The View from LA: Reflections on Stranger Things’ Emmy-Winning Titles

The Netflix TV series, with titles designed by Imaginary Forces using ITC Benguiat, received the Emmy for Outstanding Title Design.

By Ana Gómez Bernaus

Seeing Stranger Things win the Emmy recently for Outstanding Title Design made me think about the fact that approaching a movie or TV title sequence with only typography is a genuinely bold move. Typically, main title design is dominated by imagery where the written message plays a tertiary role, right after visuals and sound.

Stranger Things has really broken the rule of the main-title status quo yet manages to come out wearing the laurels of a winner. It’s likely because this title sequence, based solely on type and motion, provides the viewer with visual information that successfully conveys the mood and the structural characteristics of the show.

The show is set in the 1980s, and simply the look of the Stranger Things typeface conveys an amazing amount of information. ITC Benguiat, a decorative serif designed by Ed Benguiat and released by the International Typeface Corporation in 1978, immediately takes us to that specific moment in history all by itself. This is one of the most powerful things that typography and lettering can accomplish. Through the ages, typographers, letterers and designers have explored the forms and proportions of the 26 characters of the English alphabet to create countless variations of each one while keeping their essence, generating a visual history concentrated within the characters we continually use to communicate. Just by seeing a word or sentence set in a specific typeface, people can immediately recognize a specific time in history and read it with the distinctive characteristics of that period in mind.

The way the title is constructed also conveys another piece of information to the viewer. A stacked composition with the first and last letters on the word Stranger customized to go below the baseline is a visual reference to the book covers on Stephen King novels. That nuance alone makes us think that the story we are about to see could be scary.

On another level, using color on the outline — not in the fill of the characters — makes the title ethereal and somehow bodiless. It subtly suggests that we are in the presence of something we can sense, but we can’t see. The slight red glow brings a level of alarm that completes the package of emotions that defines this show.

Opening title sequence of Stranger Things, designed by Imaginary Forces under creative director Michelle Dougherty.

The team at Imaginary Forces, lead by creative director Michelle Dougherty, has produced a title sequence for Stranger Things that sets time and tone using just type, color, and motion. Its simplicity makes it exquisite and shows the incredible craftsmanship and knowledge about graphic history behind it.

Contemplating this award-winning achievement naturally makes me think about the entire history of opening sequences and others in which typography serves as the main design element.

Saul Bass’ work on the main title for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, with its broken typography that emerges from and disappears behind a set of regularly organized lines, immediately sets the viewer in a state of suspended tension.

Opening Title sequence of Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho, designed by Saul Bass.

George Lucas’ Star Wars is another magnificent example in which typography is used as a defining element of a film. Both the movie title, designed by Suzy Rice and hand lettered and inspired by the visual weight of Helvetica Black, along with the film’s introductory crawl, are so completely linked with the iconic series that any time you see a word or paragraph written in that style, it makes you think of Star Wars.

Hand-lettered Star Wars title, designed by Suzy Rice.

Seven, directed by David Fincher, makes extraordinary use of custom typography that perfectly supports what the visuals convey. Designed by Kyle Cooper, the mix between disrupted printed type and handwritten lettering that never sits on an uniform baseline denotes lack of stability and compulsive note taking. Armed only with that information, viewers start to form an idea of the kind of character that the film will introduce.

Kyle Cooper’s design for opening credits for David Fincher’s 1995 thriller Seven.

Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove is a wonderfully amusing and scary satire about nuclear war. The opening sequence, designed by Pablo Ferro, features hand lettering that emphasizes how easy it would be for an irreversible disaster to be created just by having someone with paranoid fears and the power to act on them actually do it. The childlike hand-lettered titles that use much of the real estate on the screen reinforce the the silliness and lack of responsibility behind the dangerous acts portrayed in the film.

Pablo Ferro’s design for opening credits for Kubrick’s 1964 satire Dr. Strangelove.

The 1936 film My Man Godfrey , directed by Gregory La Cava, starts with a main title — quite innovative for its time — in which all the credit cards are set as illuminated signs on a cityscape. The comedy passes through the elite circles of New York City and ends in a nightclub with a sign similar to that of the main title. In this way, the title sequence conveys everything we need to know about the scenario in which the plot will develop.

Opening sequence for La Cava’s My Man Godfrey.

Thank You For Smoking, a satire about the tobacco lobby and the surrounding politics from director Jason Reitman, opens with a sequence in which the title card mimics the look of cigarette packages. The film shows us that prefabricated and misleading statements often sway public opinion one way or another. Similarly, the main title, designed by Gareth Smith and Jenny Lee at Smith & Lee Design, shows us the highly attractive, well-designed cigarettes packages and their cool lettering and typography, that lend status to the self-destructive act of smoking. It’s a clever, visual way to mimic the “smoke screen” that the tobacco industry creates to shield from blame by presenting a graphically appealing packages.

Opening sequence for Reitman’s 2005 satire Thank You for Smoking, by Gareth Smith and Jenny Lee of Smith & Lee Design.

Stranger Things just added a golden star to the history of title design by showing that the choice of typeface all by itself is sometimes worth a million words.

— Ana Gómez Bernaus is an illustrator and lettering artist based in Los Angeles