The 90 Year Evolution of Movie Posters

Since the inception of cinema, movie posters have been used to promote films and create buzz. Just as the style of cinema has evolved, the design style of these promotional posters has changed. Poster printing was also a hard thing to get over in the early 1900s, the prices for the promotion images were high and not always easily printed. However things have changed int he modern day and age and as you’re about to see, the movie posters of the early 20th century are a far cry from what we see at the cinema today.

The 1920s

The 1920s was known for movie posters that employed fairly traditional type for the time and hand-drawn illustrations over stills that depicted scenes from the movie.


In the 1930s, we see a shift towards bolder typographic designs with a growing tendency towards illustrations focusing on main characters of the film, particularly faces, over depictions of scenes.


By the 1940s, we rarely see scene depictions anymore. Character illustrations are most prominent, and typographic treatments are a little more subdued after the experimentation of the 40s.


In the 1950s we start to see poster designers trying conceptual approaches, such as the Love in the Afternoon poster which is free of characters, emphasizing typography and subtle clues as to the movie content forming the type’s background.


60s posters don’t go as far as getting rid of illustrations altogether, but type plays a more important role in the layouts. The illustrations move to a more peripheral role, adorning the type.


An example of the fast movement of trends in the design industry, the 70s sees photographs play a big role in posters for the first time, often taking up the bulk of the canvas with type thrown in below, seemingly as an afterthought.


The 80s is where we start to see the movie poster in a form similar to what we’re used to seeing today. Large photographic backgrounds are more common than ever, but type and imagery are more balanced than we’ve seen in previous decades which favored one over the other.


Posters of the 90s are reasonably formulaic: we’ve got the photographic backgrounds, pithy slogans at the top, and the names of headline actors sitting quietly above the name of the film, usually near the bottom of the poster.<


Through the 80s and 90s we see the evolution of movie posters slow down as designers hit on a series of winning layouts. In the 2000s we see incremental improvements to keep up with trends in typography and photography, but the layout often remains the same. Towards the end of the decade as minimalism comes into vogue, that influence can be seen in the posters of movies such as Up, The Dark Knight and Buried. It’s a move away from a more balanced layout that probably won’t prove to be particularly timeless — but it does cater to the trends of the day.


The evolution of movie posters demonstrates a common theme in the development of new fields. As the field gets older, its participants more experienced, the rate of change slows down. Designers have had 90 years to figure out what works, and as each decade passes, the changes become more evolutionary than revolutionary. It’ll be interesting to see what the next decade brings, but it may be wise not to expect huge differences between now and then.

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