Edinburgh festival's high flyers

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For decades, they've been cheap and gaudy, but this year's handouts and posters have some style to them. About time too, says Alice Jones

It took a couple of days to work out what was different. Strolling through Edinburgh's Bristo Square, I found myself lingering by the hoardings so that I could look at the posters properly. Running up the Pleasance, I actually stopped and asked the street teams to hand over their flyers.

Eye-wateringly garish posters on every available surface and handfuls of unwanted flyers are necessary evils of the festival season, alongside being shouted at by students dressed as Restoration courtesans on the Royal Mile, really slow-changing traffic lights and a lack of sleep. They're another weapon in the month-long sensuous assault that is the Fringe.

Two years ago I wrote a piece on these pages bemoaning the cheap, uninformative and frankly unfunny flyers many comedians used to promote their shows. You know the ones: leering face, dangling microphone, lurid background, a title which means nothing until you've seen the show, and "As seen on Mock The Week!" screaming across the bottom in a wacky font.

This year, though, there's been a change. There are flyers inspired by the aesthetics of The Wire and Mad Men and posters which channel Roy Lichtenstein, Julian Opie and Alexander Rodchenko. There are specially commissioned fonts, monochrome boldness, retro style and real, grown-up graphic design! Henry Rollins' Frequent Flyer Tour has a poster designed by Shepard Fairey (he of the ubiquitous "Obama Hope" campaign image), which gives a nod to Constructivism and Soviet propaganda. John Hegley's Morning Wordship is a clever ecclesiastical spoof, with a heavenly starburst and a font recognisable from church noticeboards up and down the land.

Even the straightforward publicity shot has upped the ante. Sophie Black's character comedy is sold on a Warhol-esque portrait of the performer on a plain white background, while Loretta Maine, the troubled alter-ego of Pippa Evans, is pictured slumped in a toilet cubicle, face streaked with mascara for her show I'm Not Drunk: I Just Need to Talk to You. They're eye-catching, well thought-out and some of them are even funny.

And why shouldn't they be? It's extraordinary that comedians who have spent 11 months building up to the August jamboree, honing every last line and look, should lavish so little love on their flyer when it's the first impression of their show that most Fringe punters get. The average show at the Pleasance will print some 500 posters and 5,000 flyers (sometimes as many as 20,000). That's a huge opportunity to get the word out.

"It doesn't just have to be one man looking wackily into the camera with a microphone at an angle", says Idil Sukan, the creative director and producer at Draw HQ who has created some of the most eye-catching posters on display at the Fringe. "People have reached saturation point with that." The proof is in the pilfering. Sukan's designs for Ginger and Black, The Penny Dreadfuls and The Golden Lizard are the top three most stolen posters at the Pleasance so far this year.

For Ginger and Black's prison-based show she created a moody shot inspired by The Wire. The duo are pictured in a car, wielding guns and wearing pig masks, while their reflection in the tinted windows has them dressed as police officers. In a different vein, the charming sepia image for Mike Wozniak's and Henry Paker's whimsical jaunt The Golden Lizard has an amphibian logo straight out of Sukan's childhood copy of The Adventures of Tintin: Prisoners of the Sun. Other strong flyers are Pappy's, a rhapsody in beige tones and retro fonts –"There's a touch of Mad Men to it," says Sukan,."It's 1950s pastiche and they're advertising themselves" – and the nautical portrait for Jollie: Roger! for which Sukan tracked down a World War One tugboat on a canal in north London.

Sukan starts the process of designing as early as March, watching previews of the shows, talking to the comedians to get an idea of their concept and, wherever possible, taking her own photographs to give the flyer a coherent visual signature. "Sometimes a designer doesn't even meet the comedian. They're just sent a stock photograph by the agent and some blurb by the producer. People don't want to see an image that's been refracted through a series of agents and producers. It's cynical and fragmented", she says. "There should be a consistency between the show and its visual representation. It should be one unified project."

As such, her atmospheric and lightly cheeky poster for The Penny Dreadfuls has a black-and- yellow theme which carries right through to their stage set, costumes and badges.

Among the most beautiful and stylish posters papering the walls at the Pleasance this year are those from The Invisible Dot, the production company behind Jonny Sweet and Tim Key, among others. Their posters for 2010 stand out in a sea of gloss as minimalist, muted works of art. There are no photographs – just bold, single images on gorgeously coloured backgrounds with unusual fonts.

Jonny Sweet's pink poster perfectly matches the too-tight shirt he wears for his show, the fussy wording and typefaces – Let's All Just Have Some Fun (and Learn Something For Once) – mimicking his on-stage persona. The jazz-comedy night The Horne Section is represented by a surrealist jumble of never-ending brass instruments on a pink backdrop that wouldn't look out of place in the Parisian Metro circa 1963. Best of all is the menacingly monochrome design for John-Luke Roberts Distracts You From a Murder – an optical illusion combining a white fawn and a black knife-wielding hand, which brings to mind a classic horror film.

They were all created by the design studio Julia (set up by three Royal College of Art graduates in 2008) in conjunction with The Invisible Dot's Simon Pearce who has created a distinctive "house style", down to commissioning a new font. Every press release, poster and publication is filtered through this style and the results are reassuringly high quality.

Some comedians prefer to control their own visual identity. Josie Long still designs her own flyers and gives out hand-made photocopied programmes with cartoons and extra titbits at the end of her shows. For Be Honourable! the flyer includes a cartoonish self-portrait and the hand-written tagline, "I plan on making this show excellent. Are you in?"

Ed Weeks, one half of the sketch duo, Tommy and the Weeks and a graphic designer by training, started out making posters for Footlights shows at Cambridge University before working on the marketing material for his own show as a way of keeping costs down. The striking Soviet-style image he created last year has led to commissions from other acts this year, including the 19-year old sensation Bo Burnham. His flyer pictures him crouched over a toy piano, with a bemused look on his face. His name is stamped across the top in the faded red swirl of the Coca-Cola logo, while ink-blots and schoolboy-style notes dot the white space.

For the off-the-wall sketch troupe Delete the Banjax, Weeks took inspiration from the poster for the kooky Dave Eggers and Sam Mendes film Away We Go. A large photograph of the quartet bursts out of a background of hand-drawn pictures of horses, tropical fish and pints of beer. This kind of lo-fi, indie aesthetic is increasingly popular among cult comedians who often give away badges and home-made programmes at their shows, too.

"The Fringe has become increasingly commercial. Appealing to the middle ground is the safest bet, so the posters have become quite homogenised", says Weeks. "With sketch and character comedy, the audience member has no idea what they're going to see so you can be a bit more daring. We're not at the level where we're trying to sell out 1,000 seats in the Pleasance [theatre], so you can afford to go a bit more whimsical. Maybe when these acts are selling out the Apollo, their posters will become a bit less interesting."

There's no reason why they should. Comedy is an art form and it deserves the artwork to match. "The comedians put so much work into their show all year round and then they're represented by a horrible web-based font. It's so sad," sums up Sukan. "There's so much real estate on posters. And so much latent potential for creating something beautiful."

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