apply the text and logo graphics.


5. The Big Decision

Here’s where the client chooses a favorite.  I make a detailed draft, justify each image to the client and continue iterating whatever concept the client likes most.

09 Choice

For the image on the left, I found the translation of America to a long, metaphoric line of audio elegant and compelling. The tin cans recall nostalgic neighbor-to-neighbor storytelling. And the simple, hand-drawn type felt crafted, personal, and easy to read.

On the right, we see a single line connecting some of America’s skylines and landscapes. Its idea was that America — from its iconic skyscrapers to its desert badlands — is one long narrative thread, where stories big and small are given equal weight. This concept nested perfectly within the “Finding America” theme and AIR decided to use it.

I liked the image on the left more for its legibility and its rough, stamp-like feel. The image on the right is conceptually solid, but its graphic doesn’t hold up as well at a distance. Sure I could have made the central line thicker, but it would have turned out looking chunky, losing details I thought were crucial to the concept.

TIP (one my architect dad gave me): If your client chooses a draft you don’t think is the strongest, work on the image they chose and the image you like most. That way, you give them what they expect and can convey your passion for an idea you think is stronger. In this case, I worked on the Tin Can America image until it was clear AIR liked the other one more.


6. Refinement Ad Infinitum

Throughout the draft process, you can see that I had to drop some of the skylines to fit all the text. It was a constant balance between keeping the design cleanly simple and necessarily informative.

Versions of the poster as the text moves and the color is changed from black to blue.

Another big change you can see is the color. I typically don’t make big color changes toward the end, but when you get an email saying “We have some concerns about the poster…” a day before it’s due, you’re willing to make some drastic revisions. It needed to be vibrant, bold, and in line with the colors of AIR’s Finding America logo.


7. To The Press!

When your client is either satisfied or out of time, it’s time to send the files.

TIP: I stick to 300 dpi PDFs because that’s what printers have come to expect. Don’t be shy about asking the print shop if they need certain resolutions, bleed areas or different layers for each color. Although it’s generally the client’s job to talk to the printer, sometimes a client expects you to handle that communication. (This is another thing that it’s good to clear up when you’re first negotiating about the job.)


8. Reflection

I was so proud when I found my poster in its natural environment. It’s rare to see one’s art in action and it feels great.

The printed poster, wrapped around a light pole in Oakland.

If I did it over again, I’d make the lines a tad bolder, I’d push for a milder color scheme, and I’d give more attention to the text-design relationship, but I suppose I’ll just add that to my growing list of tips.


• Cal Tabuena-Frolli is an illustrator and designer for public radio. He was an AIR New Voice scholar in 2014 and is the Visual Editor for The Litography Project and is always available for podcast art, printed projects and audio-visual collaboration. You can see more of his work at or email him at

Is there a project that you’ve done, or enjoyed, that should be profiled in “How I Made It”? Email suggestions to