Typeface Name: Futura
Designer: Paul Renner
Foundry: Bauer Type Foundry
Release Date: 1927
Back story: Before they were trendy with lifestyle startups and Presidential campaigns, and even before they were popular with the avant garde, sans serifs were considered a “proletarian typeface family with no renowned predecessors,” relegated mainly to newspaper supplements and the Bible. That’s according to type designer Paul Renner, who in the 1920s was nonetheless beginning to rethink san serifs’ position as inferior to serifs and scripts. At the time, modernist artists, architects, and designers were busy shrugging off the weight of history with a new regard for the uniform, the rational, and the functional. In the summer of 1924, when Renner was commissioned to design “the typeface of our time,” those design motifs were, if not directly on his mind, certainly in the air. He set out to create a face that followed a “consistently unified, elementary language of form,” and with that, Futura was born.
If you’re reading this, you’ve almost definitely heard of Futura. It immediately became popular upon its release by the Bauer Type Foundry in 1927, and today it’s pretty much everywhere. Futura is the font in ads and logos for everyone from Nike and Volkswagen to the Pittsburgh Steelers (and, improbably, Party City). It’s used in artworks by Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer. It’s graced both the big and small screens, in the title credits for American Beauty and the alphabet taught on Sesame Street, and can be found all over the films of Wes Anderson and Stanley Kubrick. Paul Rand was a big fan, as was the Bauhaus school.
And this month, Futura is the sole subject of a new tome from Laurence King, titled simply Futura: The Typeface. By now, perhaps, Futura needs no introduction—but it does deserve a deep dive.
What are its distinguishing characteristics?
Renner had already made a name for himself in Germany as a respected type designer when he was approached by Jakob Hegner to design the “typeface of our time.” In his book Typography as Art, published two years prior to Hegner’s commission, he strongly endorsed the use of simple, geometric shapes. But when he created Futura, Renner wasn’t thinking of the Bauhaus or the avant garde with which the typeface quickly became associated. Instead, he wanted to create something that clearly distinguished itself from scripts and their allusion to individual handwriting. He wanted something industrial and universal; something that could be mechanized and standardized. For that, he looked for inspiration in the Roman capitals, which he considered to be an example of timeless perfection. Renner’s Futura brought letterforms—both capitals and lower-case—back to their simplest, most elementary, and most basic shape.
Why’s it called Futura?
Renner developed Futura as a contribution to the New Frankfurt project, a radical affordable housing project in the city that involved many of the major modernist architects of the time. And while Renner was not part of the Bauhaus, he did share many of the ideas of the school—an emphasis on rationality and functionality, an interest in mass production, and an optimism for the future. As Steven Heller puts it in his contribution to the book, Futura was nothing like anything that had come before it, and “managed to symbolize both today and tomorrow.”
What other typefaces does it pair well with?
What should I use it for?
Use it for signage, like the designers in the New Frankfurt project, who deployed it for city wayfinding, road signs, and on buildings, as a mass produced replacement for hand-painted signs. Futura’s simplicity makes it easy to read at speed, and on the go. It’s also been a go-to type for advertising and editorial since its inception, from the avant garde publications in Germany and France to the corporate advertising boom in 1960s America. Paul Rand was into its near-perfect geometry, and loved to enlarge Futura’s sculptural letterforms to lay across a spread or use as a logo. Design giant Bradbury Thompson used it compellingly in cover designs in the 1940s, as did Czech modernist designer Ladislav Sutnar in the 1950s.
It’s also ideal for space travel, as NASA discovered when it sent Futura—and the first man—to the moon in 1969. The typeface was engraved onto the stainless steel plaque that was attached to the lunar module, and rumor has it that it was selected for the interstellar mission because of Stanley Kubrick’s affinity for it. He had used it with 2001 A Space Odyssey, which was released one year prior.
Or, as another new book, entitled Never Use Futura, slyly recommends: don’t use it at all, it’s already been done.