Growing up, I lived down the block from a small movie theater. It only showed a few movies at a time and they were most likely from the decade earlier. It didn’t matter to me. Passing the posters in their marquees, which were often missing most of their light bulbs, was the highlight of my walk to and from school. I often wondered how they were made and who made them, but the artist was never listed on the insanely long credits at the bottom of the print. Those artists became my silent heroes and “movie poster designer” went to the top of my “jobs to do when I’m a grown-up” list.
Why is the art-making process behind movie poster design so captivating to me? According to Joshua Field, assistant art professor and foundations coordinator at Tennessee Tech University, “As a genre of design that aims to distill a two-hour, multisensory experience into a single static two-dimensional image, the movie poster is a fascinating exercise in visual composition.”
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Little did I know that, far more often than not, the posters of the late 1980s and early ’90s were made by men. Actually, most of the big-name ones were all made by the same man, John Alvin, the famed artist behind posters for films including E.T., Alien, Aladdin, and one of my all-time favorites, The Lost Boys. After hearing about Alvin, I became determined to discover women in the field, and in recent years it’s become much easier to find the representation that I was aching for as a preteen creative.
For a long time, the poster design process was closely guarded by agencies that specialized in the area, obscuring the artists behind the marketing visuals of major blockbusters. Thanks to social media and the internet, movie poster artists are no longer unnamed assets to the success of a film or show.
Akiko Stehrenberger is a name that every film enthusiast should know. Even if you’re not familiar with her name, though, odds are you’ve seen her work and it’s part of the reason you watched that movie or show you binged recently. She’s made a name for herself in the movie and television industry with her exceptional design work, which has increased the marketability of iconic films and shows like Netflix’s recent hit Beef (2023), Warner Bros. Pictures’ Dune (2021), and HBO Max’s The Last Of Us (2023).
“More and more movie poster designers are getting credit, thankfully, and I think this is just opening the door to finding more amazing work that’s always been there; it just never got recognized,” Stehrenberger shared in an interview with Hyperallergic.
Stehrenberger’s work is known for its combination of traditional illustration techniques and modern graphic design. She often incorporates hand-drawn elements, which give her posters a unique personal touch. The character and texture of these images, combined with their bold colors and typography, set the artist apart from other designers in the industry.
Stehrenberger began her career with editorial illustrations for entertainment magazines and learned quickly that the visual translations she developed for articles were similar to the process of creating movie and television posters.
“When I started it was very different. It was big Photoshop heads over explosions. And that seemed to fill up the theater. So a lot of clients didn’t want to step outside of that model; they knew that it guaranteed an audience.” Her work explores a different approach to the art, and over time that style became too captivating to ignore. Funny Games (2007), starring Naomi Watts, was the poster that put her on the map. The painting of Watts’s face reacting to something in the distance generated intrigue for the viewer, while avoiding the typical psychological horror film marketing visuals of blood, gore, and gloom. “I had no idea what would happen after that or that the poster would become monumental in my career. To this day, 20 years later, anytime there’s a crying face on a poster, someone will say, oh, they’re copying Funny Games, but I don’t own crying on a poster.” According to Stehrenberger, after Funny Games, agencies “felt like they could slowly step out, more and more away from the sea of photoshop heads.”
One difficulty in the field is that while designers strive to make their posters unique, they need to generate specific feelings in the viewer. “Balancing this tightrope of visual communication and attention-grabbing uniqueness, all while maintaining a visceral feeling, makes movie posters an intriguing challenge,” says Joshua Field.
Stehrenberger shared, “There’s always great work being created and there are always forward-thinking and innovative designers making groundbreaking work. Today, I think studios pay more attention to that and want more of that. It’s actually an amazing time to be a movie poster designer right now.”
Stehrenberger’s work is a testament to the power of traditional illustration, textural elements, and fearless experimentation. In a time when digital is king, the artist returns to her roots — paper and pen, painting, and classical techniques that remain eternal. She remains true to her intuition, which allows her to produce work that is thoughtful, intriguing, and full of depth. Her ability to capture the essence of a film in a single image is truly remarkable, making her one of the most sought-after poster designers in the industry. But her career could have gone differently.
“I interviewed for a receptionist job at a movie poster design agency in Los Angeles but at that time, I had an illustration in Spin magazine so I brought it with me to the interview. It was a ballsy move but I was proud of myself. When the owner of the agency saw it, he immediately said there was no way that I was going to answer phones. He really took a huge chance on me because I barely used a computer at that point!”
Stehrenberger’s passion for exploring the unique side of movie poster art has allowed for growth beyond the concepts that Hollywood has held onto in marketing future blockbusters.