round the middle of the summer, I took an Amtrak ride to Philadelphia to meet the most talented, friendly group of designers who’d probably ever taken a few hours off—on one day’s notice—to meet a design journalist for lunch. One of the people who wasn’t there was Eric Karnes, who was traveling in Europe at the time. But over the course of writing about the Philadelphia design community for HOW magazine, I got to learn about Eric’s intricate, dimensional, amazing (not a word I use frequently or lightly) typographic explorations and posters. And I was sure the posters deserved an article of their own. His world, printed on sheets of paper, is anything but flat.
The background: Karnes, Baltimore-born and raised, holds a BFA in graphic design from Maryland Institute College of Art and an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University. After graduation he “punched the clock,” as he puts it, at Pentagram and at the Martin Agency before founding the multidisciplinary design partnership Karnes Coffey with fellow VCU grad Christine Coffey.
The studio, based in both Philadelphia and Richmond, VA, produces award-winning work for the Smithsonian and the Richmond Ballet, among its many institutional and corporate clients. Karnes, an assistant professor in the College of Media Arts & Design at Drexel University, also runs a “tiny, one-man poster studio” that, he claims, “doesn’t turn a profit.”
As he tells the story: “One day in 2013, in order to convince a client to create a poster rather than the run-of-the-mill postcard they wanted, I offered to waive our design fee. And so was born Karnes Poster Company, which allows me to channel my nervous energy and make something with real longevity. When a poster arrives in the mail,” he explains, “the first impulse is to hang it on your office wall. And if it’s nice enough, it may get promoted to your living room in a swanky modern frame. What more can a designer ask for?”
The posters: Take a look for yourself, and read Karnes’s descriptions of how he does it—with tools that include paper, camera, flatbed scanner, x-acto blades and lots of scotch tape.
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Polosko Custom Woodworks
“This poster announces an open house and exhibit of unusual custom pieces by this high-end custom cabinetry and furniture company. The concept based on their cutting diagrams that show how a 4 x 8′ sheet of plywood is sectioned off to become pieces of finished cabinets. As always, the poster is my loose interpretation of the client’s process, in this case, how the wood is cut and the pieces stacked. The focal points were scanned from sheets of veneer in three different woods—birch, cherry and walnut. The poster was printed as a regular CMYK job on uncoated stock with the saw blades printed in Pantone 877 matte silver, which unfortunately, was not nearly as metallic as I’d hoped for. Now whenever printing metallics I always ask for ink drawdowns on the exact paper.”
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Meg J. Roberts
“This artist and jewelry designer often utilizes line as a structural element in her work — from the wire armatures of her fabric installations to the die-cut line work on her animal-inspired jewelry pieces. This poster announced the addition of new fine art and craft work to her website. An admittedly loose interpretation of the evolution from Meg’s line sketch to a physical piece of jewelry, it began as a full-scale collage using a custom typeface I built from radiating lines. The collage was constructed slowly, in layers, with lots of scotch tape, then scanned in pieces to fit my flatbed scanner. Once the black collage was complete, the yellow collage and dimensional shadowed elements were added.”
[Related: The poster design above earned a win in the PRINT Regional Design Awards. Enter your work today.]
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The Spatial Affairs Bureau
“In describing this poster, which announces an open house at this architecture firm, I could pretend that I was inspired by the client’s digital renderings of buildings. But the truth is that — channeling my younger self — I wanted to have fun with the company name by mimicking the movement of the stars when the Starship Enterprise is in warp mode or the Millennium Falcon is in hyperspace — using forms that would feel at home on an architectural plan. The poster began as a number of collages, each one building on the one before until I resolved the composition and scale. I printed out hundreds of little squares and placed each one individually. It seems crazy, but I often work faster by hand. The letters were drawn using basic one-point perspective. Then paper models were built and photographed. Finally the whole composition was assembled digitally. This poster is printed in two colors. There is the standard black, but given the detail in the gray squares, the gray is a separate carefully trapped spot color.”
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“The client is a broker of rare trees for architects, developers and homeowners. The poster, which showcases a corresponding new visual identity system, hangs in the reception area of their office. Like the identity, it was designed to be playful but sophisticated — and approachable to everyone from homeowners to landscape architects. The ‘story’ is straightforward: a squirrel, searching for the perfect tree, finds his way from map to landscape. This is the first poster I ever designed, and the first time I used simulated dimension for a client project. It and the Yeager Open Studio poster were heavily inspired by my graduate thesis on Geologic Typography. The triangle compositions were created digitally in Adobe Illustrator and the dimensional elements are photographed models. For most posters, I start with a handmade collage, but since I had the basic company identity, including colors, already down, I began digitally.”
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“For better or worse, sometimes I get to be my own client. This poster was designed to announce a workshop I conducted at Virginia Tech University. It’s an esoteric interpretation of my process — one that probably makes sense only to me. Though the end products are composed digitally, each of my concepts finds its initial form through physical interaction with paper, an x-acto, and massive amounts of scotch tape. This poster began as individual collages that were eventually matched together. I was exploring the idea of organically arranging small lines and dots to give a feeling of synapses firing. The typography and dimensional elements were combined from unused elements from previous projects and then refined and/or altered to work together. The poster was printed in three spot colors, including fluorescent magenta.”
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“This poster for a craftsman in metal fabrication announced his first open studio, during which visitors such as the architects and interior designers he collaborates with tour the shop and see the company’s work in progress. It interprets Yeager’s design and fabrication process from CAD drawings through metal fabrication. This was the second poster I designed after I decided to focus a portion of my design practice on poster work. And it was the first poster that began as a series of small typographic collages, which helped me define the use of the line. Paper models of the plus signs were photographed at different angles until I found a view that felt the most ‘architectural.’ The composition was originally more regular, like a series of Muybridge photographs, but it didn’t feel enough like a poster, so I scaled the pluses up and down to create a more dramatic sense of space.”
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“Though this isn’t technically a poster, it functions similarly, but on a smaller scale. This project had an incredibly tight deadline. I was commissioned to illustrate a typographic interpretation of the volume and issue numbers for the February 2015 issue of Wired magazine, I had three days from getting an email from the creative director to sending in the final art. So there isn’t a grand concept. Rather, I tried to use some elements from previous projects. And it was the one and only instance when a client has asked me to make the type less legible. Making it required a few late nights (one of which was my birthday), but I got it in on time, took a drink, and then took a nap.”