Futura: (Paul Renner 1925–1928). Because ideas are beholding to their instantiation,
while the aesthetic principles of the Bauhaus formed the foundation of modern design,
its aesthetics were beholding to the fieldwork of Jan Tschichold and Paul Renner.
Students of typography know that in the early days of the 20th century Akzidenz
Grotesk had already created the preconditions that would transform it into a century
for sans serifs. Since Akzidenz Grotesk and Futura both came out of Germany, the
inquisitive mind cannot help but wonder what accounted for Germany’s radical typographic
bent. In retrospect it was the need for simplicity induced by the complexity of
the blackletter, which plagued Germany well into the 20th century. Since the Bauhaus’s
own dictum advocated for simplicity of form, it was natural that its practitioners
would embrace sans serifs. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy said: "Since all existing grotesque
book styles lack basic style, a grotesque still has to be created. It should share
the designed form of engineering structures, cars, and airplanes. For the moment
we don't even have a working style. It should be exceptionally clear and legible,
free of individualism, based on a functional appearance, without distortions or
embellishments." Its internal practitioners, however, were unsuccessful in creating
a functional typeface within the Bauhaus ideology. Fortunately, the beginning of
such a model was already in development.
Even though Edward Johnston’s 1916 London
Underground typeface is better know as the precursor to Gills Sans, close inspection
shows that it also contained geometric overtones. In 1925, Paul Renner began his
design for Futura and in 1926 he invited Jan Tschichold to teach at his school,
which for all practical purposes, had became the typographic extension of the Bauhaus
for practitioners. In 1928, the two cornerstones of typographic modernity were laid
with Jan Tschichold’s “Die Neue Typographie”, and Paul Renner’s completion of Futura.
Renner’s sans serif was so popular that it forced the production of many other geometric
sans as foundries competed for market share.
The most important reason for its success
was Paul Renner’s willingness to diverge from doctrinaire geometric principles to
ensure Futura’s functionality in practice.
A quick comparison of Futura to its first
manifestation shows how far Renner departed from his original idea. Had he not done
so, Futura would have been as useless as those facial types coming out of the Bauhaus.
A good example of its adaptation is the pronounced thinning of the stroke where the
shoulder meets the stem. That “compromise” gave it joints a degree of suppleness
to counteract its geometry. While Futura’s capitals are large, its lowercase letters
are quite small for a sans serif. The smallness of the lowercase body along with
its longish ascenders and descenders keep Futura from looking too coarse or “grotesque”.
While the long ascenders extending above the capitals improve the upper to lowercase
proportions, it is a break from the modularity of Bauhaus principles. The seminal
problem with geometric sans is the overbearing circularity of its forms, which projects
its counters forward, thereby compromising word formation and horizontal flow. The
verticality of Futura’s ascenders and descenders help to counteract that
tendency. The smallness of its lowercase body also helps to choke off the
counter’s circular tendency for projection. Note also how the counters of the
roundels are not actually circular, but slightly elongated. This subtle vertical
thrust also helps to check that tendency towards projection. Insofar as a face
such as Avant Garde adheres more strictly to the curricular form, its projecting counters prevent its letters
from being embedded into words, which make them considerably more difficult to
Because of Futura’s small x-height, there is considerable size contrast between
its upper and lower case letters, exacerbated by round capitals such as the “C,
D, G, O, and Q”. Futura manages to keep that size contrast under control by tucking
the capitals under its long ascenders. As a result, the texture of its text is quite
well blended. There are, however, some unnecessary inconsistencies. Why, for example,
is the leg of the “K” stepped, and the capital “J” extended below the baseline?
Why is the capital “L” so narrow? Why doesn’t the lowercase “j” have a hook? Without
that hook there is some confusion between it and the lowercase “i”. Why is the lowercase
“g” so disproportionately large? And why do the strokes of most letters terminate
vertically or horizontally, but not so for the capital “G, J, S” and lowercase “e,
r, and s”? Even though Futura is the most readable of all the geometric sans serifs,
its round forms prevent it from being tightly fitted.
Close inspection shows Futura’s
letter spacing is adjusted to the proper relationship between two round letters.
While its letter spacing is well managed, because that spacing is very critical,
Futura does not handle justification well. The inconsistent spacing that comes with
justification makes Futura lose its sense of focus, turning a text that ordinarily
engenders a sense of clean systematic thoughtfulness into a scatterbrain that is
unable to gather words into well-formed thoughts. Beyond that Futura is solidly
grounded in the history and tradition of 20th century typography, it is also beautiful
and flexible, functional from book setting to posters. Few faces have such dynamic
range, and fewer still with its distinction.
Many designers cite a typeface’s alleged
“neutrality” as the main reason for using it. However the "timeless" are always
products of their times, since designers always reflect the influences to which
they are exposed. Inventing a new typeface means inventing a new way of delivering
the message, which affects the very nature of communication. Such designs do not
come out of nowhere, but develop organically out of the spiritual and material spirit
of the time. Futura is not a face of neutrality. It came into being organically
out of history. As such, it has defined as well as has been defined by 20th century
typography. That, together with its beauty and poise has made it a classic while
other geometric sans have simply been washed away.