When I tell people about my work as a graphic designer working in film, most people tend to think of movie posters or maybe titles and credits. But whilst these are a pretty cool part of the work I do, there’s also a whole other world of graphic design in film out there that a lot of people never even think about.

Graphic designers are also a key part of the Art Department on a film, creating everything from newspapers read by characters to fictional or historical product packaging and merchandise to background signage.

The quality of this design can make or break your film – either fitting in perfectly and enhancing the story world – or distracting from the narrative and destroying the audience’s suspension of disbelief. For a wealth of good examples, check out the amazing detail in the House of MinaLima’s work on the Harry Potter films.

Below, I give a brief overview of the GFX design process using examples from a recent film project – ANAMNESIS, a contemporary sci-fi drama.

Teaming Up

The production designer is first person to start physicalising the world of the film. Whether it’s a historically accurate period drama or a surreal sci-fi, their job is to create a consistent and believable world – which any design elements need to fit in around.

Drawing from the script, the production designer for ANAMNESIS – Charlotte Ball – had a clear idea of styles and colour schemes for the story world – something she was able to brief me with.

The Whole Story

The props and set dressing created by a graphic designer can serve many different roles in a film – sometimes they will need to stand out as a plot point and other times they need to disappear into the world of the film.

It is important to read and understand the script so you know how your design will be used.

Anamnesis hospital flyer

For instance, one of the items I created for ANAMNESIS was a newspaper clipping that provides a significant plot point. This item needed to be clear and attention-grabbing whilst also appearing authentic. For this I researched fonts and layouts used by the tabloid press, as well as drawing on text from the screenplay.

Anamnesis newspaper clipping

By contrast, I also created some simple soft drink packaging for the protagonist Maggie. As it wasn’t a feature of the plot, it needed to be subtle enough to blend into the background but detailed enough that it could say something about the character if it was seen. I kept the size of the main design small and the colour scheme black and white, but the image was playful – reflecting Maggie’s impulsive, childlike attitude.

Anamnesis drinks cup

The Small Print

When creating these design elements, you often don’t know how closely they will be seen until they are being filmed. This means having an eye for detail is essential. Using latin placeholder text for a newspaper article that might then be seen in close up just isn’t going to cut it. The design work needs to be finely detailed to make sure that the story world has depth and authenticity.

Anamnesis business card

Different Every Time

No two jobs are the same and this kind of work requires a solid foundation of design knowledge. I’m lucky to have started my career working in a wide variety of traditional design roles within advertising and marketing – but I still have to be prepared for new challenges.

These can pop-up particularly when creating historical or specialist items specific to the world (for instance, some items in ANAMNESIS needed to incorporate scientific language). When this happens, there is only one solution: research like crazy. But it’s a real privilege to part of a team bringing a film to life, and I often find that the trickiest design elements become my favourite parts of the process!

If you’d like to discuss graphic design elements in your upcoming film, feel free to drop me a line at adam@strelka.co.uk.