DesignFrom Psycho to Jurassic Park: exploring iconic movie poster typography
From Heinz Schulz-Neudamm's Metropolis to Suzy Rice's Star Wars, here's a history of 10 iconic typeface designs that prove a film is nothing without its title.
Film and typography have never strayed far from each other, from the necessity of intertitle dialogue in cinema’s earliest days, to the marketing industrial complex that makes up a great part of the contemporary film world. This is especially true during the “golden era” of the film poster, which produced paramount artwork and lettering that’s still recognized today.
Often these posters are considered just as important as the films they advertise, and have entered the lexicon of graphic designers and cinematographers alike as go-to studies in visual communication.
Today we dissect the typographic element of these critical works.
Typeface: Neuland (Inline variant),
created in 1923 by Rudolf Koch (Download font)
The typography used for Jurassic Park was not actually chosen for the poster, but originally selected as part of the logo designed by Sandra Collora for the dinosaur theme park itself. In a 2011 article for Fast Company, Simon Garfield, author of Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, put Neuland on his list of “8 Worst Fonts in the World,” saying that the typeface, along with Papyrus, is “classifiable as a theme park font, more comfortable on the big rides at Universal Studios, Busch Gardens or Alton Towers than they are on the page.” In other words, perfect for Jurassic Park.
On a more insidious note, the typeface has been subject to a debate called the “Neuland Question,” which posits Neuland as the “black face” of fonts; the “Neuland Question” argues whether the typeface is used to signify the “cultural Other,” as it has often been applied to products in an attempt to capture an “exotic” or “primitivist” flair. Books by African-American authors such as Richard Wright’s Native Son and Wulf Sachs’ Black Anger use Neuland on their covers, in addition to its use in primitivist movies Jumanji and Tarzan; not to mention its noted use on American Spirit cigarette boxes (which was started by two white hippies, not, as the packaging suggests, a Native American tribe).
Back to the Future
Typeface: Unique, created for the film
by Andrew Probert (Download font)
The lettering for the Back to the Future title was one of many accomplishments credited to Andrew Probert, who also developed the film’s storyboards and finalized the design for the movie’s most important feature: that sweet time-traveling Delorean. The logo was initially used as the titling for Back to the Future’s one-sheet, and was later added to Drew Struzan's poster artwork.
The lettering was later developed into a typeface aptly called “Time Travel” by David Occhino, who was thoughtful enough to include both “Forward” and “Back” styles to “convey action and momentum with an '80s flair.” The typeface is so accurate toward Probert’s original lettering that the official Back to the Future website uses it for its own titling and logos.
Typeface: Unique, hand-lettered by poster designer
Heinz Schulz-Neudamm (Download font)
Fritz Lang’s legendary film Metropolis plays host to a number of cinematic achievements, including its employment of pioneering visual effects created by Eugen Schüfftan, and being the first film ever included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World register. Not to be outdone, Heinz Schulz-Neudamm’s poster artwork holds its own record as the world’s most valuable movie poster.
As one can surmise just by looking at it, the masthead lettering is not typeset, but hand-drawn by Schulz-Neudamm as part of the total one sheet design. The artwork and its masthead join the film as part of the German Expressionist movement, using exaggerated aesthetic to convey the emotional experience of a world surging toward industrialism. “Expressionist typography was a resistance to the conformity of culture, a deeply emotive form of social and political commentary,” writes Danelle Cheney for culture journal AEQAI, “Letterforms are constructed in the same way as other elements found in work from this movement; harsh strokes arranged in disruptive cascades emphasize the bleak starkness of compositions.” Schulz-Neudamm’s lettering is full of interference, just as Metropolis proposes a society disrupted by soulless technological advancement.
Typeface: Aachen Bold, invented 1969
Invented in response to the advertising explosion of the 1960's and its need for large-format typefaces, Aachen bold is a slab font reminiscent of the ink-stamped “Wanted” posters from the century’s prospecting towns. The woodcut-style typeface later evolved into the lettering used for sensationalist “true story” magazines from the late 19th and early 20th centuries such as True Crime, True Detective, and Front Page Detective, which heavily influenced both the content and covers of their rightful successors: the pulp novel of the American 1920’s–40’s. According to Retro Graphics: A Sourcebook to 100 Years of Graphic Design, the pulp novel featured mastheads often illustrated by hand, using bright colors, drop shadows, and outlined letters to “catch the reader’s eye on the bookstands.”
Pulp Fiction is, in essence, an homage to the genre, and Juan Vinueza followed that thematic trajectory when designing the film’s poster by basing it off the style of vintage pulp novels. “Typography,” Vinueza says, “follows the poster’s aesthetics. It’s retro, but it’s kitsch as well. It’s very difficult to make adaptations in modern, retro-themed posters. You make a tribute to the past, yes, but you have to catch contemporary audiences with it.”
2001: A Space Odyssey
Typeface: Futura (Extra Bold),
created in 1927 by Paul Renner
Stanley Kubrick is well-documented as a fan and frequent user of Futura, though to what true extent has been up for debate. He uses the typeface in promotional materials (including either posters or trailers, but not necessarily both) for six out of thirteen of his major motion pictures, most notably in posters for 2001: A Space Odyssey and Eyes Wide Shut. He’s not alone in his love for the clean, modernist lettering; Wes Anderson has used Futura in every one of his films, and it marks some of the best-known brands in the world, including IKEA, Crayola, Louis Vuitton, Volkswagen, and Absolut Vodka.
In a bit of life imitating art, Futura is given the honor of gracing Apollo 11’s dedication plaque to man’s first steps on the moon in 1969, just a little over a year after Kubrick released 2001: A Space Odyssey. While this coincidence is probably simply due to the popularity of the typeface, Futura was invented by Paul Renner with innovation in mind; known for its geometric simplicity, utmost functionality, and balanced weight, Futura represents Renner’s philosophy that typeface should follow modern ideals rather than be dictated by tradition. “With Futura, in typographical terms, the industrial revolution had reached its logical conclusion,” CreativePro notes in its dissection of Renner’s most famous design.
Typeface: Helvetica Black, created in 1957 by Max Meidinger
Helvetica is known as the “invisible” typeface due to its neutral nature and abundance in use. It’s so ubiquitous that it inspired an award-winning documentary by the same name, released in 2007 to coincide with the typeface’s 50th anniversary. The film explains that Meidinger set out to create a typeface that “had great clarity, no intrinsic meaning in its form, and could be used on a wide variety of signage.” Given Helvetica’s incredible popularity to this day, one can posit that Meidinger’s plan was a success.
How such an unassuming typeface came to represent one of the most iconic sci-fi horror films to date shows the utter flexibility of the design. Often incorrectly attributed to prolific graphic designer Bill Gold, the theatrical poster was actually designed by Steve Frankfurt and Philip Gips of Bemis Balkind (to Gold’s credit, he did design a concept poster for the film that was ultimately rejected). The design firm adopted the lettering from Richard Greenberg’s title sequence for the film, which brilliantly used the structure of the typeface to build the ominous mood of the film.
“Steve Frankfurt once said to me that sound is 50% of a film and I agree with that. So we abstracted the idea of the off-putting sound but in a typographic way,” Greenberg explained in an interview with Art of the Title. “We wanted to set up tension and as these little bits come in, they seem very mechanical...When the bits finally resolve into a word, I think people weren’t prepared to read it as a title because of the spacing.”
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
Typeface: Helvetica Black (modified), created in 1957
by Max Meidinger (Download font)
Ah, the “invisible typeface” Helvetica Black once again, except this time its use comes rife with controversy. According to Suzy Rice, who would design the first iteration of the now-unmistakable stacked Star Wars logo, George Lucas said that he wanted the titling to appear “very fascist” and “very intimidating.” To Rice, the obvious choice was Helvetica Black, thanks to a book about German typography that she was reading the night before the meeting.
Apparently, the book established Helvetica Black as the inevitable evolutionary product of a typeface design that Joseph Goebbels had ordered to represent the German Nationalist party on all of its signage. “To state the obvious—contrary to bizarre gossip as if I’d stated otherwise—Helvetica wasn’t used by Goebbels nor was Miedinger, to my knowledge, associated with Goebbels,” Rice clarifies, “Meidinger’s ‘Helvetica’ came much later but was described in this book I’d been reading as somewhat similar visually to that earlier signage.” With its history and stylistic severity, Rice felt Helvetica Black fit Lucas’ need for an “intimidatingly fascist” design and used it to influence her eventually hand-drawn lettering.
The final masthead is a revised version of Rice’s original design, with concept artist Joe Johnston modifying the “W,” widening the letters, and increasing spacing throughout in order to accommodate the pan shot that was planned for the opening credits.
Typeface: Unique, created by Tony Palladino
for the original book jacket
Posters for Alfred Hitchcock’s best-known movies often—if not always—use original artwork and lettering, with the Hollywood master often partnering with his designer equivalent Saul Bass to create artistic masterpieces that are often as appreciated as the films themselves. Psycho, however, is an exception; while the typeface is unique, it was actually created by Tony Palladino for the original 1959 novel by Robert Bloch from which the quintessential thriller was adapted. It’s hard to imagine Hitchcock giving up any sort of creative control for his projects, but apparently the title art was so perfect that he purchased rights to the lettering to use for his promotional materials, including, obviously, the poster.
In its 2014 obituary for Palladino, the New York Times writes, “Mr. Palladino said the design—stark white letters torn and seemingly pasted together against a black background to resemble a ransom note—was intended to illustrate typographically the homicidal madness of the novel’s protagonist, Norman Bates.” Palladino’s typographic interpretation was even strong enough to influence Saul Bass’ opening credit sequence.
Typeface: ITC Serif Gothic, created in 1972
by Herb Lubalin and Antonio DiSpigna
ITC Serif Gothic has become a beloved typeface for sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, with its heavy weight and glyphic serifs effusing an air of gravity and wickedness. Perhaps it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation, but something about the typeface definitely seems to scream “1970’s speculative fiction novel.” According to Nick Sherman of Fonts in Use, it was actually Halloween’s 1978 box office success that sparked the use of ITC Serif Gothic for titling across the full spectrum of fantasy fiction, though other notable uses include David Lynch’s Eraserhead and Larry Cohen’s psycho-progeny thriller It’s Alive, which were released in 1977 and 1974 respectively.
ITC Serif Gothic has been facing some internet beef recently due its use for the Star Wars franchise newest film poster, with some designers saying it looks kitschy and dated, while others complain that the lettering is definitively associated with Star Wars’ greatest fan rival, Star Trek. The typeface also set design snobs afire for its appearance on the maps in Raiders of the Lost Ark, which takes place in 1939, or 33 years before Lublain first designed it.
Typeface: Unique, hand-drawn lettering by Saul Bass
To pick just one Saul Bass poster typeface is to almost do an injustice to the uncontested king of graphic design; honestly, this ultimate guide needn’t stray outside of Bass’ prolific oeuvre—which includes the likes of Schindler’s List, The Shining, and West Side Story—to make the case that a movie title’s typeface can become just as iconic as the the film itself. However, Vertigo is perhaps the quintessential Bass design, with many in the graphic design and film industries calling it the best movie poster of all time.
The hand-drawn lettering for Vertigo follows Bass’ stylistic philosophy that all movie-related design—from its music, to its titling, to its promotional materials—should establish the mood of the film. Thus the lettering is irregular and unbalanced, typographically translating the plot. The lettering is also similar to that drawn by Bass for The Man with the Golden Arm and Anatomy of a Murder, which also present fragmented, unstable protagonists and plotlines.
Graphic design theorist Paul Rennie also notes the influence that 1920s German expressionist films had on Bass’ designs, saying, “These films were pioneers of the horror genre and created a film world of oblique angles and vertiginous perspectives. The hand-drawn lettering for these films rejected the curves and serifs of traditional typefaces for something altogether more edgy and visceral."