Working the Narrative

Every good image or design grabs your attention with a subject, color, maybe some witty copy. What keeps you on the page is some kind of connection, and that connection usually comes from a narrative. The story, implied or explicit, gives a deeper meaning to what you see. Maybe you relate through your own experiences or interests, or the viewpoint exposes you to a new thought or existence.

My challenge this year was to promote a ski area, which everyone thought had burned to the ground in the Las Conchas fire. I needed a promotional design which caught the eyes of our potential customer, resonating with them, and convinced them to try us out. These are all standard advertising goals, but I’m doing all of this while trying to overcome the public’s perception that the ski hill burned to the ground.

I’ve discussed the Las Conchas fire, which swept through the Jemez mountains and nearly decimated the Pajarito ski area. Luckily, the hill and the neighboring town of Los Alamos were spared.

Needless to say, the experience was harrowing for everyone in the immediate area, and the fire in one way or another touched almost everyone who lives in Northern New Mexico. Many people were evacuated or hosted refugees from the fire. Some witnessed the blaze from the other side of the Rio Grande valley; while others were unfortunately downwind of the flames and dealt with thick smoke plumes and horrible air quality.

So with this event fresh in everyone’s mind, the ski hill needed to tell the world that the mountain was open for business, against all odds. In the past, Pajarito has suffered from a lack of notoriety in skier’s minds; people just didn’t remember that the mountain was there. After the fire, everyone knew the ski hill was there, but with the emphasis on the past-tense. The usual picture of a skier ripping powder turns or carving on corduroy weren’t going to cut it. Those images work well for the average hill, but not every hill has had to overcome a catastrophic event. My design needed to be bold, eye catching, unique, and honest. I acknowledged the fire, but utilized metaphor, color, clean lines, and strong copy to show that the mountain was ready for a great season of skiing and other experiences.

Defining an Aesthetic

I just love the indie music poster. Most use some kind of Hatch Show Print look, with simple color pallets, bold illustrations, big type, and a rustic look. Check it out for yourself at or and get some inspiration. I’ve been riffing on the look on my last couple designs, and chose to do so again with this one. All of the graphic elements are clean, the colors are bold, and the copy plays well with the other elements. The simple look lets the graphics breath, and leaves plenty of room for tons of info at the bottom of the poster.

The Phoenix Rises from the Ashes

The phoenix metaphor might be a bit on the nose, but it works here for a variety of reasons. First off, pajarito literally means little bird in Spanish. Next, you’ve got the fire (duh). Third, I had a photo of an amazing freestyle skier, flying through the air during a Pajarito Mountain event a couple years ago. The photo quality isn’t my best work, due to a variety of reasons, but I’ve been dying to find a good use of the skier’s image. Finally, the whole mountain community was using the “rise from the ashes” idea from day one after all the fire crews left the area. It’s a touchstone for everyone involved with the area.


Great tension and body position. Not so great light, composition, clutter,...nothing a little post-process selection can’t take care of.

Simple, Clean, but Motivating Color

The design color palate almost chose itself. I wanted to mix warm and cool colors, playing each off the other to reinforce an idea of fire and ice (or in our case, snow). White mountains and blue sky (typical for us in New Mexico) drive the cool imagery, while the flames and skier reinforce each other and again drive the phoenix metaphor. The warm colors act as attention grabbing accents; the cool colors produce a layered negative space for all of the graphical elements. Both sets of colors provide depth to the layout, with the warm colors moving forward, and the blue providing a backdrop. It didn’t hurt that the color combos were complimentary sets on the ‘ole color wheel.

Dynamic Lines, Interacting Elements, and Texture

All of the graphical elements are simple, but they all work together and reinforce the ideas. The skier acts as a spot, drawing your attention as he rises up to meet the top copy, with his trajectory actually pointed at the word “Rises.” The fire and skier are united by colors, but the curves of the flames also direct the eye toward the skier. The arcs imply motion of the flames, while they also signal a relationship between the fire and skier, thus reinforcing the strength of both graphic elements. While the mountains are almost part of the negative space on the page, they also have lines pointing the viewer up toward the skier. The effect isn’t nearly as strong as the flames, but it still helps everything jive together. The implied overlap of all three elements helps give the page depth, but the sky and pixel snow really give the layout a 3D feel. I get a two-fer on the pixels; they add depth while also implying snowfall. The sky does its part through the cool color, and with some added texture. The latter is courtesy of an overlay trick. I simply took a quick photo of my living room tile, desaturated the image, and played with the contrast.

I then drop the tile image on top of the sky and snow in Illustrator, and play with the tile layer’s opacity and blending (overlay, multiply, screen,…) until I get the desire effect.


Everything came together pretty easily for the poster. However, I forgot that some ads we were running needed landscape layouts. Now I had to scramble and shuffle things around, and while keeping everything tight and flowing together. Most of the graphic elements held-up after a bit of rearranging. The body copy layout took a bit of a hit, with the narrow column format (less room for the typography to breathe). Not too bad, but I wished that I’d built both formats at the same time in the beginning.

In the end, this design became a pretty successful work, which also served as a workhorse format that we used throughout the season. The theme resonated with many of the locals, and those who weren’t tied to the ski hill community. Functionally, the copy layout made it easy to update the ad with upcoming events with minimal impact on the graphic elements. Honestly, I’m just grateful that we needed the poster. After all the flames, mother nature and a dedicated crew of staff and volunteers allowed us to have a great ski season.

Category(s): Graphic Design, Illustration, Photo

One Response to Working the Narrative

    Chris Sheehan says:

    nice article Jeff. my buddy has been doing graphic design in sports for a long time (Burton, Coal,…Smilie: ;) and his partner Aaronis pretty well known. check it out:

    we should get you on some rides around SF for some pix so Bob isn’t the only one!


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