Art Directing Film Posters: In Conversation with Illustrator Akiko Stehrenberger

Film poster design by Akiko Stehrenberger for “Venus in Fur”, 2013, directed by Roman Polanski

It’s about creating the right mind-frame. You don’t quite know what will happen in the film being advertised, but a sense of its atmosphere draws you in. That’s the art of film poster design.

Be it the minimalist optical illusion of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, where the negative space of a reddening flame is used to create two female faces sharing a kiss, or the conceptual brilliance of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, at which I may have had to look twice, but my forever fascination with the steepy streets of San Francisco quickly stepped in and helped me grasp its double meaning, or Naomi Watts’ hyperrealist face for Funny Games that says so much by showing so little, or the refreshing reinterpretation of Breathless, each design is so stylistically different that it’s hard to believe they are the work of the same artist. That would be the work of one of the most talented contemporary film poster art directors and illustrators, Akiko Stehrenberger.

With each new film poster, she seems to be opening the door to imagination even wider, not just for herself as an artist, but for the viewer, too – even movies you know, you come to think of them differently. Each of her poster designs extracts that special quality of the film it represents, is conceived to suit not just the story, but the feel and the mood of the film, creating visual symbols that merge completely with the experience of the film. Because you don’t just watch a film, you experience it. That’s the work of a visionary, who, with an aesthetic that is often strikingly minimalistic, enigmatic yet very precise in encapsulating a powerful frame of mind, has paved the way to less conventional movie poster design, driven by the desire and strengthened by the skill to create poster art that has its own visual identity. And I think that this shows faith in the creativity of the audience as well.

Akiko Stehrenberger has designed, art-directed and illustrated posters for the films of David Lynch, Michael Haneke, Jim Jarmusch, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Lynne Ramsay, the Coen Brothers, Sofia Coppola, Spike Jonze, Tom Ford and Steven Soderbergh, among many others, and her Instagram account, Doyrivative, is an even wider and ever evolving sketchbook for her creativity, wit and humour. Her book, Akikomatic: The Art of Akiko Stehrenberger, is now on worldwide release.

In my interview with the artist, we are discussing her versatility of style, how she merges hand with digital illustration, the stories behind posters such as Funny Games and Nocturnal Animals, and whether she watches any movies just for relaxation.

Film poster designs by Akiko Stehrenberger
Left: “Ghosting”, 2015, directed by Kim Sherman | Right: “L’Enfer”, 1994, directed by Claude Chabrol


”The piece has to feel appropriate for the film
rather than just be illustrating for the sake of illustrating.”

What sparked your passion for cinema?

I’ve always loved movies, especially arthouse and comedies as they were an escape for me.

How did you get into film poster design? And were there any early influences in your work?

I fell into movie posters after working as a freelance illustrator doing spot illustrations for entertainment and music magazines. It came at a good time because coincidentally all magazines were moving online and budgets were starting to be cut drastically. The earliest influences for my movie poster work were Polish posters. They still are. I love their boldness, simplicity and creativity.

Film poster design by Akiko Stehrenberger for “Funny Games”, 2007, directed by Michael Haneke


One of your film posters that has always stood out for me is the one for Funny Games, with Naomi Watts in close-up. I’ve never been quite sure whether it is a photograph or an illustration. It is so minimalist, yet so striking, and I keep coming back to it. A photograph film poster, although there are some great ones out there, rarely grabs my attention to this degree. And given the film storyline, I have an even greater appreciation for it because it says so much by showing so little, challenging the viewer to fill in the blanks. So is it a photorealist painting?

Michael Haneke expressed interest in the specific scene. All I had was a tiny dvd screen grab of it that would’ve never been able to blow up to a 27”x40” image. Using the small still and photo reference of Naomi Watts online, I was able to recreate this scene by digitally illustrating it. It was originally supposed to be a placeholder until the studio provided the high resolution still. However, Haneke decided to use my piece instead.

Do directors have a say when it comes to film posters, do they deal with that?

Sometimes they do, but mostly the marketing team at the movie studio overrides them because they’re the ones trying to get people to the theater.

Film poster design by Akiko Stehrenberger for “Breathless”, 1960, directed by Jean-Luc Godard


Nocturnal Animals is a film poster where you used photography. Again, very minimalist at first sight, but it awakens in me a sense of discomfort and apprehension, just like I felt when watching the film, a great and haunting cautionary tale. How did you come to that design?

I wanted to use the novel from the film as a graphic device to violently interfere with or reveal the characters. Jake had a special shoot whereas Amy did not, so I had to find a unit shot of her that I felt matched his tone and paint her eyes so they were looking at camera.

Your poster design style is very versatile, either traditional painting, digital illustration, or graphic design based on a photograph and creative type writing (I love your posters for Somewhere and Lost Highway). So I would like to ask you about your creative process. Where does it begin? Do you watch the film and try to understand the rhythm, structure, mood, and then decide on the exact design style you will approach? Do you settle on an image or on an idea and bring your own self and imagination into the world of the film?

It depends on when I am brought into the project. Often times I’m brought in before the film is even shot and I’m working off of a short synopsis. Overall, I try to hone in on what the main concept of the film is, really find its tone, and build my ideas off of that. I start with looking at photography and art online to get the wheels turning. I then come up with ideas that have line lists, reference images, and a quick thumbnail sketch to communicate my idea best. I present this to the clients and from there we move forward to honing in on one of my ideas to fully execute. For me, the style of illustration communicates almost as much as the idea does. This is extremely important in my work and why my work is as versatile as it is. The piece has to feel appropriate for the film rather than just be illustrating for the sake of illustrating.

Film poster design by Akiko Stehrenberger for “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”, 2019, directed by Joe Talbot


I would like to insist on this versatility of style. Two other of your film posters that stand out for me are Collosal and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, because of the way you use negative space. Is there a lot of resistance to negative space, to this extreme minimalism, from a commercial point of view?

It depends on the studio putting out the film and how many posters they are releasing for it. In the case of both Colossal and Portrait of A Lady on Fire, Neon produced quite a few posters, some more traditional and mainstream and before releasing mine, so they could take a chance on mine.

”I haven’t given up doing things by hand and never will.”


Film poster design by Akiko Stehrenberger for “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, directed by Céline Sciamma


Do you ever miss drawing just by hand? I am asking because even though hand-drawn poster illustration has seen a revival, you have managed to make a successful transition to this new concept of graphic design and digital illustration, while continuing to fill in this increased craving for unique and creative design. How challenging was this transition?

I still draw and paint by hand for posters when I see fit. Quite a few pieces of mine are scanned in paintings. But yes, things have been going more digitally for me because the deadlines (for consistently working movie poster designers) are becoming increasingly impossible. Aside from poster work, I love using graphite and many other media for my personal work. I haven’t given up doing things by hand and never will.

What makes a good movie poster?

A good movie poster has a simple and clever idea. It also intrigues the viewer enough that they want to see the film in hopes it will answer the questions the poster imposes.

The film poster is the first interaction of the audience with the film. Why isn’t the name of the film poster designer on it? Do you think movie posters are given the importance they deserve?

I’m not sure if there will come a time when the movie poster designer or the agency will get credited on the actual movie poster. Until then, you can see who’s credited on (this is an online movie poster database that posts posters as they are released.) Movie posters should be given importance because they determine what and who will have the interest level in the film. It’s like the front cover of a book.

When does the work of the film poster designer come into play, especially in the case of a new film? I know some posters are required before starting filming and they can be used to get funding for the film.

I work on posters at all phases in the film production.

Film poster designs by Akiko Stehrenberger
Left: “La jaula de oro”, 2013, directed by Diego Quemada-Diez| Right: “13 Assassins”, 2010, directed by Takashi Miike

Do you seek out inspiration for your designs outside of the cinema world? Are there any unexpected sources of inspiration?

I try to look at as much as possible when trying to come up with concepts. The most random thing may spark something perfect for the film.

Some of your posters reimagine classic films (The 400 Blows, Breathless, L’Enfer). You have also collaborated with companies like Kino Lorber, who are doing a great job at enriching and preserving a film culture of which the promotional artworks are a huge part. Do you think they will attract a new audience for classic cinema?

Quite possibly. None of these pieces were made as fan art, but rather for the DVD releases of the films. I think it will definitely attract a new audience for classic film the way Criterion Collection has done such an excellent job at doing so.

Film poster design by Akiko Stehrenberger for “500 Days of Summer”, 2009, directed by Marc Webb

If you could choose one classic film to make the official poster art for back in the day, which one would it be?

That’s a tough one! I’d rather redo a classic film with a not so great poster than one with a good one. If it ain’t broke…

Do you ever watch a film just for relaxation?

Yes, comedies!


Film poster designs by Akiko Stehrenberger
Left: “Somewhere”, 2010, directed by Sofia Coppola | Right: “Her”, 2013, directed by Spike Jonze


Akikomatic: The Art of Akiko Stehrenberger
is now available to buy worldwide.


Website: | Instagram: @doyrivative

More stories: On and Off Set with Unit Still Photographer Merie Weismiller Wallace / La enfermedad del domingo: In Conversation with Costume Designer Clara Bilbao / Interview with Photographer Laura Wilson

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