When it comes to graphic design, aka communication design, typography can actually trump most aspects of the design. The importance of typography can not be understated, especially with movie posters.
This article goes into great detail about how typography works within the design and movie posters in general. It’s a must-read for both beginners and well-versed designers.
When the word “typography” comes to mind, most of us think about choosing a font in a word-processor software, about editorial design for book printing, or a bunch of women typing into old-fashioned typewriters somewhere around the ‘60s.
But in fact, typography goes way beyond any of those basic examples.
Anywhere you are right now while reading this article, there must be at least five examples of typography use around you: if you are in the street, then it’s in the billboards, in the signs that indicate street names, in people’s t-shirts, and hoodies, in flyers for advertising and the shops’ fronts; if you are home maybe there’s a book lying around nearby, a package of cookies or rice next to you, a hand-written note on a post-it, a calendar, a computer and a phone bursting with apps and websites full of words; hell, even if you’re in the toilet there must be a bottle or a spray can somewhere in sight, that has written information and instructions.
Typography is simply everywhere around us; we’re way more familiar with it than we give ourselves credit for, so even if you came here looking for a guide for beginners, let me tell you: you’ve been dealing with typography your whole life.
If you think about it, typography has been around ever since the art of writing began being a thing.
Have you ever seen an illuminated manuscript in a museum or a tv show, and wondered how a human hand was ever able to pull off such an incredibly tidy and even lettering?
Even further, have you ever wondered why? This old folk Gutenberg did everyone a big favor when he invented the first modern printing press back in the 1440s, but even before that, the main goal of typography has always been the same: to help someone send a message in the best possible way.
So that’s what you’ll start learning today in this guide: how to use typography to carry on a message effectively and in style.
The Golden Trio
Whenever there’s a message to be delivered, the person in charge of the typography design must keep these three key aspects in mind: meaning, personality and legibility.
The whole meaning of the word ‘meaning’ (forgive the redundancy) comes to work here because when thinking about typography, the meaning of a message is not only what it’s expressed behind the words (meaning = significance), but also the purpose of the sender (meaning = intention).
Too cryptic? Let’s think about it through our most beloved example: movie posters!
In general, a specific movie poster has written text with three different forms of significance:
- The meaning behind the title and the copy is to represent the spirit of that particular film.
- The meaning of the names and the billing is to deliver the information over who worked in that particular production.
- The meaning of the dates and places listed is to summarize the data about where and when to see that particular movie.
But the intention of the people who send a message in the form of movie posters is the same for all of them, to tell the paying audience: “This film is great! Come see this film!”
We even go into great detail the most important elements of a movie poster in this post.
The same goes for all messages delivered through typography. The significance behind the words “happy birthday” is always the same, but the intention of that message can be better represented through a goofy font in bright colors than through a serious black serif type.
Both significance and intention make the meaning of a message. As a newbie to typography, your first chore is to analyze the meaning behind every piece of typographic composition that you attempt to design.
Your job as a typography designer is to choose the best typeface possible to convey that meaning, which leads us to our next vertex in the golden triad…
There are multiple elements that determine the personality of a text beside the design of the type’s anatomy.
The personality of a font it’s also given by its weight (how thick does it look? Is it regular or bold?), its style (does it look straight or is it italicized?), its genealogy (serif like Lora? Or sans serif like Lato?), its t r a c k i n g (how big is the space between the letters?), its color, THE USE OF ALL CAPS… all of these factors put together are called “text formatting.”
The formatting of the text and the resulting personality will help the reader understand the meaning of the written message. Even more, the personality of the font will often cause an emotional reaction in the receiver.
The better you get at choosing your types and formatting your texts, the less your readers will worry about the process of reading: they will be too occupied thinking of your message!
We go into great detail on what to do and what not to do with type in this article:
If you’re a loyal reader of this blog, then this is not the first time that you’re reading about legibility in it.
I insist on it only because of its importance. In typography design, legibility is everything. If the ability of the reader to understand the words and their meaning is compromised, everything else fails.
There is no magic formula to explain to a beginner how to make a text more visually clear and legible because like everything else in life, it takes time, effort, and experience to get better at it.
However, there are some basic tips that will always help you:
- Take care of the contrast: if the background has a too noisy texture or if the colors of the background and of the letters are way too similar, then it will be harder for your reader to follow the text.
- Justify your text block: it is easier to keep track of a long text when its margins are even.
- Choose a personality that matches the meaning: font and message have to go hand in hand for the readability to be clear and easygoing.
- Avoid orphans and widows: try for your blocks of text to have no loose lonely lines at the beginning or the end, whole paragraphs are the friends of legibility.
For a crash course on typography you have to read this article: 6 Most Important Typography Principles.
There are different levels in which a designer can worry about the appearance of text. On a micro-scale, there is type composition, the level in which you can focus on each different character of the alphabet, each space between characters, each special symbol of punctuation.
Then comes the level of text formatting, which we’ve talked about a little when discussing personality. And on a macro scale, there is the layout.
The layout is the level at which you organize the position of your pieces of text concerning the rest of the elements that compose your page (or movie poster, or can of beer, or whatever surface your message is displayed on).
My humble opinion is that, as a beginner, you should start on the bigger scale and slowly make your way to the tiny details of type composition, because if you already know some basics of design or illustration, it will certainly be easier for you to visualize blocks of text as elements of a general whole (than learning to identify every little individual aspect of those blocks).
When you start a new file in a word processor or a page design software, and even when you open an actual striped notebook, there are some default values that were pre-set for you.
As a typography rookie, it is enough for you to know that playing it safe doesn’t often equal to getting the best results: play around with the size and orientation of the page, the values of the margins, the leading, the alignment, the line’s length, the number of lines per page, etc, until you develop a sense for what works best in each scenario.
When dealing with movie posters, in particular, you cannot change the standard size of the printed poster, but you can change the layout of the written elements displayed in it.
The text should always be integrated with the general design because it will interact with it whether you like it or not, so make those interactions intentional!
Academic papers, books, movie posters, and album covers all have a title, advertisements have the name of the brand and the product… There’s almost always one line of text that has a more relevant meaning than the others, and your job as a designer is to make that clear for the reader.
In the layout design, the hierarchy of the elements involved tells you what’s the most important, what to read first, what the eye and the mind should prioritize.
Remember that not all works of typography design are meant to be read in the same environment or situation.
Books have long sections of seemingly equally important text because it is expected of the reader to have time to read through it and individually determine what’s relevant and what’s not.
Movie posters and publicity billboards, on the other hand, are meant to be seen and understood in very brief periods of time, which means that the hierarchy of their text is all the more important.
A grid is not exactly a column, but visualizing columns of text (like in the newspaper) will help you understand what grids are used for.
Using grids means organizing and framing the written information according to vertical and horizontal lines of white space (or if you go crazy and have the right tools, maybe with diagonal lines and circles too).
Grids are used in order to make the reading dynamic and the information processing easier.
Just as with the huge variety of typefaces that tempt us to use seven different fonts in a one-page design, it is easy to get carried away and overuse grids.
My advice is to keep it relatively minimalistic and simple. Avoid symmetry, add some variation in the alignment of the different blocks of text, keep some pieces of text grid-free, experiment.
Basically all other elements of typography composition work because of white space.
Western culture tends to think of the void as waste, a nothingness, but when it comes to design and illustration, it would be best for you to apply a more oriental approach and think of the void as a living part of the whole.
In other words, we can read letters because of lines closing around the void, both the lines and the void form the characters.
The same happens on a bigger scale with the layout. In a movie poster, literal “white space” is not as common as in editorial design (where pages are indeed white), but there are still areas of plane color, devoid of details, that allow the text to stand out better.
White space can work against legibility too, so always make sure that there are no unnecessary spaces between words or lines, otherwise, there will be rivers of white space forming between your paragraphs, and that will distract the reader’s eye.
When properly used, the white space, the void, is what allows the general composition to breathe; it gives the reader room to process the visual and written information.
Some General Tips For Typography And Movie Posters:
So far, you’ve learned about the golden trio of typography and visual communication -meaning, personality and legibility-, and about other three key aspects of the layout in typography design -hierarchy, grids, and white space-, not bad at all for a beginner!
It is a lot of information to grasp in one go, so I’ll only add a few more tips that might help you when you go and try to start practicing all of this until you become a pro typographer:
You see more than what you rationally interpret:
Your human sight is this incredible machinery, capable of finding mistakes in typography even when you consider yourself a beginner on the matter.
As previously stated, we’re constantly surrounded by typography, and we’ve always been; this means that, as by some osmosis, your brain has been understanding the most legible forms of text, the most readable fonts, the best laid out typography.
The bad consequence of that is that now your reader’s brain will find it annoying to process text that lacks optical correction (for example,itisannoyingtoreadwhenthespacebetweenthelettersisnotbigenough, ugh!).
The good one is that you probably already have -or can easily develop- a sense to make those corrections when needed.
Professional fonts are incredible tools, but they’re not always free:
It is a sad fact of life that, quite often, the tools of better quality are the ones you have to pay more for.
Typefaces have just as many licenses and ownerships as your average image, but there are, of course, very nice open-source fonts that you can download for free.
Check out Google fonts. It’s a great resource.
Copyright is a major issue in movie posters and fan art, so if you are working with typography and you will need to get caught up to speed with how copyright works. This article should also help, “This Is How To Sell Fan Art Legally & Illegally.”
As a beginner, maybe it is best to start experimenting with those before you get enough experience to choose what to buy for your projects. We actually discuss what’s needed in the movie poster designers toolkit in this article with some hints on how to save money.
Talking about ownership…: The symbols for trademark™, copyright ©, and registered trademark ® are as important as the things they represent, which means two things: first, that they have different glyphs in different fonts and are not meant to be replaced by a makeshift version such as ^TM or C.
You can generally create these symbols in the appropriate height and size if you type (TM), (R), or (C); second, that there’s no need of using both the symbols and the words they represent in the same sentence.
Digital and printed typography are not exactly the same:
A screen can generally offer a sharper visualization of typography design than a piece of paper.
All university students have come across at least once with a badly printed text that’s torture to read.
To avoid that, as a beginner you can start by trying out different printers and different papers every time you have the chance to print something, in order to get more familiar with the differences in these tools and materials, and eventually get the best of them.
Study your History of Typography:
I’ll finish this article by telling you to go back and start at the beginning.
At the very beginning, not of the article but of typography itself. In any discipline, it is useful to have a general knowledge of how, what you’re doing now, was done in the past.
It is good to understand why things evolved the way they did, why certain paths have been abandoned, why some options are considered better.
But among the many, many uses of typography, the design of movie posters is likely the one that can benefit the most from knowing about typography history.
Because movies tell stories, and stories are set in a specific time, and that specific time in human history had a particular aesthetic, and that particular aesthetic was reflected in the typography of that time and that place.
As a designer, you are not supposed to mindlessly extrapolate one epoch typeface to a present-day poster, but you will no doubt benefit from taking that epoch typeface as a starting point for your design.
That is why the 2017 version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast used a type with ornaments that slightly evoke the german fonts of 1700; that is why the type of Jojo Rabbit in 2019 had the same vibe as the socialist propaganda designed by constructivist artists in the 1910s; that is why the Duffer brothers wanted a type for Stranger Things that reminded them of the covers of a Stephen King’s novel in the ‘80s.
There’s no doubt to it: if you want to use typography to create movie posters, history is your friend.
Movie Poster Education
You’re in the right spot as Poster Grind is dedicated to movie poster education.
In fact, we are currently producing an online course dedicated to movie poster and fan art education. We highly suggest signing up for our newsletter as subscribers will be the first to be notified of the new courses!
Also, check out our YouTube channel which has numerous free tutorials on Movie Poster design and Photoshop techniques.
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