- What is the History of Film Poster Design?
- What Makes an Iconic Movie Poster Design?
- What are the Best Movie Posters?
- Conclusion: The Best Movie Posters of All Time?
Discover the best movie poster designs and the secrets behind their iconic status in this guide to the very best movie posters. From classic vintage film posters to contemporary movie poster inspo, these impactful film poster designs will give you plenty of ideas for movie posters of your own.
Read on to find out the design techniques behind some of the most recognizable film posters in the world, including tips for creating cinematic typography, eye-catching layouts and immersive cast photography. You’ll find all your favorite movie poster designs in the edit below, as well as some surprising new additions to the growing gallery of movie poster classics.
What Is the History of Film Poster Design?
Film poster design inspiration can be found by taking a trip back in time through the annals of movie history. The first movie posters evolved from printed programs of short films which were displayed on placards outside music halls and theaters. In the 1900s, the first posters advertising a particular film would feature illustrations of a scene or theme to entice audiences into the theater. By the 1940s, movie poster design played a key role in marketing movies to audiences, and the printing and distribution of posters started to be managed by the National Screen Service (NSS) in the US.
In the 1980s, Hollywood studios began to take over the design, production, and distribution of posters from the NSS, and it was in this era that designers created and perfected the formulas for movie poster design that we continue to see used today.
Today, movie posters have developed from single designs created with in-theater display in mind to artworks with much broader use, across both print and online channels. A studio may produce a whole range of designs for a single movie, including a flagship poster and additional designs, such as character posters or social media versions, to create a holistic movie poster campaign.
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What Makes an Iconic Movie Poster Design?
If you’re looking for poster inspiration and movie poster ideas, classic designs are always the best for giving you ideas for movie posters. Some of the most iconic movie posters were created by American graphic designer Saul Bass in the 1950s and 1960s, who favored a graphic, collage-style approach in his poster designs for Hitchcock classics Vertigo and The Man With the Golden Arm. The secret to the success of Saul Bass’s poster designs was their simplicity, usually using only a single image and one strong color to communicate the film’s theme and mood in an energizing, dynamic way.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, photographic movie posters became more widely used, often focussing on a single movie star or a snapshot from the film. Designer Philip Gips, who designed the poster artwork for Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Alien (1979), set a new benchmark for film poster design by incorporating a sense of mystique and enticement into his movie posters. In the poster artwork for Rosemary’s Baby, no particular scene of the film is depicted, but rather an imagined ‘scape’ that combines characters with a foreboding sense of atmosphere.
This was also the era in which possibly the most iconic movie poster of all time was created. Jaws, which was released in 1975, was no doubt made even more of a cinematic success by its unforgettable poster design, which was created by American artist Roger Kastel. The vulnerability of the small swimmer at the top of the poster design, paired with the ominous shark below, is a fantastic example of how to build a sense of anticipation, suspense, and impending horror into a static poster design.
By the 1980s, ensemble posters were transforming the style of blockbuster movie posters. In these designs, such as those created for The Empire Strikes Back (1980), The Goonies (1985), and Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), an ensemble of characters, settings, and scenes are brought together to convey the whole world of the film, as well as heightening the excitement and action. In the 1980s, these ensemble movie posters were often illustrated versions of photos, but the ensemble style is something that remains a common formula for blockbuster poster designs today. It's often used for superhero titles, such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, as well as big-budget films, such as Inception (2010), Blade Runner 2049 (2017), and Dune (2021).
What Are the Best Movie Posters?
For the ultimate movie poster inspo, read on to discover our selection of the best movie posters of all time and find out more about how they were created. Pick up useful tips and techniques for creating your own film poster designs, as well as ideas for movie posters that take inspiration from these iconic poster designs that have stood the test of time.
1. Jaws (1975)
The Jaws movie poster is possibly the most iconic (and frightening) movie poster ever created. The same design, featuring a painting by artist Roger Kastel, was used for both the best-selling book by Peter Benchley and the poster for the 1975 film directed by Steven Spielberg. The 24-year-old model Allison Maher posed for Kastel’s artwork, which imagines the scene in which a young woman goes skinny-dipping off the coast of fictional Northeast town Amity, and meets an unfortunate end in the jaws of a massive great white shark.
The success of this film poster design lies in its inspired use of perspective, color, and subject matter. By revealing the huge head of the shark below the ocean surface and contrasting this with the much smaller swimming figure, the vulnerability of the woman and inevitability of the horrific outcome are conveyed in a single snapshot. The blood-red, capitalized headline is juxtaposed against the serene blue of the water, making the type stand out in horrifying contrast.
2. Alien (1979)
Considered a classic of both the sci-fi and horror genres, Ridley Scott’s Alien is a masterpiece in suspense. The Alien movie poster, created by Steve Frankfurt and Philip Gips, designers from agency Frankfurt Gips Balkind, perfectly matches the brooding, building atmosphere of the film, tantalizing viewers with an ominously glowing alien egg hovering in the inky emptiness of space.
As with the Jaws movie poster, perspective and color also play a key role in the graphic success of this poster design. The designer uses a vanishing point perspective, drawing the eye towards the central subject, the egg. The glowing crack in the egg, which floats ghostlike above the industrial metal grating of the ship, expresses the mystery and potential of what lies within. The blackout design is both thematic, with the film set in the dark outer reaches of space, and symbolic, hinting at the inescapability and bleakness of the characters’ situation.
3. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Artist Roger Kastel reappeared after his design of the Jaws film poster to create this iconic Star Wars movie poster, featuring an ensemble cast of characters and the looming helmet of villain Darth Vader. In many ways, the composition of The Empire Strikes Back movie poster is modelled on the idea of fairytales. Crafting the image of a sci-fi fable, Kastel combines dreamy blurred textures, fantastical character art, and the central themes of romance and villainry on his immersive and complex poster design. References are made to the numerous settings in the film, such as the frozen planet Hoth, which contributes the icy textures at the base of the poster design.
A fantastic example of ensemble movie poster design, the series of Star Wars movie posters all aim to stimulate viewers’ senses, providing a high level of detail, color, and excitement. The success of this style of movie poster lies in the ability to summarize almost the whole story of the film in a single image. This is a particularly effective formula for movie franchises, which can promise returning audiences the same level of interest as for earlier films in the series.
4. Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Illustrator Richard Amsel created the compelling ensemble artwork for this Indiana Jones movie poster. With the lead character of Dr. Indiana ‘Indie’ Jones in whip-cracking action in the center, surrounded by hand-illustrated characters framing an archaeological carved stone, this poster design simply screams ‘adventure’!
With the film set in 1936, the poster artwork is heavily inspired by movie posters and fiction cover design from this decade, with grainy texture and dramatic, film noir-esque shadowing on the characters’ faces. The traditional symmetrical format of the poster design is given a 1980s edge with the iconic titling for the film, which appears to burst out from the top of the poster. This comic book typography style helps remind audiences of the escapist spirit of adventure comic strips, such as Tin Tin, a mood which translates to the feel of the Indiana Jones movie franchise.
5. Empire of the Sun (1988)
The 1980s was the decade of the first major blockbusters, such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Back to the Future (1985), and The Terminator (1985). Poster designs accordingly became more slick and attention-grabbing, using neon color, high-impact typography, and close-ups of action heroes. In this action-packed era, the poster for Empire of the Sun (1988) is notable for its simple, striking design that aims to convey the mood of the story rather than focus on action or star power.
The movie poster design is anchored by the large, gradient-tinted sun, with the smaller figure of the playing boy juxtaposed against the more serious wartime elements, such as the tumbling plane and barbed wire. The contrast in scale is an effective way of communicating a sense of vastness to the viewer, giving the film an epic feel. We can see this same technique used in contemporary movie poster design, such as the campaign for Oppenheimer (2023)—see below.
6. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
A film poster design that is unforgettable in its surrealism and unnerving atmosphere is that of The Silence of the Lambs (1991). A psychological horror best known for introducing cannibal serial killer Hannibal Lecter to cinema audiences, the poster uses symbology to create a sinister design that asks questions of its audience.
Designer Dawn Baillie used an image of a Death’s Head Hawkmoth to cover actor Jodie Foster’s mouth in the poster design. These moths, which are referenced in the film, feature patterns on their backs that look like a human skull. If you look even closer at the detailing of the moth on the movie poster, you can see how the skull is in fact made up of seven women’s bodies, which were lifted from a painting by Salvador Dali.
This is one of the first movie posters to include an ‘Easter egg’ in the design, a clue for audiences that allows them to enter the world of the movie on a deeper level.
7. Jurassic Park (1993)
The Jurassic Park movie poster was one of the first movie campaigns to use a logo-style design for the film. The design uses original artwork by graphic designer Chip Kidd, who had created the cover for Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park book. Although the studio turned to acclaimed movie poster designer John Alvin to create artwork for the poster design, it was felt that Kidd’s simple design, which had been inspired by a drawing of a Tyrannosaurus Rex in a book of palaeontology, was still the best fit for the movie campaign.
The movie poster effectively conveys the commercial ambition of billionaire John Hammond to create a theme park of genetically created dinosaurs, while inky black and blood-red accents hint at the terrors to follow. The logo-style design conceived by Kidd has turned into one of the most successful, long-running movie poster images, used to market each one of the successive five Jurassic Park films.
8. Scream (1997)
Now a tried-and-tested formula for horror movie posters, extreme close-up photography draws viewers into the emotion and terror of a film, as is the case for the iconic Scream movie poster design.
A close-up shot of actor Drew Barrymore looking on in horror at something unknown to the viewer, this is a simple and striking poster design that has since set the benchmark for the horror genre. Today, other horror films such as Lamb (2021) and Smile (2023) also use the same extreme close-up technique to leave a terrifying and intrusive impression on the viewer.
9. Titanic (1998)
Although the Titanic movie poster is rarely featured in top movie poster design lists, it is no doubt one of the most recognizable and effective poster images of the 1990s. The bow of the ship creates a dramatic focal point to the design, while also pointing towards the lead characters at the top, combining a sense of epic drama and romance in the poster design.
Referencing one of the key scenes in the film, which features Jack and Rose together at the bow of the ship, the poster artwork connects the viewers with the narrative of the movie, and remains an extremely memorable movie poster design today.
10. American Beauty (2000)
Did you know that the hand on the American Beauty movie poster doesn’t belong to any cast member? It is in fact the hand of Mad Men actor Christina Hendricks, who posed for the poster shoot as a hand model.
Along with the hand, the closeup of the woman’s stomach and the rose (imitating a scene which features Mena Suvari lying amongst rose petals) combine to make one of the most iconic film posters in contemporary cinema. American Beauty went on to win eight Academy Awards in 2000, and the poster campaign was influential in marketing the film as a high-brow, Oscar-worthy title. Both intimately suggestive and ambiguous, the poster design conveys a sense of mystery and intrigue that drew audiences in their droves to theaters.
11. Dune (2021)
Sci-fi epic Dune (2021), like most contemporary blockbusters, benefitted from a range of poster campaigns for different territories. The widely used ensemble design rests on the star power of the cast, arranging the actors into a triangular arrangement to draw the eye upwards to the lead actor, Timothée Chalamet.
In terms of design, it’s the desert-themed artwork for the Dune movie posters that really demands a place in poster design history. The more interesting sand dune designs tease at the film’s beautiful cinematography, juxtaposing a minute character against the epic expanse of sand. These posters are a fitting match for the mood and visuals of the film, which used vast landscapes and a sweeping musical score to emphasize the otherworldly quality of the film’s setting on desert planet Arrakis.
12. Oppenheimer (2023)
The technique of contrasting smaller figures with vast landscapes on movie posters has become a much-used formula by poster designers for blockbusters. This simple design strategy maximizes the epic feel of a movie, and it looks particularly effective on large-scale billboards and full-width websites.
The Oppenheimer movie poster uses this contrast technique to great effect, pairing the small figure of actor Cillian Murphy with the vast explosion effect surrounding him. With the figure depicted in black and at the center of the design, the eye is still drawn to him, and the graduation of color that then leads the eye towards the movie title at the top allows the viewer to take in all elements of the movie poster with equal attention.
Conclusion: The Best Movie Posters of All Time?
Movie poster design emerged in the early 20th century as a way of advertising showings at local theaters, but soon developed into a major marketing tool for movie studios by the 1950s. In the 1970s and 1980s, artists like Roger Kastel and Richard Amsel gained renown for hand-painting artwork for movie posters that have since become well-loved and long-lasting features of popular culture.
Today, although movie poster design has become increasingly digitized, it is still often as much marketing campaign as art form, with studios recognizing that immersive and beautifully executed poster designs can really increase a film’s chance of box office success. Poster design techniques have been honed and perfected over the decades, with many modern movie posters lifting inspiration from vintage-era posters.
Ready to create your own movie poster designs or simply looking for more poster design inspiration and movie poster ideas? Don’t miss these poster design tutorials and useful selections of movie fonts and poster templates:
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