August 2, 2011


Welcome to the final post in the countdown of the 50 greatest posters of classic science fiction. It’s time for the top poster to be revealed! Remember (or refer back to the first post) that this is not a countdown of the best science fiction movies, but of the posters that marketed them instead! Without further ado, let’s wrap this thing up!

10. The Cosmic Man
Compositionally, this is one of the more striking posters in the countdown, even if we’ve seen more elegantly rendered illustrations elsewhere. What really makes this a success is how the artist was clearly thinking of the future positioning of the typography when the illustration was still on the drawing board. The title type is perfectly situated and is executed in a style appropriate to the period. The illustration itself is a stunner, particularly in how cleverly all of the disparate elements are layered into the design. The juxtaposition of the colossal figure with the planet shapes and the landscape in the foreground is incredibly interesting — especially the placement of the large planet nearest the viewer — pretty daring! The thin lines that emanate from the planet are a nice detail. Another strong element is the sunburst pattern that frames and highlights the title character’s Nosferatu-like features. If it were up to me, I’d remove the “out of this universe” tag box from the top of the poster and shift it to the bottom, allowing for the points of the sunburst to continue to the poster’s bleed. Regardless, this remains one cool poster.

9. Beyond the Time Barrier
This is just a beautifully executed poster in all regards, with an original type solution married to provocative imagery (the green figures in particular!). In a few of the higher ranked posters I’ll discuss at length some of my philosophy about hand-rendered versus computer-generated typography, but I should take a moment now to buoy my later argument by noting now that while I think hand-rendered title typography (when appropriate, of course) is almost always superior to titles formed from existing typefaces, there are plenty of beautiful examples of the latter — and this is one of them. Hang on a second — obviously I realize this type wasn’t created with a computer. I’m just referencing an argument I’ll make later and think it’s germane to mention that the title type for Beyond the Time Barrier is of the style that the modern computer can create and manipulate with ease. Nevertheless, it isn’t the typography so much as the gestalt that earned this its spot.

8. Gog
Never were the concentric circles used more successfully than they are here. The poster for Gog, with its unusually dark background, is just fantastic — one of the most designerly in the countdown. The dark background, the growing circles, the collaged feel of the imagery (especially the danger signs — brilliant!), the surprising restraint of the tagline at the top, and that great image of Gog himself all combine to make this original poster a true gem. If it were up to me I’d make the type at the very bottom smaller, but it’s the poster’s only weak point.

7. Attack of the 50 ft. Woman
Does anyone mind if I cheat a little? If so, that’s OK — just reserve this spot for Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman. I included the posters for The Amazing Colossal Man and War of the Colossal Beast because in terms of theme and execution they are so incredibly similar to this one, yet the Woman poster is the best. She’s rendered with more care, and stands in her environment more realistically than her male counterpart, who appears almost to have been cut and paste into his (note The Amazing Colossal Man’s left leg / ankle).

Note also in the poster for The Amazing Colossal Man the many discrepancies in scale. The Man himself is positioned essentially in the background of the poster, yet the largest “normal” sized figure in the poster is the woman in his grasp. Okay, we’ll call that artistic license; but notice also how the two gun-shooting police officers at the right middle ground are actually larger than the tank in the foreground — that, I can’t accept. In contrast, the illustration for Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman is correct in all of its proportions. And if we are granting artistic license, it’s best used in how she appears, based on the size of the “normal” figures, to be almost 200 feet tall! If only she were looking at us!

6. The War of the Worlds
You know, that hand image is pretty iconic — one could remove all of the typography from this poster and most film fans would still easily guess the title. Yet ironically that famously grasping extra-terrestrial hand is not what I love the most about this poster, and I’d bet that most graphic designers would agree with me — it’s the type that makes this one of the best in the countdown! As often predicted in the films under discussion here, we have come to live in a world dominated by computers. For the past twenty-five years the Macintosh has transformed the world of the graphic designer — and the changes wrought by technology have not always been positive, particularly within the realm of typography.

I spend a great deal of my working life explaining to students that graphic design has far less to do with the computer they they imagined when they made the decision to pursue a design or advertising career. Those students typically enter college thinking that the designers swipe their images from Google and then match them to a faddishly gaudy (Hey designers — I said gaudy, not Goudy!) typeface downloaded from After four years they don’t leave that way. One of the first things they learn from me is that human beings respond best to type and imagery that appears to have not originated electronically, but instead from the human hand. A happy preponderance of contemporary designers certainly think so — pick up a copy of Print magazine’s Regional Design Annual from the last decade and you’ll find the hand-made on every page. (And while Print has devolved into a silly magazine that fails in almost every way to represent the design world, in this one way, at least, they reflect the sensibilities of the design world. Sorry, I digress.)

The simple cursive scrawl of the film title here is one of the best pieces of pure typography in the countdown. And although the work here obviously predates the era of computer graphics it’s telling to point out that what makes the typography here so timeless is that it simply couldn’t be accomplished via any digitized typeface or Photoshop filters. That’s why it’s so powerful — because it’s powerfully human, and therefore utterly original. Amazing both in it’s simplicity and level of detail, it’s an exquisite piece of work that mixes color, texture, and scale through both script and block letterforms. I may sound like a geek here, but great type like this brings out the geek in me.

5. Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Another poster that merits its ranking because of its originality. Little did I know when I began this process that so many of the top designs would qualify on their ability to avoid (or at least put a new spin on) the design and image clichés that prevail throughout the genre, and that we’ve spent so much time detailing in these posts. With that in mind, it’s easy to see what makes the poster for Invasion of the Body Snatchers so good: the handprint. It’s so central to the story, yet the designer has also used it as the primary image in the poster, gigantic and graphically powerful, the “tie” that binds all of the posters elements together. If you can, try to imagine this without the handprint — the figures would then appear to simply float in the open space of the picture plane. The print anchors them, gives them ground upon which to stand. Without it they would appear to be falling like raindrops.

And how about the colors? The red to yellow gradient really makes this one pop, and evokes the split-fountain printing technique that was so popular in the Hatch Show Print style music posters of the day. The poster is a fine exercise in compositional balance as well: note how there is a sort of zig-zag pattern that works its way through the positioning of the many figures, and especially in the application of the individual blocks of text type. These elements all weave their way from the top of the poster to the bottom, creating a sense of balance with hardly any of the individual pieces actually being centered, except for the text block at the very bottom, which acts as a “foundation” for everything else. It may at first appear haphazard and jumbled, but this is skillful stuff.

4. Village of the Damned
For a moment or two at the beginning of the process, I toyed with this in the top spot. While I think this is a wonderful design in almost every way (and easily affordable for anyone who wants a copy), it has a few problems that keep it out of the top three. My biggest issue is the image at the top-right corner — If I were the author of this poster I’d simply remove it and enlarge the blue head of the child to encompass the newly-opened space. That head is absolutely fantastic (not to mention the crux of the entire film), but compared to the relatively large size of the busts of Sanders and Shelley and the “Beware the Stare” tagline, the child’s head is just too small. Meanwhile, the image of the trench-coated figure surrounded by children is suitably strange (get a load of the kid directly behind him — weird!), it adds little to the poster’s ability to tantalize. Finally, the photographic landscape at the bottom of the design is extraneous. It’s a muddled and confusing image choice that forces the designer to make the title typography too small. I’d rather lose the image altogether and reconfigure the type treatment into two stacked lines — possibly stressing the word “Damned” in the process.

Despite my complaints, there is still a lot to like about this, and it richly deserves a spot in the top ten. Let’s not forget how creative this poster is, not only in it’s use of limited color and striking imagery, but especially in how it utterly avoids the clichés that run rampant in most of the other posters in the genre. For that reason alone it warrants a high spot, even in the design wasn’t so delightful.

Just for the fun of it, I fooled around in Photoshop for a few minutes and rearranged some of the elements. Were I taking this seriously, I would have maintained the green blob shape around the title, but I just wanted to bang this out and didn’t have the time to redraw the blob in the style of the original. Same goes for the wavy lines that indicate the child’s stare — for the sake of time I chopped them off in all of the areas outside the young man’s face. But, hopefully you get my drift!

3. The Thing from Another World
How could anyone see this poster and not head directly for the box office to buy a ticket? As a designer I’m astonished that a type-only poster could make it past the studio money-men, but what a challenge this offers to potential viewers! Be sure to click on this and look closely at the enlarged image — the level of detail in the illustrated type is truly amazing, it had to be a labor of love for whomever took the time to render the letters. Again I return to the comments I made in the blurb for The War of the Worlds: what makes this so great is that the type has effectively become the image — you can lose yourself in marveling at it, and it resonates to us even more today because we know that no computer could possibly generate such exquisite letterforms.

Yet the incredibly high ranking doesn’t spring merely from the visual risk of a type-only poster, it comes also from how appropriate doing so was conceptually. Think about it: there no way the poster can ask the question “Natural or Supernatural?” and then actually show us the Thing. Everyone knows that even though this is a first rate movie, the creature himself isn’t visually striking enough to entice anyone to go see the film. It’s the mystery that makes us buy a ticket. And this poster, because it takes that sense of mystery and puts it on steroids, becomes one of those rare pieces of graphic design that solves its prescribed problem almost perfectly.

2. Forbidden Planet
I’m betting that this is the poster most sci-fi aficionados following the countdown guessed would grab the top spot. After all, this is the most justly famous image to come from the genre throughout the 1950s. In terms of color, stylization, and careful execution the image of Robby the Robot gently cradling an unconscious Anne Francis is both stunning and wonderfully fantastical. The background is a pure artistic delight. In so many ways it epitomizes the best of classic science fiction, and the quality with which it is rendered so far eclipses the similar image on the poster for Tobor the Great that any comparison almost seems silly.

So why not the top spot?

I placed it here because although this is the strongest and most representative image in the countdown, the rest of the design doesn’t hold up as well as the top poster; and while the image for The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms trails this one by just a little, the other design considerations of that poster inarguably outstrip this one. The biggest problem with Forbidden Planet is the large text box at the bottom. I understand better than most that being an MGM product, the stars’ names had to be made quite large — yet certainly the artist could have continued the illustration to the bottom of the poster and simply placed those text items on top, in a readable, light color.

And then there’s the title type. It was a struggle for me to divorce my affection for this film, not to mention my familiarity with its type solution, from my judgment of the poster. And while this type is just fine, again it fails to measure up to the type in not only the top poster, but a few others from the countdown as well. In the end though, I feel comfortable placing this firmly in the second spot, in what proved to be only a four or five horse race anyway. This is one of the most familiar and beloved film posters of all time — a claim even the top poster can’t make.

1. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms
I’m certain some readers will take issue with this selection, thinking that a more iconic film should warrant the top spot. But remember — this is a poster countdown, not a movie countdown, and the poster for The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms is simply the best of the bunch, hands down. It’s flawless in every way, and certainly deserves to occupy the top spot. Let’s break it down in terms of Illustration, Typography, Composition, and Concept:

Everything you need to know about the illustration can be summed up in the figures fleeing from the beast. We’ve seen many such figures before, but none rendered with the same style and verve as this. The artist has carefully considered each pose, and each figure is executed with the same level of care — look at those facial expressions! Nor do the figures get “fuzzier” as the recede into the background — the bus is rendered with the same degree of detail as the people. Much the same can be said of the buildings. They are as realistic as can be, even in the way they shatter and tumble to the ground. The beast himself seems to have been custom-fitted to this landscape, and he’s pretty scary — from the saliva dripping from his jaws to the steam coming from his nose, no details have been left out.

The typography — all of it — is the best in the countdown. From typeface selection to arrangement to the brilliant touch of adding scales to the word “Beast,” this is simply as good as it gets. Take special note of how the designer has used boxes to contain the various taglines and balance the composition. The poster boasts a whopping five taglines, and the designer has effortlessly integrated each. The design feels claustrophobic (a good thing) without feeling cluttered (a bad thing). That patented Warner Bros. poster shop technique of maximizing the white space around the edge at the minor expense of image size gives the designer the opportunity to dynamically overlap various design elements around the edge of the poster, inject that much more life and movement into the finished product.

If we think of graphic design as the juxtaposition of type and image in order to communicate a message, this poster is a master class.

Thanks for sticking with me through this one! Let me know how I did, and feel free to disagree with my choices. This has been a lot of fun. Up next in a few months, and probably for 100 posters: Classic Horror. I can’t wait! 


  1. "The simple cursive scrawl of the film title here is one of the best pieces of pure typography in the countdown. And although the work here obviously predates the era of computer graphics it’s telling to point out that what makes the typography here so timeless is that it simply couldn’t be accomplished via any digitized typeface or Photoshop filters. That’s why it’s so powerful — because it’s powerfully human, and therefore utterly original. Amazing both in it’s simplicity and level of detail, it’s an exquisite piece of work that mixes color, texture, and scale through both script and block letterforms."

    I love this bit, and your whole commentary about "The War of the Worlds" poster lettering, that human beings respond best to imagery drawn with the human hand.

  2. Thanks Jacqueline - That whole idea got me through graduate school!

  3. I enjoyed looking and reading about your choices, Mark. My favorite of the ten is THE WAR OF THE WORLDS precisely for the reasons you mention though I would have liked a bit more type across the bottom. Your number one choice is a bit too busy for me. But we can probably agree to disagree.

    You've done a great job with this entire series.

  4. I really would never have approached these posters in the same light if it wasn't for 'Where Danger Lives'. The level of commentary and analysis is compelling, and the retouched imagery looks terrific.

    Even more titles to add to the (growing) poster list.