How do you turn a good film poster into a great one? A good poster design is fantastic at communicating information – it will tell you everything the filmmakers want you to know about the film such as the title, the stars, the genre and the tone. All of this will be conveyed using powerful design elements such as colour, typography and photography to make you want to watch. But a great film poster? I’d argue they do something more. Great film posters – like all great art – tell a story. 

The best examples work like an award-winning film script: they build up layers of meaning. By using subconscious signalling in the form of metaphors, symbolism and allusions, there can be far more to a poster than initially meets the eye. A great film poster is like a brilliant first act – setting up the scenario and conflicts of a story – and involving the viewer on an intuitive level. 

But there’s no one way to do this, and film posters with a narrative angle can employ a wide variety of styles, techniques and approaches. Let’s explore some powerful examples, both new and old.

The Favourite

This poster is a true original and just like the film itself, it’s nothing like your usual period drama fare! The frame in the design creates more than just a visual focal point – it also works on a subtle metaphorical level. Within the frame, the characters look perfectly poised, but the elements spilling out of the frame tell a different story. Emma Stone’s less-than-courtly pose is front and centre suggesting that this maverick is going to drive the plot, and the apparently random rabbits hints at absurd comedy.

Hard Candy

Presenting a far more overt metaphor, this poster presents the seemingly innocent figure of a young girl within an oversized animal trap. This imagery sets up the conflict and the stakes of the film with the dark grey of the trap and the red of the girl’s clothing signalling horror. However, the colour palette isn’t the only nod to the horror genre – the girl’s red hoody pays homage to the iconic figure in 70s classic ‘Don’t Look Now’, indicating that things may not be all that they appear. 

127 Hours

Utilising the image-within-an-image technique, this poster presents the scenario (mountain climbing) and the dilemma (time running out as represented by the hourglass) in one dynamic concept. A tagline at the top of the poster declares it’s ‘A Triumphant True Story’, but the design has actually already got this covered with an optimistic colour scheme of oranges and blues.

The Dark Knight

Blockbuster advertising can tell a great story too. On the face of it, the poster for The Dark Knight is very straightforward – simply depicting Batman and his iconic logo. However, the bat symbol aflame on the side of a skyscraper shows the destruction that has been triggered by Batman’s actions as the plot reveals that they have led to the escalation of crime in Gotham.


Another deceptively simple design – this monochrome image conveys so much more than a black and white story. Diana’s ornate evening dress threatens to overwhelm both her and the poster itself, symbolising the overbearing nature of the trappings of her life as a Royal. Nevertheless, the focal point of the poster is the woman who has almost disappeared into the dress – indicating that the real story will be the human face behind the icon.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

We know we’re in for a wild ride when we see this poster. Using POV to powerful effect, we are immediately plunged into the psychedelic drug-taking world of the film. The warped imagery forewarns us of the twists and turns this story will take and the varied elements, including urban and desert settings (as well as a swarm of bats!), points to the many stops (both literal and metaphorical) on this road trip.


This iconic poster brilliantly borrows its imagery from Michaelangelo’s Sistine chapel painting to tell the story of an ordinary boy and his connection to a divine being. E.T.’s alien hand could have appeared quite creepy but the glowing spark of light as well as that used for the title typography reassure us that there is nothing to fear.  The depiction of Earth at the bottom of the poster – distant from the principal motif – gives the impression of a truly out-of-this-world adventure.


The marketing campaign for Arrival took this kind of storytelling to a whole new level by hiding easter eggs in a series of twelve posters. Each poster showed an alien pod in a different part of the world and also included a set of coordinates at the bottom of the image. By entering the coordinates on the film’s website, you could unlock a Dropbox account full of documents (for example, journal entries) relating to the film – adding another dimension to the story. Complicated? Maybe. Fun? You bet.

Although poster designs incorporating narrative elements are nothing new, as the film market continues to grow, film posters that tell stories and create satisfying emotional engagement are becoming an essential part of the audience’s journey. A great poster works in perfect partnership with a film – involving the audience at an early stage and creating a desire for them to ‘complete’ the story by watching it. 

If you have a question or there’s a poster design project you’d like to discuss developing, feel free to drop me a line at