Graphic Design in Arthouse movies

Sometimes we see details, we don’t consciously notice. We forget about them but we are still impacted by them.The deliberate use of graphic design has enormous potential. It can convey the atmosphere of a film in a fraction of a second without the need for words. So, no matter how tiny, insignificant or reduced the design might be, it pays to think about it!

Author: Johannes Platzl, Art Director

Take Annie Atkins. As an English graphic designer, she made a name for herself with her work on films such as Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies and Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Luckily, she likes to share her knowledge by giving lectures like at the TOCA ME 2019 in Munich. And I would like to take this this opportunity to give you a brief insight into what I learnt.

Do you know what Annie says about 90% of her work? – “It resides in the blurry background.”

So, let’s talk about it!


Beautiful design? Design in its purest form? Sure, it’s possible. But graphic design in films usually follows a different set of rules. It must be REAL, says Annie Atkins. Real and realistic! And that does not always mean pretty. For example, take the shopping street in “Bridge of Spies”. The attractiveness of the posters, signs and billboards is questionable – What really matters is that the design embodies a realistic representation of the place and the time in which the action takes place thus optimally supporting the basic mood of the film.

„We always start with something real“ (Annie Atkins, TOCA ME 2019)


TOCA ME: Bridge of Spies

The character of this shopping street is strongly influenced by the graphic design of the signs.



So how do we use Annie’s supreme law: “Start with something real.”

We start by asking questions.  What was going on at this time and in this society? What techniques, equipment and means were available to people? Did they have access to pen and ink, or did they have to settle for a dirty hairbrush and white lime? Was machine printing available or were people just using stone and chisel? The lesson I learnt from Annie is this: Imitate THEIR reality. If something was done by hand, do it by hand. If something was done with a machine, do it with a machine.

“In most cases where I did not follow a real role model, and a director or art director comes to me and asks for the source of inspiration I had to answer: Well, I do not have any. “(Annie Atkins, TOCA ME 2019)


There is just a crumbled envelope in the prison cell. The protagonist doesn´t care. It´s enough to scribble the escape plan on it.



As is often the case in many things, in graphic design for films too, less is more – Why put much effort into the design of a blackboard, which in the story has been made like this:
A zookeeper, on the verge of retirement, has the idea of attaching a blackboard at a certain point on the fence so that guests can better decide where they would like to go. He looks in the old shed, finds an antiquated wooden board along with a stained brush and black paint. 5 minutes later he completes his work and being fully satisfied with it hangs it up on the fence.

Now, what does the final result look like? Probably not like it’s been made by a top graphic designer. Right?

“It’s usually better not to see it come from a graphic designer’s hand!”(Annie Atkins, TOCA ME 2019) 


Simple but suitable.