Typographic Tightrope

Designing Circus

For most graphic designers, the opportunity to design circus posters and ephemera is a dream project. The uninhibited, excessive typography and bold, playful graphics are an extreme departure from the day-to-day restraints we are used to working with. When we think of the circus, it is this overstimulating visual language that is so ingrained in our collective imagination. As we considered the rich history of art and design associated with the circus, we were excited to begin researching and exploring ideas for the exhibition graphics that would accompany our exhibition.

Ringling Brothers circus poster, 1898. Courier Lithograph Co., Buffalo NY. From Wikimedia Commons

The 7 Wild Wheel Whirl Wonders, poster for Forepaugh & Sells Brothers, 1902. From Wikimedia Commons

Circus posters on display at The Ringling Circus Museum, Sarasota, FL

Circus posters on display at The Ringling Circus Museum, Sarasota, FL

Horsemanship, Gymnastic Exploits and Grand Ballet at Fossett's Grand Circus (detail). Courtesy of Leeds Library and Information

Brilliant Equestrian Entertainment! (detail), 1852. Courtesy of Leeds Library and Information Service. leodis.net/playbills

In presenting the exhibition’s title graphic, our first impulse was to go big and cover the walls in gigantic circus-inspired typography. We soon realized that we would have to show some restraint.

In this gallery, we usually place our title graphics on the central wall above the artwork. This location is highly visible from both entryways, allowing passersby to quickly identify the show. Unfortunately, all of our grand typographic gestures were too loud, detracting from the wall of black and white prints that hung below.

Revisiting the exhibition layout, we discovered that the case in the center of the gallery (usually painted to match the gallery walls) offered an unexpected opportunity to be loud and colorful without interfering with the art on the walls. Wrapping this case in bold graphics gave it the perfect circus-vendor look while also being hard to miss from the adjacent Modern and Contemporary Gallery.

Our introductory text panel was done in the style of a single-color broadside poster, using a variety of illustrative and ornamental typefaces. The artwork labels featured a contemporary typeface called Bau, whose variety of weights gave us a lot of flexibility. This was especially true of the super-heavy weight, which resembled the wood type featured in many early broadsides).


Installing vinyl graphics on the central display case.

Brendan Campbell

Graphic Designer