In any movie poster, the title and the way it is written are obviously as important as the image behind it. In franchises as big as The Avengers, Harry Potter, or Star Wars, the typeface used is such an unmistakable element of the brand that you can even talk about “typography-based logos.”
But typography itself goes way beyond title design in the movie poster industry. For instance, a glyph is the specific design of a character, a character is a symbol that represents a certain letter, a collection of letters that share aesthetic patterns is a typeface, and the selection and arrangement of typefaces is only one of the aspects involved in typography.
The discipline is broad, and when it comes to working with the information that a movie poster needs to communicate, then typography is not only the art of choosing or designing an appealing title typeface; it is also responsible for the copy to be clear and distinctive, for the credits to not get in the way of the image, for the names to be written in a type that matches the style of the rest of the poster, and so on and so on.
Typography is as complex of a technique as photography can be, and it is just as important to know about it if you want to create amazing movie posters.
If you are completely new to the subject, don’t worry; here are the most important typography principles you need to know.
Just as human anatomy studies the structures and forms of the human body, typography anatomy studies the elements that are part of each character in the alphabet.
Knowing these elements also means knowing how to properly name them. Now, this principle is not the most important when it comes to getting a designer job involving typography, but to speak using the right terms will certainly make you sound more professional.
So, instead of talking of “the a’s belly,” you can begin calling it “the bowl in the a.” Or rather than saying “you know that place where the letter kinda melts at the bottom…” you can start pointing out those decorative outermost flourishments in the symbols as “a serif.”
Being able to distinguish a capital letter from a lower case will get you through elementary school.
However, for design school, it would be useful to also learn about ascenders and descenders, terminals and tails, ears, eyes, feet, and legs (not so different from human anatomy after all!).
Following the family tree of a specific typeface can be as complicated as tracing the lineage of a character in “Game of Thrones.” There are so many variations, each one of them with a different weight or style, that things can get confusing quite fast.
One first step you can take in order to understand the principle of genealogy in typography is to learn the difference between a typeface and a font, for these concepts are very commonly mixed up.
If the typeface is the lettering design that can vary in weight, size, or style, a font is one of these variations.
All fonts belonging to one typeface family will share common design elements. Even through the variations, you will be able to recognize a common aesthetic.
Although modern tools lead us to believe otherwise, typography is actually an ancient discipline. So old, in fact, that type used to be cast into metal, and a font was made out of a collection of metal pieces with a certain weight, a certain style, and a certain size, stocked and ready to be used in the next printing.
Nowadays, we don’t need that kind of storage capacity, for all that information can be efficiently stored in a digital file. Today scaling the characteristics of a typography design can be as simple as clicking a plus symbol with a mouse. What might not be that simple is to know which typeface and which font is the most suitable for a specific text.
What properties of a font will help you make that decision?
One of the easiest ways of making one word stand out from the rest in a text is to increase its weight.
Whether we know about typography or not, we all recognize the symbols B I U from a word processor application. Well, now you know what that B refers to!
The weight of a font can vary from 100 Thin to 900 Heavy/Black, depending on the available options regarding one typeface.
200 Extra Light, 300 Light, 400 Normal, 500 Medium, 600 Semi Bold, 700 Bold, or 800 Extra Bold basically indicate how thick the character outlines look like in relation to their height.
Two centuries ago, it wasn’t that important to have weight variations in a typeface, but today almost every time a designer creates a normal or intermediate weight type, lighter and darker versions will also be created.
The task of creating multiple weights in one typeface family is harder than you may think because each weight has to be optically retouched. From the difficult to see Extra Light to the heavily visible Extra Bold, the characters must still look similar to each other, the general aesthetic must be clear.
Design tip: when using different type weights of the same font on a poster, you will want to skip 2 weights so that there isn’t any confusion of weights. When weights are too close, you will hardly see the difference.
Another effective, traditional way of separating a word from its context is to change it into italic (that’s what the famous I stands for!).
It wasn’t always like that, but from the 20th century on, almost every round typeface is designed alongside an italicized counterpart.
The italic version of a round or roman character is always more fluid; this fluidity is given by a narrower design in a more steep angle, with more pronounced beginnings and endings for each character.
Some italicized characters are even drawn in a different manner, because just as weight variations, the italic style modifies every aspect needed to achieve an optical correction, making it easier and more pleasant for the reader to read.
This design optimization process does not happen at all in the oblique style, which simply creates wider, cursive characters lying flat.
The point (pt) is the smallest unit of measure in typography, it points out (pun intended!) the height of the lettering, and while its size has varied through history, today it is widely accepted that 72 points equal about an inch.
In digital word processing, the default size for every font is 12 pt.
Believe it or not, there’s quite a history lesson behind the task of classifying the ever-growing set of types because the first attempt at doing so was made by a French typographer a hundred years ago.
Since then, many different categorization systems have been created, and some digital type foundries are still looking for a more efficient way of organizing their offering.
It’s up to you to decide how much you want to go into the details of this principle, but it can be useful for you to know how designers refer to fonts on a daily basis.
If you know how fonts are classified, that means you understand the differences between them, and then you can decide which one of them is the optimal one for a certain use.
Two big main groups to distinguish types are Serif Type Styles (the most common among them is probably Times New Roman) and Sans Serif Type Styles (the most known one is probably Arial).
Some other popular categories of typefaces are; Roman (types that are upright and have a regular weight), Gothic or Blackletter (yes, born in the Middle Ages and still alive and well in The Washington Post!), Calligraphic of Script (basically anything that imitates handwriting), Bitmap (if it looks like it belongs in one of your Sega games from the ’90s, that’s probably it) or Decorative/Ornamental (this category is large and diverse, but if a type belongs here, that means it is mostly ornamental and wouldn’t work well in a long body text).
As you might already be guessing, these groups barely cover every type you can think of and can, of course, be divided into subcategories as well.
Sometimes fonts are categorized according to their width, and then they can be Skyline, Compressed, Condensed, Narrow, Normal, Wide, or Extended.
There are no limits to how narrow or how wide a type can be, but the height and the weight should also be adjusted when the width of a typeface is altered, so the original design proportions are preserved.
Design tip: when designing and working with font digitally, never use the transform tool to stretch font. It’s a big-time noob move that you don’t want to do. It makes the font extremely ugly and hard to look at.
If you still feel confused about the classification of different type families, then welcome! Typography can be confusing even to the best designers among us.
Just as a musician needs to arrange notes into chords and scales that sound good together to create good music, a designer needs to arrange letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs into compositions that look good together to create good typesetting.
To accomplish that, the designer will need to understand the basics of spacing, organization, and even some grammar. Here are the main pillars of typesetting:
- Alignment: it determines how a block of text will be displayed horizontally on the page. Normally, a text can be Left Aligned, Centered, Right Aligned, or Justified.
- Leading: it regulates the spacing between two text lines and generally correlates to the font’s point size.
- Tracking: it controls the spacing between letters. If the space is too small or too big, the readability of the word could be affected.
- Kerning: it is similar to tracking, but it only impacts the space between two specific letters. Kerning is the pearl of optical corrections, and even if it sounds irrelevant, it can actually make a big difference in the overall quality of a design.
- Orphan Lines: if the first line is separated from the rest of the paragraph and ends up at the end of a column or page, then it is called an orphan.
- Widow Lines: if the last line is separated from the rest of the paragraph and ends up at the top of a column or page, then it is called a widow.
- Hanging Punctuation: a designer needs to choose where double quotes, single quotes, ellipsis, hyphens, short and long dashes will go in a typesetting composition in order to preserve or to break the vertical texture of the text.
As you can see, there are multiple factors to take into account when it comes to typesetting, but the more you practice, the better you will become at it!
Each typeface produces a different impression on the reader. The typography design determines how easy it will be to read the text and how serious, childish, or creative the text will look.
Of course, the text has a meaning on its own, but the personality of the typeface used to express that message will also have a big role in the reader’s interpretation.
If a heartwarming message about friendship is shown in a font that mimics free handwriting, then the message and the font will match.
But if you use the same typography design in a Christmas card as you would use in a Halloween party invitation… well, then the reader might feel a little confused.
Whenever you choose typography, as a designer, you need to keep in mind that the message you are trying to communicate will be as easy to accept for the reader as matching it is with its typeface.
Personality is an amazing characteristic in typography, but it does not always work in favor of the design, and sometimes it makes the message more difficult to read. If the personality of the typeface is the right one, the whole design will be enhanced.
Truth be told, there are times when you need the form of the text to be as neutral as possible, for the meaning of the words is the only important thing.
That is the case in most common book editions, and in those cases, the lack of a distinctive personality becomes a good attribute for the design.
Try the following exercise: choose a word or a sentence with a very distinctive message, like “Horror!” or “I love you,” and observe it in multiple fonts with different personalities. Does the message always match the font? Does the traditional meaning of the message change if the font doesn’t match it?
The more aware you are of these effects, the more advantage you will be able to take of the personality of a typeface.
Unlike what ophthalmologist tests have made us believe through the years, how easy it is to read and understand a visual message does not only depend on the size of the letters.
The context where this message is exhibited, the audience it targets, the personality of the font used, and the typesetting are also very relevant when it comes to determining the readability.
The cute souvenir of a baptism engraved in golden cursive lettering can be just as readable as the ad for an energy drink written in a grunge font.
Both the context and the summary of composition choices the designer makes will determine the readability of a message.
How appropriate or how wrong it is a certain design for a certain message depends on the designer’s intention.
Sometimes readability can be neglected in favor of aesthetics; sometimes, the type’s personality willingly goes against the content of the message to create a shocking effect. Sometimes, a message needs to be perfectly readable, with no room for confusion.
Critics argue that typography and design should be invisible, meaning that the readability of the content flows with such ease that you don’t even realize someone organized it in a certain way for you.
That is the curse of the good designer, the better the design, the less visible its maker. As you are seeing there are certain rules and principles to abide by but there are always mistakes made when it comes to design and that’s why we wrote this highly popular article:
How does all of this apply to Movie Posters?
When organizing the text in a movie poster, not all of it needs to have the same readability: it is fine if the credits can’t be read at first sight, and you need to stop in your tracks and come closer to decipher them.
Nowadays, the number of people involved in creating the kind of movie that reaches theaters is so huge that listing them in the movie poster’s credits would be almost impossible without a condensed version of the alphabet.
(Side note: the funny thing is that some movie studios are legally obligated to show certain actors’ names, directors’ names, and producers’ names and come with directions with what the font size needs to be. For example, sometimes the actors’ names need to cover 20% of the entire poster.)
But the title? You certainly want the public to read, understand, and accept the meaning of your title right away.
As we all know, movies tend to belong to specific genres. Each one of these genres has an unspoken association with a certain category of type families because the personality of those types matches the spirit behind the genre.
It is unlikely that you will find a calligraphy font in an action movie poster, but some typefaces like an Alternate Gothic work well in very different genres.
Knowing the genealogy and the classification of different type families is important because no movie poster uses the same font for every piece of text, meaning that the different fonts used need to work perfectly well together.
All of the typography principles have something to contribute to movie poster design, even understanding the anatomy of a character will become relevant when you need an accent in your design, like the deformation of the R’s leg in Narnia or the counters taking the shape of distinctive elements of the movie in the type of Birds of Prey.
Study, observe, and experiment when designing movie posters, profound knowledge of typography will always be your ally.
Learn the art of poster design
To become a great movie poster designer, there are required skillsets you will need to learn. The cool thing is that we are currently creating an online curriculum specific to learning how to become a designer, art director, and illustrator in professional movie poster design and fan art.
If you aspire to become an amazing movie poster designer, then I highly advise you to sign up for our Newsletter as you will be notified as soon as the classes are available.
The really cool thing about our program is that our teachers are people working within the industry and not some professor who never stepped foot in an entertainment marketing agency. We teach the real deal!
If you lack patience and want to get a feel for poster design now then you will want to read these helpful articles: