We’ve all heard the phrase ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ and in the world of poster design, this certainly rings true. However, how resonant is this idea when considering typographic posters – where the text is the main or perhaps even the only element? 

The answer is that typography is its own kind of imagery and can be used to convey meaning, tell stories and harmonise with other facets of the design (e.g. negative space, colour palettes) just like photography or illustrations. In this article, I will explore the evolution of typographic posters, their design principles, and the unique impact they can have on an audience.

For Your Information

In the early days of cinema, theatres didn’t always have access to film posters produced by film studios, so they often told audiences about upcoming screenings using their own posters printed on a letterpress. Meant to be read at a distance, these posters were entirely text-based, featuring bold fonts and bright colours to capture the attention of passersby. Nowadays, the letterpress style is instead often used to evoke nostalgia and rustic charm – a choice rather than a necessity.

Nothing but a Name

Typographic posters have an obvious tendency towards a minimalist aesthetic. Some posters embrace this by doing away with almost any additional illustrations or photography, and relying on the raw power of title (and sometimes tagline) alone to make a statement. These designs can be deceptively simple, conveying much more about the film than would appear at first glance. For instance, the poster for Bob Fosse’s 1979 film ‘All That Jazz’ conveys its Broadway setting with the bright lights of its lettering and uses perspective to put viewers in the position of a starry-eyed dreamer gazing up at them – whilst the tagline indicates that the story is a little more gritty and complicated than that.

The Image within the Words

A really popular choice for a typographic poster, this one kind of has its cake and eats it. It usually uses big blocky letters to give plenty of space for atmospheric imagery such as the creepy illustration of a face in ‘The Shining’ or the montage of moments in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’. This style usually utilises a strong block of colour as the background in order to keep strong sense focus.

The Words Are the Image

A twist on the previous idea – rather than embed imagery within the typeface – these designs make the typeface into a picture. When done well it’s incredibly effective – but generally needs to be very basic to work well. Most examples of this are of projects with either existing IP – like the ‘Saw’ franchise – or the work  of a big star or director such as Steven Spielberg’s ‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’. This makes this very minimalist style a less risky proposition, as the film will have a built in audience of fans.

A Big Story

Many typographic posters where the limited imagery is dwarfed by dominant title. This is an effective subliminal way of telling us that we are in for an epic ride. This technique goes way back to blockbusters like  ‘Ben Hur’ and ‘West Side Story’ (and earlier still!) through to hotly anticipated modern films like ‘Sex and the City’ and ‘Barbie’ – which actually does away with the whole title in favour of just a ‘B’.

Written in the Stars

The hierarchy of design elements on a poster is there to tell us what is most important. Sometimes (from a studio’s viewpoint at least) – that means the stars. The posters for ‘Burn After Reading’ and ‘The Post’ prioritise the names of the big stars that lead these films, with imagery and even the titles, coming second. It’s a strong approach as long as the actors have big enough box office appeals and the type of fanbase who will come and watch them in anything!

Typographic film posters are a testament to the power of letters and typography as a means of visual storytelling. These impactful designs demonstrate its ability to communicate narratives, evoke emotions and build anticipation for a film’s release just as successfully as those with more pictorial elements. Whilst film industry marketing continues to evolve, the longevity of typographic film posters shows that they remain a versatile method for promoting and celebrating a whole range of different stories on screen. So, the next time you encounter a typographic film poster, take a moment to reflect upon and absorb the design choices that might be found behind the words.

What do you think of typographic posters? Do you they capture your imagination or is something missing? What are the best examples that I’ve missed? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

For poster and graphic design services for your latest TV or film project, drop me a line at adam@strelka.co.uk.