Brow Beat

Kern Your Enthusiasm: The Perfection of Futura

A copy of the plaque that was attached to the Apollo Lunar Modules.

This is one in a series of posts analyzing and celebrating typefaces. The series was originally published by HiLobrow.


Taking a bow just outside the Bauhaus is Futura, the diva of the sans-serif scene. Designed by Paul Renner in 1927 in association with the Bauer Type Foundry, Futura not only discarded serifs as so much chaff, but streamlined the entire type experience: the strokes are of even weight, the curves are based on perfect circles, and all the triangles are isosceles.

Although not a member of the Bauhaus, Renner was strongly influenced by its modernist ideals, and was eager to discard the aesthetic—and political—trappings of the past. Futura’s letterforms seem cast from perfect pours of Industrial Age steel, forged to sail through to the Space Age. But politically speaking, the aesthetics of efficiency might point either right or left. Futura faced firmly to the left not only by the sympathies of its designer, but by the eccentric height of its lowercase letters, which rise higher than its capitals, a subtle function served by the form.

It should come as no surprise that Futura was the most popular midcentury sans-serif font, surpassing even Helvetica in reach and relevance. For Futura represents the rational utopia of progress, where everything not only works well, but looks good doing it. And so the font has figured in some deservedly iconic messaging—from the minimalist Volkswagen ads that so horrified the team at Sterling Cooper in Season 1, all the way to the official plaque left on the moon by Apollo 11 in 1969, signposting our giant leap. Futura was the future we dreamt of in the past, and, in part, the future we achieved.

But what of the future we face, the Information Age, infinity, and beyond? Sans-serif fonts have only gained in legitimacy since their introduction; the use of Futura and its derivatives is alive and well, and so should its message be. Let Helvetica have all the utilitarian traffic signs it wants; Futura points at where we should be going.

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