How much attention do you pay to title treatments? By that I mean—in case it’s not obvious—the way the title of a film appears on a poster. Title treatments can range from the simple to the spectacular, from mere type to elaborate works of art. They can range from, for example, the unadorned but authoritative Gotham Bold sans serif of Oppenheimer (2023) to Robert Grossman’s air brushed petrol hose spelling out the title of the movie Gas (1981, above). Whereas the title treatment of Oppenheimer was dwarfed by the radioactive image of J. Robert and his atom bomb, the title treatment for the other cinematic sensation of the summer dwarfed its characters. In fact it was just the first letter of that title treatment, the instantly recognizable iconic B of Mattel’s ’80s Barbie logo (reminiscent, in its gleaming curves, of Grossman’s airbrushed title).
Title treatments matter. They set a tone. They are often a shortcut indicator of genre (fat, red Futura bold for comedy; distressed, spiky serifs for horror). And they’ve always mattered, but in many ways they should matter now more than ever, as movie posters get reduced to inch-high thumbnails on computer screens, and platforms like Letterboxd scrub posters of everything but key art and title.
In the history of movie poster design, there are some title treatments that are justifiably legendary: Joe Caroff’s West Side Story (1961), Philip Castle’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), the painterly signature of Gigi (1958) and the monumental and oft-copied hewn-out-of rock title of Ben-Hur (1959), with its impossibly floating hyphen.
Ten years ago, I wrote a piece for Notebook about title-centric movie posters, which featured one sheets with almost nothing but text on them. Since then, I’ve been collecting examples of extraordinary title treatments; hand-drawn titles that tell a story or create a vibe. More often than not these are found on posters for lesser-known films and especially for genre films. Sadly, most of these designs are uncredited, but I have named the artist when known.
Though type on early cinema posters was usually little more than functional (and often there was a lot of it), there were the occasional examples of expressive title text, as in these two posters from 1925 and 1930, both of which use embellished type to express speed.
And occasionally you can find calligram-esque lettering where the words emulate the subject of the title, as in this poster for 1942’s Tales of Manhattan.
But it wasn’t until the ’60s and after that graphic designers started to really let loose with title design. Some of the best examples I’ve found have been on posters for 1970s softcore exploitation movies like these below.
Surprisingly, horror movies have yielded fewer expressive titles than you might expect, maybe because the imagery usually carries all the weight of meaning. Here are a couple of outliers.
Some of my favorite title treatments are from American posters from the minimalist ’70s, when white space was king and titles were subservient to taglines, especially these two calligrammatic titles from Hal Ashby’s Shampoo (1975) and Michael Winner’s Scorpio (1973)
I also love the tiny titles for Goodbye, Columbus (1969) and Slither (1973) where basic type is manipulated to tell a story and paired with an equally minuscule photo.
I love title treatments, like Gas, where the title is made to look as if it was created out of a material or an object, as in these French posters for The Blonde Witch (1958) and The Sea Wolf (1941) with titles made from tree branches or rope (note how in both cases the title material extends to form a frame).
Or Boris Streimann’s gorgeous poster for Murnau’s Tabu (1931) where the title seems to be made out of straw; or the Russian poster by B. Bohibhko for Famine '33 (1991) with a title made to look like barbed wire.
There are titles that seem created out of nothing more than light or shadows, like the 1938 poster by Kurt Geffers for Nordlicht and a great Guy Peellaert poster for Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993).
Far more corporeal is the terrific airbrushed title for the otherwise little-known 1979 off-roading documentary Dirt.
And then there are titles whose solidity exists to be broken.
Speaking of broken, one of my very favorite title treatments is in the stunning French double-grande illustrated by Jacques Bonneau for the 1943 Titanic, where the title—which the survivors are clinging to for dear life—is created as if from the wreckage of the titular ship.
Another disaster movie title that has a similarly integral title treatment is the UK quad for 1977’s Rollercoaster.
And finally, in keeping with the rollercoaster theme, one of my all-time favorites is the elaborate neon construction by album-cover designer Gerard Huerta for Louis Malle’s Atlantic City (1980).
I hope that after reading this you will look at movie poster titles in a new light. And if you have any favorite title treatments of your own, I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.