Designing Show-Stopping Posters With Type

From major motion pictures to the local high school prom, here’s what you need to know to create your own show-stopping poster.

A movie poster has one job — to capture and entice an audience with a single image and a few well-placed words. And while that audience may not recognize the skill required to create the image and text before them, a designer understands the thought, care, and creativity that go into the final product. (That is, unless you decide to just use Papyrus … cue Ryan Gosling.)

Practicing movie poster design is an excellent way to hone your ability to tell a story using only a still image and a carefully chosen font or typeface. The skills used to create a movie poster can apply to any poster you design, and strengthen your understanding of how different fonts convey meaning has widespread applications across your entire portfolio.

The skills used to design a movie poster can help you design effective posters across design projects. Image source: Akiko Stehrenberger.

Movie posters reinforce design best practices

Movie posters do not allow much room for error. They must match tonally the film they are advertising, giving viewers an idea of what to expect and piquing their interest without giving too much away.

Akiko Stehrenberger, a veteran movie poster designer, recommends beginning the process by brainstorming concepts and figuring out the overall feel of the film. Is it a quirky indie movie? A serious historical drama? An action-filled blockbuster? A nostalgic piece? The genre and tone of the film determine what images and fonts you will use, as well as how you will use them.

Once you’ve established the tone of the film, you need to decide which design techniques will allow you to have maximum impact. Consider how you can let viewers know what they can expect to get out of a film using only an image and a few lines of text. For example, the film poster for Nocturnal Animals relied on a double exposure effect to convey a sense of psychological dread, while an indie film such as Like Crazy uses pastel colors and simple graphics to portray its minimalist, romantic nature. Some movies lend themselves more to illustrated, artistic posters while others benefit from a bold collage of movie scenes and actors.

A rough, illustrated style conveys a dark and ominous tone in this movie poster for “Colossal.” Image source: Akiko Stehrenberger.

When Akiko was commissioned to create a movie poster for Colossal, the style of illustration played a huge part in its success. The rough quality of the illustration helped give the poster an overall dark quality where another illustration style may have felt too cute or light-hearted. Instead, the entire piece comes together as on optical illusion combining girl and monster.

When she was designing the Colossal poster, Akiko began off the computer with acrylic paint. The image was painted separately from the title treatment to allow for more flexibility in composition and sizing. Both paintings were then scanned and opened in Photoshop CC, where Akiko used to curves to finesses the color and compose the two separate paintings together. She finished in Photoshop by adding the secondary type. “All my posters, whether painted or scanned or completely digitally painted, all end up in Photoshop eventually,” Akiko says.

As you plan your movie poster, think back to the very basics of design. What is the most important aspect of the film that should rank first in the poster’s hierarchy? Is there enough contrast between the font and images to allow each to stand out? How will the colors you choose make the viewer feel? Movie posters are a great platform for exercising creativity (as the award-winning poster for The Silence of the Lambs proves), but you need to be careful not to overload the viewer.

Finding the perfect font

Most movie posters only use text to display the name of the film, a tagline, and the film credits. Even so, that small amount of text needs to stand out and be legible. The text, particularly the credit text at the bottom of the theatrical poster, may not be large or dominant, but the viewer should still be able to read it easily.

Akiko recommends letting the image set the tone for the font, and fellow poster designer Gabz Grzegorz Domaradzki agrees. He said that in his process “typography usually comes last, and it’s both a great joy and a challenge for me to find a perfectly matching type.” A movie poster will suffer if a complex, detailed image is paired with an equally complex font since the viewer won’t know where to look. A simple serif, sans serif, or slab font will go a long way toward conveying the theme of the film.

The right font helps audiences understand your poster’s message. “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” Made in 2015 Grey Matter Art under license from Vortex, Inc. / Kim Henkel / Tobe Hooper. Image source: Gabz Grzegorz Domaradzki

Popular fonts for movie posters include Trajan for historical or political films, Helvetica for hyper-realistic and minimalist films, and Futura for science fiction. Blockbusters benefit from bold slab typefaces, and vintage fonts work well for period pieces, or films that rely on retro themes or nostalgia, such as La La Land. Since it pairs well with many fonts that are more decorative, Gotham Light is a popular choice for a secondary font if the primary font wouldn’t be readable in a smaller size.

Once you decide on a perfect font — or complementary set of fonts — feel free to tweak it to better fit your theme. Gabz recommends, “When designing a title font, don’t be afraid to modify pre-existing fonts, giving them that extra personal touch.” You might even want to design your own font if you feel particularly inspired by the movie. Also, manipulating the text in Adobe InDesign or Adobe Illustrator can make the font stand out if you choose a popular typeface.