Serifs, Scripts & Screens: 8 television shows and movies with a spectacular use of typography
Even when we’ve got something good to watch after a long day, us designers are starkly reminded of our profession as soon as we find ourselves paying more attention to the titles, credits and subtitles than everything else. Googling the typeface before the story even has a chance to get going. We’ve probably all been there! In fact, after some painstaking ‘research’ (watching a lot of Netflix), we’ve compiled a small list of productions whose type choices compelled us to do some further digging.
It’s hard to imagine the film Lady Bird without the title’s powerfully biblical blackletter typeface. The font had been a part of the film’s identity for a long time – chosen for director Greta Gerwig’s pitch deck to align with the film’s Catholic School setting. When it came to designing the opening titles, Gerwig worked with New York-based design studio CHIPS alongside artist Leanne Shapton to develop something with a more ‘handmade’ quality. Simple and clean, but “rough around the edges.” Despite many ideas and experiments, blackletter would be the final choice, effortlessly winning out for its historical and ornamental character. Shapton handpainted the lettering, which was paired alongside a loosely-spaced and simple sans serif (also hand-painted). For those eagle-eyed type spotters, the Joan Didion quote at the start of the film is set in the bookish serif, Electra.
Set in an unsettlingly brightly-lit, stark-white corporate abyss, Severance is the workplace sci-fi thriller that pushes ‘work-life boundaries’ to their limit. The aesthetics of Lumon Industries, where the bulk of the show’s story takes place, drew inspiration from a plethora of sources; from 1960’s office spaces to pharmaceutical companies. Part of Severance’s worldbuilding is formed through the carefully considered typography choices, which set the tone of Lumon. The pairing of Manifold Extended CF and Forma DJR appear frequently in the show as the two main typefaces. Balancing cold technicality with warm neutrality, the pairing embodies the pristine veneer of the exploitative employer. Hermann Zapf’s humanist sans serif Optima appears in gold on the spines of Lumon’s ornate Compliance Handbooks, suggesting the tradition and history of the cult-like business. Meanwhile, technical coding aesthetics are referenced with the use of David Jonathon Ross’ Input Sans. Finally, the show’s title is aptly set in Helvetica, the ubiquitous sans serif, calling back to the no-fuss and sterile aesthetic of modernist corporate identities.
Following the show’s shocking conclusion, we couldn’t ignore the equally dramatic typography of Killing Eve. Designed by Pentagram partner Matt Willey, the identity and titles characterise the show’s bold and impactful narrative. Willey drew a custom typeface for Killing Eve, condensed and tightly-kerned, with knife-sharp inverted points on many of the characters.
With nothing to misinterpret, the typeface ‘smothers the screen,’ as locations are announced in feminine, translucent pastels. The iconic blood-drop of the title of course encapsulates the show in all its thrilling, violent glory.
With a decoratively-rich collection of films, we couldn’t possibly pick just one of Wes Anderson’s productions to focus on. Those who have seen any of the Canadian director’s earlier films will be familiar with his long-standing love of Futura. The geometric sans serif appears almost always in all-caps, widely tracked, and in Roman or Bold. Known for its ubiquity in mid-century design, Anderson utilises Futura for nostalgia with its retro-modernist connotations of a time that predates the digital cacophony of contemporary lifestyles.
The director took a notable turn with Moonrise Kingdom, whose typeface, Tilda, was created by letterer Jessica Hische. Tilda is a formal, romantic script typeface, with influences from Anderson’s quaint aesthetic and the titles from French crime thriller La Femme Infidéle (1969). Initially inspired by Edwardian Script as a starting point, early iterations were too formal for the director. To remedy this, Anderson then suggested looking to 1960s lettering from New England. Hische had originally been invited to create only the lettering for the titles, however, with most of the alphabet created, she suggested forming a complete typeface.
The acclaimed album by Thom Yorke, ANIMA pulses with electric fuzz, deconstructed noise and a touch of existential anxiety. The latter is one of the themes Yorke dissects, through dystopian settings, in both his album and its accompanying film by Paul Thomas Anderson. Available on Netflix, the film is an ethereal and hauntingly beautiful exploration of dreams and human connection. Nootype’s Radikal makes a return as the typeface of choice, having been used for Yorke’s prior album, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. The geometric sans appears in all caps, in a striking orange-red.
Set in the late 1970s to early 80s, Mindhunter is based on the early days of criminal psychology, as it follows the Behavioural Science Unit at the FBI. Chilling and absorbing, with rich character development, the show is perfectly paired with Silas Dilworth’s type family, Heroic Condensed. The ‘rational, mechanical, narrow’ grotesque accurately communicates both the series’ true-crime aesthetics with 70s-era visual references.
Neil Kellerhouse art-directed and designed the show’s titles, creating a gradient of the several type weights. This use of symmetry emulates the Rorschach test, a core motif of the show, both visually and thematically. Many fans have also speculated that the progression to thicker weights at the title’s centre alludes to the progressively complex investigation into the centre of the troubled mind. An extremely versatile typeface, Heroic Condensed appears continuously throughout the show’s identity. Much like Killing Eve, Mindhunter skips the subtlety with screen-filling location titles that inform the audience of protagonist Holden Ford’s next location. It’s designed to be unsettling, oppressive and inescapable – a ‘jolt’ to remind the audience to pay attention. Furthermore, the impactful all caps recalls 1970s newspaper headlines.
Before James Kennard became a filmmaker, he worked as an illustrator and designer. His background in the creative arts has served him well as he continues to incorporate his eye for colour, form and composition into his film work. His eye for typography shines in his 2020 documentary, The Bookmakers, which tells multiple narratives of those who are ‘keeping books alive’ in the 21st century. As a feature that highlights the high-level craftsmanship, dedication and slight eccentricities of the process, what better choice of typeface than the charmingly robust and bookish Triptych Roman. Appearing in a Wes Anderson-like yellow, the serif is a homage to the sturdy book type O.S. (Old Style) Antique No. 7.
Tarantino’s 1997 American crime production pays homage to Blaxploitation films of the 70s, starring Pam Grier as protagonist Jackie Brown, an air hostess caught smuggling gun money. The title typeface took direct inspiration from Grier’s 1974 film Foxy Brown. The blaxploitation film, to which Tarantino’s film pays homage, features an interpretation of Ed Benguiat’s Caslon, created by Jason Walcott. The basis of Jackie Brown’s logo, however, is Benguiat’s ITC Tiffany. The added swash ornamentation is also derivative of 60s and 70s type design, and the exaggerated lettering of display serifs.
Benguiat’s work features prolifically in many of Tarantino’s other works, most recognisably in the opening titles of his 1994 production, Pulp Fiction. As the iconic title – set in Aachen Bold – fades into the distance, names of actors and producers appear in the decorative serif ITC Benguiat, a typeface that now finds itself synonymous with the hit TV show Stranger Things.