HBO’s hit show Girls, which followed the lives of four twenty-something women navigating life in Brooklyn, celebrated its 10-year anniversary this month. But as we look back over the period since its premiere, what’s most striking to us is how, since that thin sans serif “GIRLS” splashed across our screens, new series have both copied the show’s title card design and evolved from it.
Now, a crop of new shows are swapping out lengthier VFX intros for brief yet impactful title cards, this time embedding bold typography in space, so type serves as its own set element—and another tool of small screen world-building.
The shorter title sequence design trend has likely developed in response to our TV viewing behaviors. According to recent research conducted by Netflix, members were manually advancing the series within the first five minutes of a show 15% of the time before the streaming platform implemented the “Skip Intro” button in 2017. Now on a typical day, viewers are pressing “Skip Intro” 136 million times. Combine that with binge watching and shorter attention spans in general and designers had a new set of parameters to innovate within using the the framework of a singular title card. (Though some title sequences, like the White Lotus, are still killing it.)
Integrating the typography directly into the environment pushes that innovation even further. Lately it's been used for more than just a stylish opener but also a wayfinding tool used during transitions between multiple locations or time periods. Killing Eve and Inventing Anna, for example, both feature characters who jetset to exotic locales, and move between past and present storylines throughout each episode.
In Killing Eve, the spy vs. assassin thriller plays out as a deadly game of cat and mouse in chic destinations across Europe, with cities like Vienna, Moscow, and Paris announced in bold on-screen lettering over a scenic city view. Prior to joining Pentagram as partner, Matt Willey designed the identity and titles for Killing Eve. The studio writes that Willey’s custom, tightly-kerned typeface was designed with “knife-sharp edges and a subtle blood-drop animation that trickles down from the inverted points between the letters—a nod to the show’s chilling, bloody narrative.” The title card cycles through an elegant and muted color palette for each episode with the typeface sprawling across the show’s next setting, for maximum visual impact.
Images courtesy Pentagram.
Alternatively, in Inventing Anna, story lines are retold by multiple characters and the name of each narrator appears in stark black and white before a new scene, indicating which perspective of viewers are about to witness. Both give the viewer an instant sense of place and time, while enhancing the mood of escapism or danger that’s about to unfold onscreen.
Freelance art director & graphic designer Kathy Bates, who has designed key art for HBO, Netflix, and Universal Studios, says the DNA of Killing Eve’s titles can be traced back to past shows with “sexy assassins in cool locations” like Alias. But it also borrows a design convention from Girls. “The opening for HBO’s Girls has really become iconic for using bold typography as a statement piece, paired with brief flashes of interchangeable colors that make every episode feel unique,” she explains. “While Killing Eve definitely has a darker tone, it still uses this format, as do so many other shows which have shifted that same design move towards a more pastel-hued aesthetic—like Shrill, Dave, or Dollface.”
Bates says that the bold simplicity of this type trend has become popular because of its looks and also its affordability for shows with smaller production budgets. “Not every show is going to have that Game of Thrones money to design long, complex openings. These quick and colorful title cards are a great alternative that lets the typography do the heavy lifting instead of relying on a whole VFX team.”
It's also being integrated directly into the environment on shows like AppleTV’s Ted Lasso, where the seats from an entire soccer stadium spell out the title via a wave of changing color emanating from where series star Jason Sudeikas takes a seat. The color change, plus the removal of graffiti from the seats around him acts as a metaphor for his character’s transformative effect on his own environment.
Other shows, like Sex Education, opt to change the logo’s position with each episode; sometimes it’s towering over panning views of landscapes and crowded schoolyards, other times it will appear smaller, against bus stops and in interior shots of the characters’ homes. Rather than acting as a flat graphic that separates cold open from the rest of the show a la Girls, Sex Education’s titles appear in scenes already occupied by characters creating a consistent, looming presence in a manner that is similar to how the show's central theme of sexuality permeates the storyline of each episode. With FX’s Atlanta, and more recently HBO’s Our Flag Means Death, the integration of typography into the environment more directly informs the narrative of each episode rather than just serving as a thematic element for the show overall.
Image courtesy Warner Media.
What’s particularly unique about the title cards on Our Flag Means Death is they were almost entirely created through practical effects. Production Designer Ra Vincent, who worked on the internet’s favorite (and only?) gay pirate show says, “The art department designed the show logo and sourced and arranged the objects to create each tableau. We would arrange seaweed on the beach between waves, or carve letters into a skull in a way that could be easily read. We did for some time attempt to build a gobo of the title card on a moon and capture that in camera. Sense prevailed and VFX took that one.”
Vincent says each title card was loosely planned in advance but were generally created in the moment when the camera was idle with whatever props were readily available. It speaks to the craftsmanship and creativity of the team as well as the dedication to building a world that instantly immerses viewers in the show.
Using environmental typography as a way to foreshadow each episode’s theme also guides viewers along the show’s narrative arc in a way that a standalone title sequence can’t quite execute with the same impact and immediacy. “The right typography is so important in the world building process of a show,” Ra says. “It speaks to the mood, sophistication or naive nature of the stories, and gives that extra layer of description to the characters that inhabit this onscreen world.”