Know your typeface: Futura’s amazing past

Alex Bigman

Choice of typeface can make or break a design. That goes for pages (web and print), sentences, words — as a matter of fact, typeface can quite literally make or break a single letter! Just ask the comic sans haters.

Designers have been well aware of the importance of typeface for over a century, and the history of these deliberate and deeply thought-out forms can be downright amazing. The appropriately named Futura, for example, is as relevant today as it was at the time of its creation almost 90 years ago. The makers of this font saw more than just “good design” in their creation; they saw the makings of a maximally efficient society — a utopia.

Here is the story.

26+ Zeichen: Edelsans

In 1922, German professor Jakob Erbar created the first ever geometric sans-serif typeface (above). In accordance with the hugely influential Bauhaus school of design, the typeface aimed for a pure functionality, with no ornamentation or individual characteristics. It is based on the circle — the most fundamental of all typographic components — and is supremely easy to read, which is a typeface’s basic function after all.

The Bauhaus designers believed in a world where form and function destroyed ornamentation, clutter and revivals of the more decorative past. Only in this world could social equality truly come into being, they believed. It would be utopia by design.

Futura typeface in light, regular, and semibold: Paul Renner (via Wikipedia)

Though not officially part of the Bauhaus school, another German typeface designer, Paul Renner, believed in the school’s principles and felt he could make Erbar’s typeface better. In 1927 he created Futura (above).

Derived entirely from geometric forms (near-perfect circles, triangles and squares), with strokes of near-even weight and contrast and distinctively tall lowercase letters that rise even above its capitals, Futura looks like efficiency itself: clean, standardized, legible, stylish without any overt “style.”

Volkswagen Ad: jeffminarik (via Coroflot)

“Ikea Says Goodbye to Futura”: idsgn

Designers and companies over the past century have taken advantage of Futura’s benefits, to iconic effect. Volkswagen and IKEA (above) used the typeface exclusively in their ads (up until 2010, when the furniture company controversially switched to Verdana), and you might recognize the typeface in the logos for Domino’s Pizza and Absolut vodka (below).

Film directors Stanley Kubrik (2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining) and Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) also famously prefer Futura for their films’ titles and credits (below).

In what is probably the typeface’s crowning achievement, Futura has walked on the moon. The Apollo 11 mission — the first ever manned moon landing in 1969 — wisely chose this lettering for the plaque they left up there (below).

Photo: Historical plaque on the Apollo 11 lunar module “Eagle” (via idsgn)

If that’s not history, we don’t know what is.

What typefaces do you prefer? Share in the comments!

Featured photo: Nick Sherman (via Flickr)

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