Beyond the Bubbles: Designing Text Messages That Keep Audiences Hooked

Television shows typically go to great lengths to achieve on-screen accuracy. But even the most carefully crafted series can fall short when characters start texting. The typeface, animation, and format of a message must all work together to keep an audience engaged. And a badly designed text can distract a viewer or even worse, become a meme that lasts for decades.

In 2014, writer-director Tony Zhou asked in his video essay A Brief Look at Texting and the Internet in Film, “How do you show a text message in a film?” It’s almost a decade later and we still don’t have a final answer to the texting problem. But things have changed a lot in the past few years. Filmmakers are finally experimenting with different ways to show our tech-riddled lives on screen. But how do we do it in a way that feels engaging and natural?

A brief history of text on screen

In a way, filmmakers have always been dealing with this problem. Words on screen are some of the oldest elements of Hollywood. A hundred years ago, silent films had to convey the spoken word through dialogue cards. Without sound, there was no other choice.

But silent filmmakers may have been equally frustrated by on-screen text. The German Expressionist filmmaker Robert Wiene went as far as to have his floating words harass and haunt the titular character of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. And Buster Keaton, another silent film icon, often omitted dialogue cards from his films altogether. Instead, Keaton relied on physical gags and action sequences to move his stories along.

Modern period pieces usually avoid showing a screen full of text, too. They like their characters to read any old-fashioned correspondence out loud. If a written letter is ever shown on screen, all the audience usually sees is a short glimpse of cursive handwriting. The text itself is typically read as a voiceover. Those same rules applied in the 1990s, when snail mail was abandoned for chat boxes and computer screens. In You’ve Got Mail, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks still read their e-love affair as voiceover, perhaps as a nod to the period romances that came before.

But imagine if You’ve Got Mail didn’t have any voiceover? Video © Warner Bros.

Nowadays, our computers are handheld, our messages shorter, but we’ve navigated away from using voiceovers to read out correspondence. Some shows, like The Mindy Project, attempted to read their modern text messages out loud, but it quickly became a point of irritation. Few shows have adopted the technique since.

Today’s filmmakers are faced with a conundrum. How do they show modern messaging without annoying the viewer or interrupting the narrative flow? Many creators choose to cut to an insert of a phone screen. In theory, that’s not so different from cutting to a silent-era dialogue card, right? But modern viewers tend to dislike this method. It feels old-fashioned and clunky, especially when our eyes have already been trained by decades of textless films and TV shows.

So, what’s the solution? How do creators show texting without cutting to a phone or incorporating a potentially annoying voiceover? And if they choose to animate an on-screen message, like in The Mindy Project example above, how do they choose the right design?

Case study: The Killer

“That’s an interesting question,” muses Ben Insler, who served as the first assistant editor on David Fincher’s The Killer. “What a text message looks like depends on the director, what they envision—if they have a preconceived vision—and when that vision gets implemented.”

I reached out to Ben because I had recently watched The Killer and one scene in particular stuck out to me. The whole movie is strangely funny, but my biggest laugh came from a moment involving Amazon Prime’s mobile delivery app.

In the scene, Michael Fassbender’s assassin character stalks his next victim until a door, which requires a key fob, blocks his path. I expected the next scene to be a Mission Impossible-style break-in sequence. Instead, Fassbender just sighs, pulls out his iPhone, and plugs “key fob copier” into Amazon Prime. Immediately, the exact tool he needs pops up, and he buys it.

The humor (and product placement) isn’t what stuck with me. It was the way that Fincher and company seamlessly integrated Prime’s mobile interface into the scene. Instead of awkwardly cutting to Fassbender’s phone or worse, having him call in the order, the Killer simply taps his phone, and the Amazon UI pops up as a semi-transparent overlay next to him.

This simple visual adds a lot to the scene. First, it eliminates two cuts and allows the action to play out in a single shot. It also adds to the awkward comedy because it’s so unexpected. As a viewer, you’re moving through the sequence with Fassbender, tailing the target with methodical practicality. It’s macabre, a little exciting, and then suddenly you’re hit in the face with Amazon Prime’s bright, friendly logo. Personally, it made me laugh and shake my head. I remember thinking, “Yeah, you could probably do that.”

A look behind the UI

“I can’t remember if ordering from Amazon was scripted,” Insler tells me. “The decision to show the Amazon interface in The Killer came alongside the decision to show the Google Maps route that Fassbender takes to the gym. Fincher suggested that we needed to see the map with a nine-minute walking ETA, and he also noted that we should see a search result for key fob duplicators.”

“At that point,” Insler explains, “I started mocking something up for Fincher to comment on. We had to decide what to preserve and hide from Amazon’s real UI. How could we make the interaction feel fluid without obscuring the film image itself?”

How could we make the interaction feel fluid without obscuring the film image itself?

Insler created several options and presented them to Fincher. He explains the process was “…not necessarily ‘this is exactly what I want’ but more like, ‘this is the information we need to see… How do we get that on screen?’” and then both worked together to design it.

Don’t bug the viewer: early on-screen text messaging

Visualizing texts has gone through a few growing pains over the years. The 2008 comedy Sex Drive is an early Western forerunner to making animated text messages appear on screen. But the result is clunky and hard to watch. Sex Drive’s text bubbles skitter around the screen, following the physical movement of the device they are being sent from.

I don’t know about you, but trying to read constantly moving text on screen gives me a headache. Regardless, Sex Drive heralded a new animated bubble trend that filmmakers are still using today.

A TV show that nailed it from the beginning is BBC’s Sherlock. In the premiere episode, a mass text interrupts a Scotland Yard press conference. But instead of cutting away to multiple screens or animating messenger bubbles, a simple, unadorned word appears over every person in the crowd: “Wrong!” It’s an elegant solution for showing an entire room that gets the same text at the same time.

Sherlock continued to handle its texts this way for all its four seasons, using plain typography that hovers around the characters sending or receiving a message. (The font is AF Generation Z, if you’re curious.) There’s rarely a contact name attached to it, and the text never has any bubble or animation that would link it to a quickly outdated app or device. Also, viewers sometimes have to deduce who sent the text through scene context, resulting in fewer words on the screen and a less cluttered image.

Another show that got it right was David Fincher’s House of Cards. This show returned to Sex Drive’s animated bubble approach, but without any frenetic movements or foreshortened text bubbles, which sometimes felt odd or vertigo-inducing. Instead, the cinematography in House of Cards seemed to embrace negative space on purpose to include the text bubbles. The bubbles themselves were flat, easy on the eyes, and barely distracted from the actor’s performance at all.

Hits and misses

How do we determine which designs an audience will like? Let’s go through some examples of on-screen texts and see if they are hits or misses.

Miss: The Mindy Project

I’ve already mentioned how viewers were irritated by the voiceovers in The Mindy Project, but let’s talk design. This show seemed desperate to show off the Windows Phone (WP), which was discontinued by Microsoft in 2017. The WP had a user interface that was all squares and sharp angles. It looks jarring and outdated in 2024. The square pictures included in each message also don’t look natural. They look like they were cribbed from shots in the show.

The speech bubble tails also appear even when a character is not on the screen, which feels strange. They point off to nowhere, leading the eye into the empty corners of the frame. And don’t even get me started on the limp excuses the WP tried to pass off as emojis. Looking back, The Mindy Project seems like a perfect example of what not to do if you want your text messages to feel timeless and classic.

Hit: Euphoria 

In contrast, Euphoria efficiently shows two sides of a text exchange by using a split-screen. On one side, the character Nate casually weaponizes an online persona while Jules innocently falls in love on the other. The text itself is plain Helvetica Light without any bubbles, time stamps, or profile photos to interfere with the fast-paced dialogue. The split-screen also lets viewers see both performers in real time. The simple text design allows the eye to bounce between performer and message with little interference. I think this is a texting scene that will remain fresh for years to come.

Miss: LOL

Criticizing a movie with a 14% rating on Rotten Tomatoes feels like punching down, but LOL really does fail at depicting instant messaging. I’m not sure what program the characters in LOL use to chat, but I’m fairly confident that it never existed in the real world. The transparent box is distracting. It lightens the background but doesn’t blur it, making the oversized white text hard to read. I also have to ask, why is every character chatting on their bulky Macbooks when smartphones were everywhere in 2012? And what’s with that weird half-bar across the bottom of the screen?

Hit: The Fault in Our Stars

Rather than having its floating text blend in with a scene à la House of Cards, The Fault in Our Stars stylizes its text bubbles by making them look like doodles in a notebook. Doing this draws our attention to the fakeness of what we’re seeing, but in a way that provides character insight. Seeing Hazel text feels like watching her write down her thoughts down in a diary. This illustrative technique has also been used for some fanciful moments in the Netflix series Heartstopper.

Miss: Emily in Paris

Emily in Paris has a lot going on. This show revolves around one girl’s Sisyphean climb through social media, so its Instagram overlays must communicate a lot at once. Photos, follower count, number of likes, and account names are usually present in every pop-up. The result looks crowded, but the friendly, rounded corners and colorful text echo the show’s giddy tone.

This full phone screen overlay isn’t so forgivable. Interfaces like this are one iPhone update away from looking old. What’s worse, the on-screen email is also paired with a voiceover, making it veer dangerously close to Mindy Project territory.

Emily in Paris redeems itself with its text messaging. While not perfect, the bubbles are clean, and the senders have unobtrusive profile pictures that look like they came from the real world. The only problem is that strange, thick line that appears below the sender’s name.

Season three tweaked the message design and made it even better. The senders’ last names are gone and the creators got rid of that distracting line by moving the profile photo and name to the outside of the bubble. The result is a clean, text-focused design that is easy to read.

Hit: Beef

Finally, a show that asks the question “Why do we need a contact name?” Beef throws it out along with the animated bubble and the sent-to name, creating a simple text that allows the viewer to focus on the message itself. There’s very little ancillary text hanging around to distract the eye.

Hit: Non-Stop

Like The Fault in Our Stars, Non-Stop chooses to draw our attention to its texting overlays. In the film, Liam Neeson breaks his phone and from then on the texts he sends and receives are similarly cracked. Instead of showing the cracked screen in separate shots, the action is seamlessly blended into the scenes while also giving the film a signature look.

Miss: Younger

The texting in Younger isn’t exactly painful to watch, but it simply does not feel right. The cartoony green text bubbles don’t match the iMessage app that the characters use. Also, the timestamps and oversized contact names clutter the screen. Both feel unnecessary.

Hit: Younger

Like Emily in Paris, Younger course-corrected, landing on a more eye-pleasing texting animation. In season seven, the show ditches bubbles for Sherlock-esque floating text. The contact names and time stamps are still there, but they are so transparent as to be almost invisible.

Hit: Ms. Marvel

Ms. Marvel deserves a lot of praise for pushing on-screen text messaging into the cinematic future. Inspired by Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah incorporate Kamala Khan and her friend Bruno’s texting into the physical world around them.

In the first episode, a text conversation starts with Kamala’s first message emanating from a star lamp inside her room. The next text pops up in the street lane markings under Bruno as he is walking outside. From there, the texts between him and Kamala, complete with emojis, are shown in the neon lights and LED screens hanging around a bodega. It’s a fresh, incredibly cinematic way to show text messaging on screen. 

Unique cases

There are a few unique cases I want to highlight. Instead of relying on clever animation, these examples incorporated texting into their very DNA. They do more than just solve the texting problem— they couldn’t exist without it.

The Afterparty: “Three Dots from Stardom”

As Matt Feury proved in his The Rough Cut article, The Afterparty is hilarious. In this scene, the character Yasper sings a song about the pain of waiting for someone to text back. The song is full of visual gags, from the constantly recurring three-dot motif in the background to the easily missed detail that Yasper is strumming his guitar with the corner of his iPhone.

Men, Women & Children

At first, I was put off by the texting overlays in Men, Women & Children. But as the film went on, I realized that each individual animation was specifically crafted to match the device that it came from. I also noticed that the various chat bubbles and menus seemed to crowd the screen on purpose as if they were suffocating the characters. Visually, the animations in Men, Women & Children work together to underline the incredible number of virtual windows that are constantly competing for our attention.

Searching and Missing

Searching and Missing don’t make their text messages pop up as ephemeral bubbles next to the characters. Instead, these films reverse that visual language by turning the real world into the pop-ups. In both films, reality is boxed in by chat windows and social media feeds. These films treat the digital screen as the entire cinematic landscape. And they keep those visuals exciting by incorporating dynamic camera movement, close-ups, and zooms. 

Pay attention to the choreography of the on-screen elements too. You can feel a character’s indecision just by watching their cursor hesitate over a link. Searching and Missing both capture the feeling of the digital moment we’re living in like nothing else.

Signing off

Every day, we live more of our lives through screens. Text messages, websites, video calls, and even holograms aren’t science fiction anymore. They’re science facts. And directors are being challenged every day to visualize our screen-filled world in a fresh way that’s not distracting or annoying. 

Some directors are doing this by placing their whole film inside a computer screen; others are keeping technology at a distance. They stick to spoken word conversations only and keep things like texting and social media off-screen. But that makes their in-show worlds different from how we live our real lives. Other filmmakers have sensed this disconnect and they are working to creatively push the on-screen text message into the future.

So, what’s next for the bubble? It will be exciting to see the next solution to the texting problem.

Jay Kidd

Jay Kidd is a camera assistant and writer based in New York City. He’s snapped slates on shows like The Good Wife, Smash, White Collar, The Affair, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and many more. When he’s not working he’s probably writing or talking to a stranger’s dog.

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