Banner Making 101

sucks030330-4.jpgIn demonstrations, banners can be a linchpin of your group's participation. They are used to communicate your group's message to people outside the demonstration. It can also serve as a means to gathering your group together. They really can be the centrepiece of your group's participation but they have to look good! Follow this guide and your banner will look great.

Bob Olsen was an activist that I worked with at the Mobilization for Global Justice. Whenever we needed a banner we went straight to Bob to set us up. I've lost contact with Bob since about 2004, but if anyone has any information about Bob, I'd love to reconnect. He wrote the following guide back to share his knowledge.

Bob Olsen's Banner Making Guide

I have made a few banners to carry in demonstrations. Recently I was asked to show people how to make banners. I thought it easier to write my ideas down. I would appreciate your feedback.

  1. Purpose
  2. Message
  3. Styles
  4. Size
  5. Layout
  6. Font/highlighting
  7. Materials, paint, cloth, brushes
  8. Construction
  9. Vents
  10. Poles
  11. Carrying
  12. Posting up a banner
  13. Protecting the banner from arrest

1. Purpose:

Banners can either be artistic and expressive and/or simple and effective at delivering a message. Since I want to deliver a message and I am not an artist, I will try to explain how to make a banner that is effective at delivering a message.

The design and construction of a banner depends upon its purpose. A banner may be disposable, made for a single event. Or, it may be made for use at multiple outdoor events. Or, it may be an indoor banner. I make outdoor banners for repeated use.

Purposes: Identification or, Issue or, Getting on the news.

An identification banner tell others, including the media, that it is your event or that you are there in support of the occasion. It can serve to rally your group and help people to find you in a large crowd or to tell the crowd where your group is going. These are often the most effective banners.

An issue banner tells people why you are there.

I suggest that, to be most effective, your banner do one or the other, not both. I think that a banner that gets on the news is an effective banner.

2. Messages:

The message should be simple, just a few words, and unambiguous. Of course, you might be clear about deliberately using an ambiguous message.

The effectiveness of the banner also depends on upon how clearly it can be seen at a distance, or in a news photo or on TV. Many banners get lost in a crowd. Their message may not reach people and not be seen in the news.

The simpler message the better if you want to reach a lot of people or inform people of your presence or your issue. The most effective banners have very few words. Of all the banners that I have made, the one that immediately attracted the most attention from people and the media had only two words, "Capitalism sucks!" Banners with lots of text or graphics look nice hanging on a wall where people have time to read them.

I recommend that your banner either identifies you or state your issue, not both. Use two banners if you want to do both. Or, state your issue in large letters and put the name of your group in smaller print at the bottom.

The more time that you spend thinking about the message that you might put on a banner, the clearer it probably will be. People often make up banners spontaneously and then need to constantly explain the meaning of their message. Any banner that needs to be explained is clearly not effective. You might want to make up a list of bannerisms, ideas to consider using on banners. Painting and constructing a banner is the easy part.

The name of your group is often the most effective message.

3. Styles:

Hand carried banner, tall banner on poles, narrow banner on poles to be seen above the heads of a crowd.

Long hand carried banners and tall banners on poles can only be seen by those who are standing directly in front of the banner. These banners cannot be seen clearly if other people stand or walk in front of them. I have found that a banner 3' - 1m wide carried on 8' - 245cm poles is the best in most situations. It can be seen above the heads of a crowd, the police or people being interviewed at a press conference.

Put the name of your group on such a banner. Then people will know where to find you in a crowd. They will know which way your group is moving in a demonstration. They will know that your group was present at the event or press conference. You will become acquainted with the undercover police officers.

4. Size:

Assuming that you want a banner that is going to be very active and attend many outdoor events in all kinds of weather and possibly be carried on long marches, I suggest a banner no more than one metre wide and three metres long. I find that the best size is 2ft-3ft 65cm-90 cm wide and 8ft-9ft 250cm-280cm long. Banners more than 3 square yards/metres are very difficult to carry or hold in even a modest wind. In fact, even 2 square yard/metre banner can be a challenge in a brisk wind.

5. Layout:

Make a drawing of your banner, then...

  • Measure, measure, measure and then measure again!
  • Draw guide lines on the cloth. Measure out the letters.
  • Draw your lines and letters with a pencil.The ink from some pens will run when the banner gets wet.
  • Leave space between the letters so that you can highlight them. Do not crowd the letters together.
  • Cloth, it might be better to cut the cloth after you have painted it, because you may run out of space if you have not measured properly.
  • The simpler the better. 6 words maximum to be most effective.
  • Use the largest font possible so that it can be seen at a distance.
  • Leave space, at least one-half letter high, around the borders and between lines.
  • Try not to leave blank space on the banner.
  • Text only.
  • Put a border on the banner.

Put a one or two-centimetre border in either black or white, on the banner. Photos of a borderless banner may not get posted to IndyMedia or on the TV because the banner disappears against the background.

Text is easier to read at a distance or in a news photo than logos or graphics. Graphics work well in printed material or on indoor banners where people have the time to figure them out. Widely recognized logos or an extremely simple graphic can be effective. Again, highlight them with a contrasting colour.

Colours: I suggest one colour for the lettering, with a second colour to highlight the lettering. Using many different colours looks nice on a wall hanging but is difficult to distinguish in a crowd or in a news photo. If you have two lines of text, you can reverse the colours of the lettering and the highlighting. Black lettering with red highlighting and/or red lettering with black highlighting.

White, although the most common background, is the easiest and most effective. Yellow bedsheets (from Seaton House) are also effective. (see materials)

6. Font/Highlighting

Simple block letters are easiest to lay out. Or, print your design and then photo-copy it on to a transparency which you can buy at an office supply store. Then project it onto your banner, which you need to hang on a wall and trace the design. (Lots of work) The easiest font to read is Times New Roman Bold. Use both upper and lower case if you can. All capitals is harder to read.

Highlighting makes your lettering twice as visible

Highlighting with a contrasting colour makes your lettering or graphic twice as visible. If you use black lettering on a white background, pale yellow highlighting will make the letters shine in the sunlight or the glare of TV lights. If you have the time, leave a small white border between the lettering and the highlighting. If you are in a hurry, put the pale yellow highlighting on first and then do your black lettering second. Red lettering with black or yellow highlighting, black lettering with red or yellow highlighting. Leave a small white or yellow border between the red/black lettering and the red/black highlighting.

I use only four colours for lettering and highlighting. Black, white, yellow and red. Simple, effective!

7. Materials, paint, cloth, brushes:

A small brush, one centimetre or half-inch wide is best. The brush should be no more than half the width of the lettering. You also need an even smaller brush for highlighting and touching things up. Occasionally a two centimetre or one-inch brush is useful for very large surfaces. Artist supply stores probably charge more for such brushes than stores selling house paints. Cloth stands up better than paper in rough or repeated use and strong winds. Paper, however, stands up surprisingly well outdoors and is much easier to work with than cloth. If you do use paper, reinforce the edges with masking tape to reduce tearing, before you start layout or painting. Rub the masking tape very well to press out all the air under the tape. Paper works well for a single outdoor event or repeated indoor events.

I use old bedsheets. Do not use old pure cotton bedsheets because they tear too easily. The cloth will unravel where it has been cut. Just ignore that if you are only going to use the banner once. Otherwise, you can prevent unravelling by painting the edges of the cut cloth. Or, you can hem the edges to make the banner stronger. Use cloth that is mostly cotton and has some artificial (polyester) fibre in it to reduce tearing. Do not use pure artificial fiber cloth. The paint will sit on the surface of the artificial fibre and rub off. Paint soaks into cotton fibre and cannot be rubbed off.

Canvass is too heavy! It is too heavy to carry. In the rain, it soaks up a ton of water. You can buy excellent white cotton/polyester cloth for about $3/yard in Toronto.

I use latex paint. Do NOT thin latex paint. Use it straight out of the can. It is water soluble and easily handled or washed off. Latex paint is made to stick, no matter how many times it gets rained on. Use any kind of latex paint that you can get, so long as the colour is right. In Toronto, I get latex paint for about $7/gallon on Front St, just east of Bathurst. I also recycle paint that people put out in their garbage. White paint is easiest to come by. Red paint is hardest to find. I also buy paint on Parliament St, west side, south of Dundas. Check the discount counter. I buy paint that is close to the colour that I need and then do a bit of mixing to get the colour that I need. It is cheapest to buy by the gallon. Mix and keep it in smaller containers. Keep these smaller containers in the fridge to prevent mould. If it does go mouldy, just mix it and use it. I only add water if the paint has dryed out a bit by sitting in a small container for too long.

I prefer white cloth because, if I need to correct spills or errors, I always have white paint. Also, it is necessary to cut vents in the cloth to allow the wind to pass through. It is necessary to seal those cut edges with paint to prevent unravelling. If I use coloured cloth (yellow) I then need to mix paint to try to match the cloth. Therefore, I prefer white cloth!

Leave spills and/or errors to dry. Do not try to mop up a spill on the banner. Make corrections after the paint has dried. Latex paint dries in about an hour, depending on temperature, humidity and circulation.

8. Construction: 

Assuming that you want to carry your banner on poles, it is important to understand that a cloth banner is not a rigid piece of plywood. The cloth banner is going to blow in the wind. If you attempt to hold it rigid and square, the wind will either blow you over or destroy the banner. Therefore, you need to allow the banner to blow in the wind, realizing, that most of the time, it will look presentable and legible.

There are two ways to carry a banner on poles. You can sew a sleave on either end of the banner and put poles into those sleaves. That is what most people do. But there are two problems with that. First, the banner droops in the middle. Secondly, it is next to impossible to keep the two poles at exactly the same height and perfectly parallel, resulting in diagonal tension on the cloth, distorting the text. As a result, it is not legible most of the time.

The second method takes a bit more work. First, the top of the banner needs to be kept taught so that it does not droop. Second, the banner needs to be suspended so that it can flap in the wind and is not too distorted when the poles are not at the same height or perfectly parallel.

I sew straps on each corner of the banner. I use these straps to tie the banner to the poles. Before I start the layout of the banner, I suspend the cloth by these straps. I see how the top of the cloth droops. I then sew tucks in the cloth to shorten the length of the top of the banner until it no longer droops when suspended. I use cloth straps about 60 cm long. I sew 20-30 cm of the strap firmly on the top or bottom edge of the banner at each corner.

9. Vents:

It is necessary to cut vents in the cloth to allow the wind to pass through. The vents should be flaps, half-circles, that hang down when there is no wind. You want to put as many flaps as you can and as large as possible in the banner, but without cutting so many flaps that the banner can be torn apart by the wind.

I put flaps in the space between words, with the edges of the flap touching the letters, in the middle of large letters, such as "O", in the space between the lines of text and at the top and bottom of the banner. There should be sufficient distance between the flap cuts to carry the wind-load.

Experience is the only guide. The main wind-stress is at the corners of the banner. Do not cut any flaps in the area immediately diagonal to the four corners, or too close to the ends of the banner. Leave an uncut band of 10 cm along the top and bottom. The banner may tear at the cut end of the flaps. I sometimes sew reinforcing across those cuts. The cut cloth will unravel. Don't worry about that if you are only going to use the banner a few times. However, if you hope to use the banner a hundred times, you can prevent the cloth from unravelling by painting the edges of the cuts. Paint the flaps with paint matching the cloth, before you cut the cloth. That's why I prefer white cloth.

10. Poles:

Poles 8'2" 250 cm work best. They hold the banner above the heads of the crowd and they fit in the cargo bin of large buses. Wooden poles are easier to carry and less threatening than metal poles. Bamboo is best. Heavy poles are heavy to carry and light poles will break in the wind. I find that the best poles are made by splitting a two-by-four in three. You can buy poles (strapping) at lumber yards for about $2. Some strapping is heavier than other strapping. Get the heaviest. Get a pole that has no big knots or splits in the wood. Shave the off the sharp corners of the poles with a knife to save your hands. Paint the poles to reduce slivers.

The bottom of the banner needs to be able to flop around. Because, if the bottom of the banner is tied tight to the poles, the diagonal tension will distort the banner and it will be illegible. Otherwise, you would need to carry the poles so that they are constantly parallel and at the same height. Then you create the problem that you are trying to solve by not putting the poles in sleaves on the banner.

Tie the top of the banner so that it is touching the pole. Tie the bottom of the banner so that it is about 10" 20cm from the pole. The bottom straps need to be longer than the top straps.

11. Carrying:

Keep the top of the banner tight at all times.

The banner is only legible if the top of the banner is tight. You never know when someone might take a photo or when a TV camera may take a shot of the crowd. Your banner might be illegible in a photo or on the TV because the top was not tight. Turn the banner to face the those you are trying to reach, such as the TV cameras. Stand the poles on the ground when you are not moving. Take a rest. Carry elastic bands on your wrist to wrap up the banner when you are finished.

The larger the banner the more difficult it is to carry in a wind. I want the smallest banner with the largest lettering possible. Therefore, I do not leave any blank space on the banner.

12. Posting up a banner:

The four corner straps can be used to hang a banner on a wall etc. However, you need to pull the top tight to keep the banner from sagging. Or, you can sew extra straps along the top of the banner to suspend it from several points. The bottom of the banner will flap in the wind. You can hang small bags of sand (one-quarter or one-half cup) from the bottom of the banner to hold it down.

13. Protecting the banner from arrest: 

The police, in their ongoing struggle against democracy, now arrest and destroy banners. They're excuse is that the poles can be used as weapons. Therefore, if you are surrounded by police or need to pass through a line of police, remove the banner from the poles. Have one person carry the banner in their pack or pocket and someone else carry the poles. I had five banners arrested and destroyed in Toronto on March 22, 2002.


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