The Psychology Behind Movie Poster Designs

There's a lot more to movie poster design than meets the eye. Unlike most other marketed products, movies require immediate emotional impact while still maintaining a continuous push to each subsequent level of distribution. It's enough to make someone with a dual-major in psychology and graphic design wish they'd gone to law school.

Hollywood

A wise woman once said, "If they put as much attention to detail into making a movie as they do into marketing a movie, we wouldn't see so much crap coming out of Hollywood."

The statement is pretty spot-on when one considers how much attention is given to every single microscopic detail in the world of movie marketing. Those who are in charge of making sure a movie makes money looks at timing, exposure, press appearances, reviews, and particularly the trailers that get people excited about movies all in an effort to fill theaters for as long as possible.

The most attention is given to perfecting the trailer and setting it for distribution, but a close second is the "visual collateral" associated with a film. The posters, in-theater displays, and DVD box art are all meticulously planned and designed to touch people on the right emotional level. They all must say just enough and not a word more. They have to compel, inspire, and excite the potential viewers in ways that will have them in the theaters, buying the DVDs or digital downloads, or streaming them to their homes.

It's a complicated endeavor, but one that can prove to be very rewarding to the studios and distributors.

This infographic by Colour Lovers examines the artwork behind the top 10 blockbuster designs of 2011. Click to enlarge.

Movie Artwork

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8 Comments

  • Nez

    Granted, they all are "cool colors", but those aren't the reasons why they are popular. 7 of those movies are considered sequels(From popular movies that already have a foot-in-the-door), 1 of them is a remake/sequel(planet of the apes, which has its own power), and the remaining two are both comic book movies which have jumped in popularity since toby mcguires "spiderman" in 2002. Good article though, I loved the notes and the

  • Willie Bigs

    Good article, but I was left feeling a little let down. The title of the article was a bit misleading. Was looking for much more insight into why specific shapes and colors are used.

  • Mogwai

    Shame. I was hoping to see 'what' the posters were trying to evoke. ie why those elements were chosen for that particular movie. What do concentric circles say? Are some elements almost exclusive to some genre? Basically shorthand for: see it, you'll like it, because you like everything else similar. Looking for more insight here than: Clouds. Green. High contrast. Red highlights. V-shaped elements.

  • Shaun Capehart

    Re-submitting this because it appears that comments no longer have to be admin-approved before appearing. The following comment precedes my previous post.

    So, to be real design snob about this article, this post itself comes off as fairly underwritten linkbait because, while it's able to distinguish the individual parts of movie posters, it doesn't address any higher level reasoning such as what intended effect the artist had in mind when using these techniques, how the design targets specific demographics, and how the individual elements create an overall atmosphere. It's the equivalent of pointing out what kind of stitching an outfit uses and then claiming to be knowledgeable about fashion. Sure, you can identify the individual parts ("Hey, a serif font!") but that doesn't indicate that you'd know why they used it or how you'd use it given the same task (a serif font is used to create the atmosphere of sophistication or authority).

    For instance with Thor, one of Marvel's main concerns was that the movie wouldn't be taken seriously since the titular character was a B-level superhero at best. Taking a page out of The Social Network's playbook, one of the big design tropes of 2011 had been laying text over a straight-on-yet-dynamically-lit static shot of the primary protagonist. i.e. http://www.mattbury.co.uk/post.... This sets a tone for the movie in the minds of potential viewers that Marvel isn't aiming for a mindless action fest like Fast & Furious - Marvel is telling the viewer that the movie's tone is sophisticated and treated with gravity. (It's of course debatable if Thor was actually either of those things, but irrelevant in this conversation. As with most marketing, what you're selling is rarely the actual product.)

    Heavy use of cooler color schemes such as cyan indicate that the movie will take itself seriously, non-campy. Back-lit characters can imply adventure and action. Sepia shades are used to set either a romantic/nostalgic tone or can be used to establish a foreign locale. Stark white backgrounds with blown out lighting and the actors placed in its endless purgatory are usually comedy (unless the aperture on the actor is high and contrast is done away with - then it's quickly starts to look spiritual). Actors emerging from a black background out of shadows are typically "sophisticated" action. And all of this can be changed depending on the typography used as a companion.

    All in all the whole thing is half science and half intuition, but the title of this article is completely misleading. There's no psychology there, just a guy listing off photoshop elements he saw in 10 movie posters.

    /rant

  • Shaun Capehart

    Just checking back in to see if my comment was censored or not. :-(

    A real shame, because I put a lot of thought and energy into it.

  • Shaun Capehart

    So, to be real design snob about this piece, to me this article itself is fairly underwritten linkbait because while the linked infographic is able distinguish parts of the movie poster it doesn't address anything resembling the actual psychology of movie poster design whatsoever. There's no mention of the higher level reasoning designers use such as what the intended effect is among the audience, how design targets specific demographics, and how the individual elements create an overall atmosphere. It's the equivalent of pointing out what kind of stitching an outfit uses and then claiming to be knowledgeable about fashion. Sure, you can identify the individual parts ("Hey, a serif font!") but that doesn't indicate that you'd know why they used it or how you'd use it given the same task (a serif font is used to create the atmosphere of sophisticated storytelling or atmosphere).

    For instance with Thor, one of Marvel's main concerns was that the movie wouldn't be taken seriously since the titular character was B-level at best. Taking a page out of The Social Network's playbook, one of the big design tropes of 2011 has been laying text over a straight-on-yet-dynamically-lit static shot of the primary protagonist. i.e. http://www.mattbury.co.uk/post.... This sets a tone for the movie in the minds of potential viewers that Marvel isn't aiming for a mindless action fest like Fast & Furious - Marvel is telling the viewer that this movie is sophisticated and important. (As with most marketing, what you're selling is rarely the actual product.)

    Heavy use of cooler color schemes such as cyan indicate that the movie will take itself seriously, non-campy. Back-lit characters implies adventure and action. Sepia shades are used to set either a romantic/nostalgic tone or can be used to establish a foreign locale. Stark white backgrounds with the actors lit straight-on and placed in the poster's endless purgatory are usually comedy (unless the aperture on the actor is blown out and contrast is done away with - then it's usually spiritual). Actors emerging from a black background out of shadows are typically "sophisticated" action.

    All in all the whole thing is half science and half intuition, but the title of the article is completely misleading. There's no psychology there, just a guy listing off photoshop elements he saw in 10 movie posters.

    /rant