Following is the full text of designer Douglas Thomas’ talk titled “How A Typeface Helped Launch Apollo” at TED conference in which he shares Futura’s role in launching the Apollo 11 spacecraft — and how it became one of the most used fonts in the world.
Douglas Thomas – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT
In 1969 in July, three Americans launched into space.
Now, they went to the surface of the moon, they famously made the great leap for mankind. Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, they walked on the surface, they planted this flag.
It’s rightly celebrated as a moment that in America we say is a triumph. We think it was this amazing accomplishment. They didn’t just leave behind this flag, though.
They also left behind a plaque. This plaque is a beautiful object, and one that I want to talk to you a little bit about.
First, you might notice that there’s two globes, representing all of earth. And then there’s this beautiful statement: “We came in peace for all mankind.”
Now, at first, this is just nice poetic language, but it’s also set in a typeface that’s perfect for this moment. It seems industrial, it seems engineered.
It also is the best possible name you could come up with for something on the moon: Futura.
Now, I want to talk to you about fonts, and why this typeface is perfect for this moment. But it’s actually more than just ceremonial.
Now, when all of you arrived here today, you actually had to think about fonts. You might not realize it, but you’re all unconscious experts on typography.
Typography is the study of how fonts inhabit our world; they’re the visual language of the words we use. Here’s the thing that’s funny about this, though.
I know you’re probably not like me, you’re not a font nerd. Maybe some of you are, but if you’re not, that’s all right.
Because I might spend hours every day trying to pick the perfect typeface for the perfect project, or I might spend thousands of dollars every year, trying to get ones with the right features.
But all of you actually spend hours every day, evaluating fonts. If you don’t believe me, think about how you got here. Each of you had to judge by the signs and maybe even on your phone, which signals to trust and which to ignore. You were evaluating fonts.
Or maybe when you’re just buying a new product, you have to think about whether something is expensive or cheap or hard to get or easy to find.
And the funny thing about it is, this may not seem extraordinary to you. But the moment you see something out of place, you recognize it right away.
The thing I love about typography, and why I love fonts and why I love Futura, is that, for me, what I study is everywhere. Every street that I walk down, every book that I pick up, everything that I read is filled with the thing I love.
Now, once you understand the history and what happens with typography, you actually have a history of everything before you. And this is the typeface Futura.
As previously we’ve discussed, this is modernism in miniature. This is a way in which modernism infiltrated this country and became perhaps the most popular, or promiscuous typeface, of the 20th century.
“Less is more,” right, these are the aphorisms of modernism. And in the visual arts, the same thing happened. Let’s focus on the essentials, focus on the basic shapes, focus on geometry.
So Futura actually holds this to its core. You might notice that the shapes inherent in Futura have circles, squares, triangles. Some of the shapes are all based on circles, like the O, D and C, or others have this pointed apex of the triangle.
Others just look like they might have been made with a ruler or a compass. They feel geometric, they feel mathematic, precise. In fact, this whole system carries through with the way that the typeface was designed. To not look like it was made like other typefaces, to be something new.
Here it is in the lightweight, the medium weight and the bold weight. The whole family has different things to commend to it. This was a conscious break from the past, something that looked like it was made by a machine, and not by hand.
When I say not made by hand, this is what I mean. This is what we think about maybe, when you might create something with a calligraphic brush or a pen. That there’s thicks and thins.
And even more traditional typefaces, say like a Garamond, holds vestiges of this old system in which you can see the A where it gets little bit thinner at the top and thicker down below, because it’s trying to look like someone had made it by hand.
But Futura, in contrast, is designed to look like no one had touched it at all, that this was made by a machine, for a machine age, for an industrial age.
There’s actually a sleight of hand here that Paul Renner, the designer who made this in 1927, employed. If you look at the way in which the circular shape joins with the vertical shaft, you’ll notice that it tapers just ever so slightly.
And this is one of hundreds of ways in which this typeface was designed to look geometrically perfect, even though it’s mathematically not. And this is what typeface designers do all the time to make typefaces work every day.
Now, there were other designers doing this at the same time in Europe and America. These are a few other excellent examples from Europe, trying to create something new for the new age, a new moment in time.
These are some other ones in Germany that in some ways look very similar to Futura, maybe with higher waist or lower waist or different proportions.
THEN WHY DID FUTURA TAKE OVER THE WORLD?
In this case, if you can read the titles there, some of these names don’t quite roll off the tongue: Erbar, Kabel Light, Berthold-Grotesk, Elegant-Grotesk. These aren’t exactly household names, are they?
And so when you compare that to Futura, you realize that this was a really good choice by the marketing team. What’s amazing about this name — you know, what’s in this name is that this is a name that actually invokes hope and an idea about the future. And this isn’t actually the word for future in German, it wasn’t a German name, they actually picked something that would speak to a wider, larger audience, a universal audience.
And when you compare it to what was being done in America — these are the typefaces from the same period in the United States in the 1920s, bold, brash, braggadocios.
You almost think of this as exactly like what the stock market looked like when they were all going nuts in the 1920s. And you realize that Futura is doing something revolutionary.
I want to step back and talk about an example of the typeface in use. So this is a magazine that we all probably know today, “Vanity Fair.” This is what it looked like in 1929, in the summer.
And in many ways, there’s nothing wrong with this design. This is absolutely typical of the 1920s. There’s a photograph of an important person, in this case Franklin Roosevelt, then-governor of New York. Everything seems centered, everything seems symmetrical.
There’s still a little bit of ornamentation, so this is still maybe having some vestiges of the painted lady and not fully modernistic. But everything seems kid of solid. There’s even drop caps to help you get into the text.
But this all changed very quickly and in October of 1929, a Berlin-based designer came and redesigned “Vanity Fair.” And this is what it looks like with Futura.