typeface was a product of a Bauhaus philosophy, aimed at a pure functionality. Although this approach was misguided, as it abandoned formal function for philosophical form, it is this philosophy that explains why there is so little ornamentation in Futura. Futura’s geometric nature opposes W. A. Dwiggins’ principle of “wittingly irregular”, arguing that irregularity in form will help with legibility. High reaching ascenders and an infamous question mark.
❡ In 1922 the first geometric sans-serif was crafted by German professor Jakob Erbar. In 1927 Paul Renner improved on Erbar Grotesk and created Futura. With little to no contrast, strokes of even weight and formes that follow basic geometry, Futura became the first successful geometric grotesque typeface.
❡ Since then Futura has been the host of hundreds of iconic brands, including Absolut vodka, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, and Volkswagen. IKEA, arguably the most prolific user of Futura, abandoned the font for Verdana in 2010. This change was a catalyst for many designers to rethink their own approach to a brand’s online appearance.
Rethinking the role of type on the web is what this b[log] is all about. As the printed letter transitions into pixel based lettering, the evolution will be archived here. In doing so, l3tt3r will stand as a specimen of sorts of the collaborations made possible by type, frontend and backend developers.
Articles will be concerned with webfonts and the differences/possibilities that their new formats allow. This includes randomized lettering, new approaches to dingbats, revivals, new and lost attributes as well as themed discussions on www trends in type design.
The key here is that we will write about web fonts for web users, so that everyone can know why things are as they are and what, as a designer, the possibilities for them can be. With this in mind we will of course proceed with our first article on Futura PT.
The one thing Futura teaches us is that with all the theory and practice that goes into type doctrine, in the end you simply have to produce something that someone else wants. Geometric sans serifs ignored all the historical tried and true methods of type design for a form that aesthetically mimicked a philosophical agenda, and yet it is still being used today. As all good type theories remind us, they are but theories.
For a geometric sans serif Futura has an interesting history, which I would argue lead to its ultimate success. Futura coupled historical technique and contemporary inovations, yet it was the historic techniques that lead to its refined form. In many aspects Futura was the first sans serif to defy sans convention. At the time sans serifs were built as serif fonts that had their serifs removed, as is the case of Akzidenz Grotesk. There was some sense of what a sans serif ought to look like, but this “sense” was likely the source for the majority of distaste held against sans serif typefaces (The term Grotesque wasn’t chosen by accident).
Drawing from classical roman forms, Paul Renner constructed a new type of typeface, combining classic proportions with modernist values, creating a sans serif form that was unique to only sans serifs. Although this produced an uneven color in the text, Futura’s longevity reminds us that modern proportions are but another theory.
In the case above, we are looking at ParaType’s cut of Futura. Available in all 22 weights, on both MyFonts and Typekit, Futura PT offers a extensive and adjusted family for websites looking for Bauhaus, retro-futurist feel. A little known but clear change in Futura’s digital translation was the removal of lowercase (oldstyle) numerals, a much missed historical feature. Until Futura’s first drawing, lowercase numerals had not been seen in sans serif typefaces. Gill Sans never even had lowercase numerals until the 1990s, when they were added by Monotype. What makes this even more frustrating is that they seem to have been later phased out, as there is none on any digital Futura’s that I have spotted. If anything these lowercase numerals should solidify the classical approach that Paul Renner took to constructing his Futura.
Please bring them back.
Another distint change is the infamous question mark. In the lighter versions of Futura PT you can see the original question mark, but in the bolder version the question mark is a more traditional form. It seems this choice was made inorder to preserve the volume in the counters.
As for the classification of Futura, many would argue Futura was influenced by the philosophy of the Bauhaus movement and constructivism. I would however propose that in our age we can better classify it. There are clear futurist inspirations, as is evident in letters that are geometric but attempt to find new forms1, as well as a deep layer of functionalism that is seen on Futura’s reliance of the classical form. I would consider this a nod to rationalism. With all the layers of inspiration and philosophical/functional values I find it difficult to say why Futura was so successful. However it is clear Futura found the momentum it needed, and has instilled a dated but appropriate aura of the then popular Bauhaus movement till this day.