There is no shortage of articles in this blog that highlight the importance of typography in poster design. After all, movie posters are advertisements, and choosing a font to write the movie’s title equals choosing how to show the product’s name to potential customers.
All decent movie posters have appropriate choices regarding typography, and all fantastic movie posters have outstanding typography designs. But does that mean that they are typographic movie posters? Not really.
A good poster designer will always keep the bigger picture in mind, combining images and words to find the best way to convey the film’s essence and not break typographic rules while doing so.
But for a movie poster to be considered typographic, it is necessary for the designers to be bolder, to dare avoid conventions and safe formulas, to go further: they need to make posters with little to no images in them, even posters with no photographs or illustrations, in which typography is the sole protagonist.
Those are authentic typographic movie posters.
These are posters in which a picture is not worth a thousand words, but the other way around. Of course, not every movie can afford a poster without images in it, but you’d be surprised at the variety of films in which this approach does work.
Since the ’80s, movies from all genres have been advertised this way, so let’s see some examples.
The trend of typographic posters has always been more common in Broadway billboards than in cinemas (probably because in theater, the cast of a play can vary all the time, so designers focus the branding design in the story more than on particular faces).
That is why it shouldn’t surprise us that one of the oldest, and the newest examples I could find of typographic posters for movies, both belong to musical films: All That Jazz (1979) and West Side Story (1961 & 2021), all have posters that heavily rely on typography to make their point.
All That Jazz is a semi-autobiographical musical film about the life of the legendary choreographer and director Bob Fosse, and it was directed by the legend himself.
The poster does an incredible job at creating the sense of an epic story without wasting resources at all. In shiny white against a simple black background, the movie’s title is written in a font that evokes marquee lights. The tagline appears in a rounded sans serif type, and the message is compelling.
The poster makes its point: “this is a story about show business, its tragedy, and its joy.” It achieves that without a single image in it.
The poster of West Side Story, on the other hand, does include two tiny dancing silhouettes and the shape of a fire escape, but that is about it for figuration.
The rest is all words in a stenciled sans serif, in a bold weight and a condensed style. Some letters are modified in size to fit in between two others to give the title more dynamism and variation. Even though this poster is not as explicit as the one for All That Jazz when it comes to capturing the essence of the story, it is a perfectly sufficient advertisement for the target audience: this is a movie poster aimed at musical lovers that already know the play.
And though it may not reach a larger audience, it at least won’t disappoint the loyal public of the film genre.
We can set the other examples in (more or less) chronological order, starting with two typographic movie posters that are incredibly famous: the blue teaser poster for the original Star Wars (1977) and the yellow theatrical poster for The Shining (1980).
The first one says simply, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” in a white ITC Serif Gothic against a plain blue background, just above the franchise logo.
The second one is also a plain background, and centered in it is the movie’s title, written in a custom font. The letters of the word “the” are accompanied by the creepy shadow of a face, important enough for the design to argue that this is not the purest example of a typographic movie poster.
A similar free font inspired by the one used for the movie poster is Shining NFI Demo, but it’s available only in capital letters.
The next twenty years of movie poster design were not significant on this trend, which truly made a comeback in the 2000s. Steven Spielberg’s film A. I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) was advertised with an intriguing poster in which the negative space of the letter “A” is shaped like a boy, who then is copy-pasted on the side to form the letter “I.”
Just underneath, the title is made more explicit in a dignified serif type that reads “Artificial Intelligence,” and in the superior part of the poster, a tagline explains the concept of the story.
The simple key art was compelling enough because the film topped the US box office on its opening weekend.
I said before that not every movie can afford a poster without pictures in it, so, logically, most of the examples of typographic movie posters to be found belong either with well-established sagas or with very famous directors.
Spielberg is not the only one that can attract an audience even when using very little imagery; the name “Tim Burton” does the job too.
Big Fish (2003) was first presented to the world with a slightly confusing teaser poster: the title occupied almost the whole design, and it was part of an oversized shape, but this was the form of a tree instead of a fish.
The custom font was playful and seemed to belong to a fantasy world where everything was possible: what was this movie about?
The funny thing about this poster is that it seems to give almost no information about the film: it only shows the silhouette of a man that walks towards the horizon on a field, surrounded by the enormous words “Big Fish,” which melt into a tree that has some odd shapes in some branches.
But after watching the movie, all of those elements acquire a lot of meaning, so in the end, it’s a good design.
Four examples of very different movies that could all afford typographic movie posters for the exact same reason are Saw II (2005), Sex and the City (2008), The Dark Knight (2008), and Solo (2018): in all cases, the brand was well established enough.
When Saw II came out, the first movie from the horror series had caused a lasting impression on the audience. The word “Saw” followed by two bloody fingers on a white background was more than enough to say, “Hey, we are back.”
There is a very similar font to the one used for the poster, called Saw or Glue-Regular by Jackassrules. That font is free for personal use and can be purchased for commercial projects.
Sex and the City: The Movie, oddly enough, had the exact same advantage. The movie came out to give an ending to a hugely successful series that had been going on for six seasons, so of course, the audience recognized it.
The series fans would recognize that title in a pink, glittery Trajan Pro Bold font anywhere. The poster is not entirely typographic because it also includes a picture of the protagonist, Carrie.
But she is not placed there to be the main focus of the composition; she is nothing more than an accent: it’s a tease, not a statement. The tagline next to her teases further, “Get carried away,” a pun that the fans would understand and appreciate.
One of the teaser posters for The Dark Knight also offers an excellent example of a poster with a more significant focus on the typography than on one of the main characters.
A very blurred Joker seems to be seen through opaque glass, in which he handwrites his catchphrase in bloody letters “Why so serious?”, followed by a smile. Underneath this disturbing composition, the sequel’s title reads “The Dark Knight,” just above the Batman logo: again, more than enough information for the fans to draw conclusions.
The character posters for Solo: A Star Wars Story received a lot of criticism, and the designers behind them were even accused of plagiarism.
But good or bad, original or not, they’re pretty close to being typographic movie posters. The names of the characters appear in giant letters, in a font similar to Freeman.
Inside each name, a picture of the character appears. The campaign worked because some of the names, like “Solo” or “Lando,” were already highly recognizable to the target audience, giving way to curiosity regarding the new names in the rest of the posters.
Despite all the previous examples, some minor, standalone films get typographic movie posters too. It happens in all genres; cases like this can be found in comedies, action films, documentaries, and historical dramas.
For example, Oscar winner 1917 (2019) used a very similar technique to the posters for Solo, with the digits of the title providing the background for the shapes of two characters. The font used in this case was the reliable Futura Bold.
The movie poster for 27 Dresses (2008) follows the tradition of calligrams. A calligram is a kind of poem that became popular at the beginning of the 20th century, in which the text is arranged so that its shape is related to the meaning of the words.
In this case, it’s not really a poem, but all the credits that are typically pushed to the bottom of the movie poster in a tiny font instead.
All the information regarding the film’s production was organized in the poster so that the reader would have to observe the shape of the wedding dress while reading it. While the poster portrays the three main characters, the composition is balanced enough for the typography to have as much weight as the pictures.
Another poster that follows this tradition, but in a much darker way, is the one for Heroin(e) Netflix (2017).
In this poster, purely typographic, the words organize themselves to form the shape of a syringe while providing information regarding heroin addiction.
Something similar occurs with several of the promotional posters for the movie The Spirit (2008): the text is either the protagonist or a co-star in the composition.
Characters appear in a close-up with their catchphrases written on their faces, or huge words take the shape of buildings to create urban, typographic landscapes in which the main character of the film barely appears as a silhouette.
And last but not least, the designers of the typographic movie poster for Burn After Reading (2018) seemed to be so proud of the movie’s cast that they made the names of the main actors occupy half of the composition.
It may not be the most effective way of delivering information, but it’s certainly original enough to make an impression.
While all the examples in this article concern commercial movie posters, it is worth mentioning that typographic movie posters are also a thing in fan art. There are great examples of alternative movie posters of this kind, like the work of Pete Ware, in which memorable quotes from pop culture adopt the shape of the characters that said them.
Where to Go From Here?
Hopefully, this article was able to wet your feet and get you thinking about how to apply typography to movie posters or artwork in general. If you are interested in learning how to become a movie poster artist then I highly suggest you sign up for our newsletter as we will be releasing an online movie poster class in the near future!
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Other Articles worth reading having to do with typography.