Illustration by Andrea Manzati

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The Rise of the Typographic Flash Card in the Age of Binge-Worthy TV

Illustration by Andrea Manzati
The Rise of the Typographic Flash Card in the Age of Binge-Worthy TV
Published September 17, 2019 by Madeleine Morley

When HBO’s Girls first aired in the Spring of 2015, it started with a bang. Forget the drawn-out title sequences of True Detective or Mad Men, or the epic snaking interlude that opens Game of Thrones. Whenever Girls came on, one title card briefly flashed on screen to set the show’s tone. Bold sans, uppercase letters, and a different color combination each time, these cards would appear as if emphasizing a punchline. They were the cherry on top of an opening scene, standing in for an ironic eye roll or a supportive high five. And when it first appeared, this title flash seemed perfectly designed for an audience raring to binge.

2015 was the year when we were all losing sleep over season three of House of Cards, which, to the shock of TV critics in 2013, had created a ripple effect when it released its seasons in single, streamable chunks. It was the year of countless articles charting the rise of binge-watching in light of on-demand services. 30 or 60 minutes were no longer enough to satiate a viewer’s appetite: If you didn’t have to wait a week, how could you resist watching another episode after that tantalizing cliffhanger? And Girls, although it initially rolled out in staggered air dates, seemed to understand its future as a binge-prone favorite. Its flashy, quick-paced title card allowed viewers to roll seamlessly from episode to episode without the annoying interruption of a lengthy title sequence. And it did so two years before Netflix even introduced its now-essential “skip intro” button.

Blue text on black background The title card of the HBO show 'Girls'.

Today, the quick beat of a flash card is a formula that many shows are adopting, from the moody title cards of The Handmaid’s Tale to the punchy, pastel-colored opener of Shrill. There have been title cards in the past, of course, but these new openings have a specific function in the age of streaming.

In the heyday of network television, when you’d wait a week for the next episode of a show, theme music became vital for establishing a sense of brand: think The Simpsons, Friends, or the hooky bass of Seinfeld. But now, when many shows seek to avoid breaking from the rhythm of a viewer’s binge, their approach to the typeface (and overall branding) of a card is increasingly the thing that viewers remember. This is true of the alluring uppercase font of Killing Eve, as well as the Slavic stamp of Russian Doll. While some shows (especially those steeped in fantasy genre, like Chilling Adventures of Sabrina or Jessica Jones) do still opt for world-building openings to lull viewers into a particular mood, the flash card is becoming the best way to communicate a show’s brand both concisely and memorably for many directors.

“I never wanted a title sequence,” says Joe Swanberg, the director, writer, and producer of Netflix’s comedy-drama anthology series Easy. “They always get boring during binge watching, or skipped, so it didn’t seem worth the effort.” Instead, Swanberg commissioned individual title cards from different Chicago-based artists; the concept reflects the show’s own structure, where each episode focuses on a different set of (overlapping) people living in the city.

Illustration for Easy Joe Swanberg, creator of the Netflix hit 'Easy,' commissions local Chicago artists for title card illustrations.

Cartoonist Jeffrey Brown suitably designed the card for the episodes centered on a male comic artist; illustrator Clay Hickson’s trippy tiki-bar scenery sets the tone for another about a couple navigating their first threesome. “The approach meant that each episode had a fun little surprise, and often the card made more sense after viewing the entire episode, so they were fun to return to,” says Swanberg. Switching up card design for each episode is a memorable way to keep viewers on their toes. Mike Perry’s pulsating animations for Broad City are another example of this technique for openings. 

Indeed for many TV shows, the quick flash of a title card isn’t limiting the potential for surprise or audience intrigue. For those that binge-watched the first two seasons of the BBC’s spy-thriller Killing Eve, its titles became a game. Every six-second burst pans slightly forward, and its bold typeface and background switch their colors with each episode. Finally, a little droplet oozes like a prick of blood from one of the points created by the letterform’s negative space, either from the logo’s K, N, or V. Viewers began to play “guess where the drip will appear” during the opening of each episode.

KILLINGEVE_Titles from Delcan & Company on Vimeo.

“The main title features an aggressive, bold bit of type — deliberately so — and I liked how the color combinations softened that a little, or contrasted it,” says the card’s designer Matt Willey, an art director known for striking type treatments who’s currently at the New York Times Magazine. The designer drew the type from scratch, and aptly named it Killing Eve: the font is used not just for the title, but also other on-screen graphics as well as the show’s marketing. This design direction emerged when Willey first read the scripts from season one. “They were full of added information about how each scene should look or feel, with descriptions like ‘slight laugh,’ or ‘blushing,’ or ‘wryly,’ in parenthesis through certain parts of the dialogue,” he says. The contrast between a violent action from the protagonist and then her mischievous laugh informed the idea of visual tension—culminating in a title card that combines a brutally-sharp font with pastel colors. “I started sketching the sharp V because of the eye-stabbing scene that takes place in the first episode,” adds Willey.

When the skip button was first introduced by Netflix in 2017, there was panic in the title design industry. "It was initially seen as a real punch,” says Lola Landekic, editor of motion design publication Art of the Title, which is dedicated to title sequence design across film, television, and video games. “But it’s a tool that was introduced because people were complaining that they were too long, especially when watching four or five episodes in a row. So it was a necessary UX addition.” What she’s found in the years since its implementation, however, is that the demand for sequences has remained. The variety of approaches has simply increased, reflecting the variety of shows in what’s so often referred to as a new “golden age” of television. “Removing them would be like reading a book without a book cover,” says Landekic. “I don’t see them disappearing any time soon.”

Colorful illustration Each episode of Broad City boasts a different Mike Perry illustration for a title card.

Title sequences have adapted to how viewers are now watching TV, either by shortening the opening to a brief flash card or by rearranging when sequences appear. 2016’s Glow found a happy medium, both developing a lengthy title sequence while still making sure its bingers happily cruised through the show uninterrupted. Its first episode featured an extended animation of fantastic, neon-outlined figures that popped against a black background like lipstick-colored glow-sticks. But you only see the title sequence at the start of episode one. Subsequent episodes feature a brief title flash of the show’s brightly-outlined logo. In Glow’s case, the initial sequence is like a book cover, and the logo flashes feature as chapter headings punctuating and guiding the narrative. 

The way in which flash cards drop has become increasingly integral to the pacing of a program, too. “I like how some shows often now place a title card within the milieu of the first scene, or you’ll get these very quick title hits,” says Landekic. Sex Education, Workin’ Moms, and Russian Doll (to name a few) do this: A title is worked into the scene very quickly, sometimes placed within its elements. “Part of this trend in quick flashes could be to do with budget, too,” notes Ladekic. “Either way, with this approach, you don’t know how the title is going to appear, which is a fun experience as a viewer. So you’ll get really intense, full screen typography at the end of a joke or scene that establishes the tone.”

And the typeface — forming a show’s logo — becomes increasingly important in a time where viewers are looking for shows on web interfaces filled with tiny thumbnails of scenes, all vying for your attention. If a viewer knows the logo of a show, they’ll be able to find it quickly amidst the mix of programs, making the quick hit of a flash card all the more vital to establishing brand. Think of how effective the logo of Stranger Things has been in this regard. “Scrolling through Netflix can feel a lot like scrolling through Pinterest,” says Landekic. “The content of each image is chosen based on your viewing habits, but then the logotype placed over the image is the constant.” In contrast to the annoyance of the auto-play, repelling viewers with unexpected sound snippets while they’re browsing a streaming site’s homepage, typography — established by the brief flash of an opening — offers an effective guiding star amongst all the noise.

More about Madeleine Morley

Madeleine Morley is a design and architecture writer based in Berlin. She studied English literature at Cambridge University and went on to complete an MA in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She has written for Creative Review, AIGA, Monotype, magCulture, AnOther, and The Guardian among others.

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