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036: Futura: An Incomplete History of Type

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

Name: Futura

Release Date: 1927

Designer: Paul Renner

Classification: Geometric Sans Serif

Owned By: The Bauer Type Foundry

Claim to Fame: The typeface that put a man on the moon.

From the IKEA catalogue to the Olympics to the instrument panel on the Apollo 11 space shuttle. It’s been described as “the world’s most popular typeface” (not bad for 93 years young!). Today we’re talking about Futura.

Futura has been used in some of the most iconic ad campaigns (VW’s Lemon ads), movie posters (Gravity), magazines (Vanity Fair in 1929), logos (Crayola), visual identity for TV shows (Sesame Street) and it’s even landed on the moon… more on that in a minute.

The name “Futura” invokes hope, quite literally meaning “future” in German. It is based on visual elements of the Bauhaus design style. In 1919, The Bauhaus was established as a school of art, architecture, graphic design and typography by Walter Gropius in Germany.

Modernist, simplified forms play an integral role to Bauhaus design. The Bauhaus school was closed in 1933 by the Nazis but it’s influence had already spread across the ocean into the USA. Interestingly, even though the the Nazi’s closed these doors, they used Futura for some of their propaganda (even though designer Paul Renner was a critic of the Nazi regime). It’s important to note that Renner wasn’t directly associated with Bauhaus, however he believed that modern typefaces should reflect the modern world. Sans serif designs that came before Futura are called “grotesques” - based on sign painting and condensed lettering. They are sans serif fonts that have lots of character, quirks and irregular proportions.

Grotesque typefaces consisted of simple letterforms and even stroke weights. They were bold, geometric and typically used as display type. They had a lot more personality and quirkiness than a typeface like Futura, which was designed to look like it was made by a machine. In other words, it’s very functional, has no frills and is modern; Futura was a “conciscous break from the past”. There is little-to-no stroke contrast within each letterform in Futura. Stroke contrast (thick and thin lines) are present in typefaces to make it look more human, as though it were written with a human hand, which was not the intention with Futura.

Futura’s anatomy can be described as less is more, basic shapes, geometric, mathematical and precise; all foundations of geometric sans serif typefaces. Futura is made up of geometric shapes (circles, triangles, squares), representing function over form. There are no non-essential or decorative elements.

Futura is unique because it works well both in print and digitally, as well as in large and small sizes. It can be used as a display typeface, as well as a text face. It’s versatile and comes in a family of widths, weights and sizes.

A few of the key traits that make Futura, Futura are as follows:

  • Low cross bar on lowercase letters like ‘t’

  • Round circular counters (such as the a - that cut in a bit into the stem to give the illusion of perfect circle)

    • It’s tapered into where the curved lines meet the stems (ex: lowercase n) - it’s an optical illusion - it’s made to look like a machine created it, while at the same time appearing geometrically perfect. This helps contribute to the overall colour and texture of a block of text written in Futura. Remember that consistent texture is an important technical attribute in a typeface and one that becomes apparent when a typeface is applied to a block of text.

    • Squint at a block of text - does it appear uniform throughout, or are there large white gaps and large blobs of colour in different parts of the paragraph?

  • Pointed apex (triangles) + vertex that extends to baseline

  • Terminal is cut off/doesn’t exist (no additional flourishes)

  • Ascenders rise above cap height

  • Monoweight strokes - this is to make it appear as though a machine made it and not a human hand, which would naturally have thick and thin stroke variation throughout each letterform

Now let’s get back to Futura’s story. Specifically, let’s get back to Futura on the moon.

In a TEDx talk by Douglas Thomas called: How a typeface helped launch Apollo, he explains that when men landed on the moon in 1969, they not only left a flag, but also a plaque that reads “We came in peace for all mankind” set in a very fitting typeface: Futura.

After it was designed and released in the late 1920’s, it was used in a variety of capacities before, during and after WWII, including some notable copycats from US designers. When, after the war, the US government was choosing typefaces to use on new maps and projects post-WWII, they chose Futura because they felt as though it wouldn’t be associated with communism. Also, many notable politicians and their campaigns, including Nixon and Kennedy, used this typeface in their marketing materials. To represent who they were to the American people.

When NASA was beginning to plan for the Apollo missions to the moon, many many documents (internal and external to NASA), as well as things like the instrument panels on board the shuttle, were set in Futura. In his TEDx talk, Thomas describes it as the typeface being used for an “entire interface”; a system that helped astronauts get to the moon. There were hundreds of different contractors and companies helping Apollo get to the moon and each one using a different typeface would have meant cognitive overload for the astronauts. Futura helped simplify and streamline important information when they needed it most. From instrument panels, to food rations, to tool kits, Futura was found just about everywhere in the moon mission.

In regards to the plaque set in Futura left on the moon, Thomas points out that Futura was a perfect choice for a number of reasons, including the fact that it represented what was happening with technology at the time. German technology that was co-opted by Americans had put a man on the moon and a German typeface that had been co-opted by Americans was the visual identity used to mark this historic event.

Thank you Mr. Renner, for your important contributions to an incomplete history of type.

From the middle ages to the Middle East, from Futura to Freight, thanks for joining us on a journey across the type universe and going where no designer has gone before… next up: we’re going to have a HELVETICA good time.


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