Recently, I wrote about the use of color in graphic design to influence the psychological responses and, subsequently, the purchasing decisions of consumers. This power to influence consumers extends to typography (font) as well. Graphic designers use typography, particularly in conjunction with images and color, to convey a specific image, feeling, or impression to viewers. In this article, I talk about the effects of different fonts and demonstrate how these effects were achieved within retro movie posters.
To do so, we will consider four broad categories of fonts: serif, sans serif, script and decorative.
When you think of traditional printing, especially from prior generations, or prior centuries, you most likely envision what we refer to as “serif” fonts.
Each of these serif fonts reflects subtle differences, such as the distribution of the weight of the “brush stroke” across each letter, the spacing between characters, or the directional slant of the letters. However, despite their differences, each one features the characteristic “feet” of the serif font. (Note the top and bottom of many of the letters - these are the “serifs.”)
Each font (within each of the categories that we will discuss) represents a slightly different mood and yet all serif fonts convey the ideas of tradition, formality, seriousness, reliability, or heritage. They all command attention.
Because of this, serif fonts are often used in logos in industries such as banking or law: traditional industries that wish to impart a sense of solidarity, trustworthiness and a long-standing heritage.
But how on earth could this apply to the movie industry?! Let’s look at a few examples.
These are, clearly, two very different movies, in two very different genres. And yet both have used a serif font to reflect the movies’ underlying themes.
The Exorcist resides in the horror genre. In this case, the serif font implies several things to viewers. First, it reflects the seriousness of the film’s theme - demonic possession. Second, it imparts a sense of intensity - the movie commands the viewer’s attention and thus, so should the typography. Third, a serif font alludes to a lasting legacy or heritage. This doesn’t have to pertain only to enduring businesses, or steadfast brands. It can also refer to the age-old existence of forces of evil against which humanity can barely prevail.
In contrast, Coming to America is a romantic comedy with a light-hearted touch. However, advertisers still chose to use a serif font. Here the font reflects both the formality and legacy of Eddie Murphy’s standing as a Prince of an African country.
In both cases, the serif font is appropriate.
Sans Serif Fonts
If you studied French, you will likely recognize the “sans” in the sans serif font. It means “without,” which is applicable since sans serif is characterized by its lack of “feet” or tails.
What do you see when you look at each of these (other than the lack of feet or tails)?
You should see these fonts as objective, contemporary, clean, stable, even business-like. Sans serif fonts tend to feel both current and matter-of-fact. They have a scientific, progressive flavor to them.
Many technology companies or progressive manufacturers use this type of font to convey the idea that their products are both factual or straightforward and also cutting-edge.
Let’s take a look at how that could play out in movie advertising.
Once again, we have two very different movies, from two very different genres, and yet each of these demonstrates the use of a sans serif font.
Top Gun is an action adventure movie about a young fighter pilot who is chosen to attend an advanced flight school for the best of the best. The stakes are serious and yet modern; the pilots’ flying must be clean and objective, cut and dry. As such, the sans serif font mirrors these elements. Also, notice that the specific font used here has hard edges around all of the letters. This is perfectly in keeping with the characters’ personalities and the intense, high-strung environment of the flight school.
In the completely opposite sphere we have Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a comedy about a young man who goes to great lengths to avoid going to his high school for a day and instead finds himself pulled into more adventures than he bargained for. So, why the sans serif (as opposed to something more playful like the fonts we’ll discuss in a moment)?
I ascribe this choice to two different factors. First, Ferris represents more than just the typical high school student. In many ways he epitomizes the everyday working man (or woman) who desperately longs for a day of peace and rest. Thus, the business-like font is in keeping with both his methodical objectivity and the theme’s relevance for working adults and students alike.
Second, I see this objective font as something of an inside joke. Despite Ferris’s very thoughtful actions, he winds up on numerous adventures that undermine his entire intent: to take it easy. To find rest, Ferris goes to comically aggrandized measures. In this way, the font represents something of a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the both the logic of Ferris’s actions and the outcome of his attempts. His objective, business-like plan backfires into mayhem and disorder.
And once again, the font choice is perfectly suited to both of these.
Script fonts need no introduction. They are most likely easily brought to mind: the fonts of personal letters, romantic gestures and sentimentalism.
These are the fonts you will see often on greeting cards or on logos that are meant to invite the consumer to participate in a personal and, often, emotionally-charged way. Alternatively, they are also often used to suggest artistry with a personal touch.
We refer to script fonts as being elegant, sophisticated, creative, affectionate and personal. You can probably already picture the types of movies that would likely use such font, but let’s talk about two of them.
The Princess Bride is completely consistent with how we would traditionally picture using a script font. The movie is a light-hearted romantic film about a young girl and Wesley, her true love, and their fight to be together. Here the script font parallels the romanticism and affection of the movie’s theme.
Footloose is a drama. This film addresses themes of legalism, censorship and relational barriers. It is a film that relates to most people in some way, making it particularly personal. But it is also a romantic film in a very different way from most traditional romances. Footloose is a romance in that it presents and attempts to marry opposing ideals: human relationships between imperfect people and the transcendent standards of faith. It makes sense that the movie’s font would use a scrawling script that calls to mind a personal letter.
In our fourth category, we will look briefly at a couple of examples of decorative fonts. This is, by definition, the most varied category of fonts. If we were to characterize them, decorative fonts are generally very thematic and often reference particular cultural elements.
Wow! I think that you can see already how very different these fonts are. The Goonies is a [fantastic!] family movie about a group of kids on a treasure hunt. Notice the similarities between this font and the one used for Top Gun. Both employ the same block letters with 45-degree edges and yet here, the edges have been softened. The letters in this font for the Goonies almost seems to vibrate with playful terror, reflective of the child-friendly theme.
An entirely different example is the scrolling logo from the movie, Cocktail. You may be wondering why I have included this one here rather than in the section devoted to script fonts. The reason is that here the advertisers have used a script font with sharp edges, set in hot pink, that is meant to call to mind the neon signs used in 1980s bars and night clubs. Thus, this font speaks more to a cultural reference than it does to a personal, romantic or sentimental theme.
Combinations of Font Types
Lastly, let’s look at few movie advertisements that combine these font types in striking ways.
The first of these is Little Women. Notice that this font begins with a fairly traditional looking serif base and yet adds in scrolling details that call to mind more of a script font.
This marries the sentimentalism and history of the movie’s setting in nineteenth century America with the feminine and romantic themes of the movie’s story about four young women coming of age.
The second example is from the movie, Labyrinth. You will notice a serif font here as well and yet the overall feeling is entirely different. This movie, about a teenage girl who must rescue her baby brother from a goblin king, is in the fantasy genre.
This is reflected in the font style, which is both serif and decorative. This combination reflects both the seriousness of the quest with a sense of otherworldly adventure.
Lastly, consider the very charming and witty 1963 movie, The Pink Panther. Once again, we see something of a serif font and yet it is altered in ways that are most closely aligned with a decorative font.
Notice that the serifs on the letters are more triangular that what we see in many serif fonts. This mimics the shape of a martini glass, consistent with both the era in which it was filmed and the storyline about an heiress and an Englishman who is a playboy by day and a jewel thief by night.
There are an infinite number of ways to create and use fonts, particularly when font types are combined to allude to the tone, theme or cultural setting. Though we have examined these with respect to movies, the same is true of typography in business. The ideal font will speak to the company’s image, the product’s place in the market and in history and will evoke in the consumers a positive reference to the product’s potential benefits in their own lives.