The Future design information

The Future is a homage to Futura, Paul Renner’s progressive classic. Working from original production drawings, The Future is a careful observation of Futura’s geometric architecture and avant-garde alternates, articulating Renner’s musings on modernity, abstraction and purity. The Future Mono takes a speculative approach and reimagines Futura as a typewriter font commissioned by Kyota Sugimoto.

3,979 words by Kris Sowersby

Futura

The first three cuts of Futura were publicly released by Bauer in 1927.¹ Over the next three decades many other cuts bearing Futura’s name followed, some only tangentially related to the original. Futura is Paul Renner’s masterpiece, one of few typefaces that essentially defines a genre. But he didn’t make it alone. The “craft knowledge and industrial skill”² of the Bauer staff, namely Heinrich Jost and the vision of the owner Georg Hartmann, were crucial to turn Renner’s concepts into reality.

Bauersche Giesserei, [Bauer Type Foundry].

Christopher Burke, “Paul Renner, the art of typography” (1998).

Futura, Bauersche Giesserei [Bauer Type Foundry] specimen booklet, (1927). Reproduced with kind permission of Letterform Archive.

Futura, Bauersche Giesserei [Bauer Type Foundry] specimen booklet, (c 1950).

Futura, Bauersche Giesserei [Bauer Type Foundry] specimen booklet, (c 1950).

Renner wrote and published extensively, but most of it remains untranslated from his native German. Many of the English articles and legends of him gloss over the context of his life and work and focus on Futura. Until recently, the only thorough English book about Renner is Christopher Burke’s magnificent Paul Renner: the art of typography.³ I absolutely devoured the book as a recent graduate, it is still a core part of my working library. Up until Futura, the typeface was published, Burke had the most thorough account of Futura’s development in English.

Three things really struck me when I read Paul Renner all those years ago. First was Renner’s insistence that Futura was a “serifless roman”. Second was Futura’s fabulous array of experimental alternate letterforms. Third was the original geometry in the etchings for Futura’s trial cuts.

Christopher Burke, “Paul Renner, the art of typography” (1998).

Petra Eisele et al, “Futura: the typeface” (2017).

Serifless roman

Burke wrote, “Renner’s pride in Futura was evident, and he still maintained that it was a ‘serifless roman’, and not a grotesk”. For years this caused quite a bit of cognitive dissonance. I thought it was an unsolvable riddle, a typographic kōan. How could Futura not be a grotesk? Doesn’t the mere absence of serifs qualify it for grotesk status? For years I chewed this over, wondering exactly what Renner meant. “Serifless roman”, I’d repeat to myself. “Wow!” What was I missing? Why couldn’t I see what he sees?

“Paul Renner, the art of typography”, pp 195.

Signifier in red, The Future in black.

The Future text setting.

Signifier text setting.

Recently I happened to typeset The Future next to Signifier. They have similar bookish proportions. Of course, I finally clicked. Renner was a dedicated book typographer. He ran the Meisterschule für Deutschlands Buchdrucker (Master School for Germany’s Printers), lectured widely on typography and published influential typesetting guidelines.

So I went back to Burke’s quote. Then I ran it past eminent typefounding historian, Dan Reynolds, who was kind enough to find the original quote from 1947. Renner was asked whether the German type designers active before 1933 were going to design new typefaces now that the war was over. He replied:

“Interview mit Paul Renner” in Der Druckspiegel (1947). See also Paul Renner, “Fraktur und Antiqua” in Schweizer Graphische Mitteiligen (1948).

Ich glaube nicht, daß irgendwo ein Bedürfnis nach neuen Schriften besteht. Die Welt hat als letzte der in Deutschland entstandenen Schriften die Futura übernommen. Das war kein Zufall: Neben der klassischen Mediävalform und der klassizistischen Antiqua im Stil der Bodoni und der Didot ist die seriflose Antiqua mit klassischen Proportionen der dritte und vermutlich der letzte Typus der ewig brauchbaren und zeitlosen Antiquaformen. Ich wenigstens sehe nirgendwo das Bedürfnis nach einem vierten Typus.

Which translates to:

I don’t think that there is a need anywhere for new typefaces. The last of the typefaces designed in Germany that the world adopted was Futura. This was not a coincidence: aside from from classical oldstyle form and the neo-classical roman in the style of Bodoni and Didot, the serifless roman with classical proportions is the third and presumably the last type of the eternally useful and timeless roman forms. For my part, I do not see a need anywhere for a fourth type.

Fraktur construction.

Roman serif construction.

Roman sans-serif construction.

My riddle was solved. He was indeed talking about sans-serif, but with zeitlosen Antiquaformen, “timeless roman forms”. I always assumed “antiqua” meant serif and “grotesk” meant sans-serif. But antiqua simply refers to the underlying construction of the letterform — roman letters. The opposite of antiqua was not grotesk or “without serifs” but “fraktur”. These days, the main typesetting question is sans or serif. Back then, the big decision for typesetting books was antiqua or fraktur. Grotesk wasn’t a consideration.

My confusion was exacerbated by FF Meta Serif’s working title, “Meta Antiqua”.

In retrospect, I should have noticed during the Geograph design process in 2017. We ran a little experiment with Futura proportions, shortening the extenders and raising the x-height. At a certain point it stops feeling like Futura. It starts getting into ITC Avant Garde territory, the usual majesty and grace inherent in Futura is lost to a more utilitarian feel. As soon as the bookish proportions go, so does Futura’s essence.

Anything “ITC” is shorthand for “large x-height”, a common strategy for many ITC typefaces in the 1960s and 70s.

Renner calling Futura a serifless roman is not just stating the linguistically obvious, but a reminder to his readers that Futura is a book typeface, not (just) an advertising typeface. Most typographers and printers back then would assume Grotesk means display and jobbing type. Printers kept their legible serif types for “proper” work – or their frakturs, which they would have found just as legible.

It’s hard to imagine now, sans-serif fonts are ubiquitous and fulfil all sorts of roles. This is partly why Futura was so radical in the 1920’s — Renner intended it to set books, long-form reading. Setting whole books in a sans was almost never done before Futura came on the market.

That’s why it’s named Akzidenz Grotesk. The term “Akzidenz” comes from the German ‘Akzidenzen’, a catch-all word meaning ‘jobbing printing’. This referred to jobs that weren’t ‘proper’ book work, or body text in magazines and newspapers.

While Renner was inventing Futura, Germany was in a state of flux. WWI had just finished, WWII was looming. Books had an elite status, they were the primary form of typography and print production. Book culture was huge. For example, by 1900 Berlin alone had “3,384 businesses operating in the book trades. Together, they employed more than 11,000 people. That included 541 printing offices — two of which even had in-house type foundries — and eight independent type foundries.” ¹⁰

Christian Mathieu, “Berlin’s typographic legacy“, Fontstand News June 2022. Retrieved 13 June 2022.

There were vocal advocates for language and spelling reform, questioning the viability and necessity of blackletter typefaces.¹¹ Should capital letters be abandoned? Should schoolchildren still be taught fraktur, or is roman the better way? Questions that got right to the heart of German identity. Questions that were hijacked by National Socialists to advance arguments favouring traditionalism and nostalgia. Renner was horrified by this and actively spoke out against the nascent Nazis.

Advocates included such luminaries as Jakob Grimm, author of the fabled children’s tales.

Minya Diez-Dührkoop, Tanzmaske “Technik” von Lavinia Schulz (1924).

László Moholy-Nagy, Yellow Circle (1921).

Herbert Bayer, Postcard 11, Weimar State Bauhaus Exhibition (1923). Reproduced with kind permission of Letterform Archive.

El Lissitzky, Beat The Whites With The Red Wedge (1919).

Gerrit Rietveld, Red Blue Chair (1923).

The 1920’s saw the rise of the avant-garde. Different factions were pushing back against traditionalism, searching for new forms of expression. Many found inspiration in the new machines of industrialisation, and used primitive geometry and primary shapes as a way to rid images of quaint nostalgia and tropes. It seemed like a way to break from the past and look to the future.

Trajan inscription, AD 113. Photograph © Carl Rohrs (2017).

Roman square capital guidelines. Jan Tschichold, “Gute Schriftformen” (1946).

Trajan inscription, rubbing by Edward M. Catich, February 22, 1970. Richard Harrison Collection of Calligraphy & Lettering, San Francisco Public Library. Photographs by Karen Merigo & Anthony Toy (2015).

Primary geometry flowed across disciplines, making its way to Renner. Unlike the more extreme avant-garde, he didn’t want a clean break. He was wary of oppressive nostalgia, but knew there were good things to be extracted from the mine of history. When he started Futura he wanted a roman model. But he went further back than the Garalde’s of the 14th century to the Roman inscriptional capitals of the second century.

The most supreme of the European types are the Roman capitals, consisting of circles, triangles and squares, which are the simplest and most antithetical forms imaginable. Rarely does the light of this type’s elegant simplicity shine as far as our times, like the last shimmer of the bright intellectuality of ancient Rome. There is nothing more simple than what gives the Roman script its unparalleled élan.

— Paul Renner, Typografie als Kunst, (1922).

The roman capital letters we’re familiar with are based on ancient Roman inscriptional capitals. Nobody knows exactly how they were created and many theories have been formulated. Renaissance lettering artists used geometry to divine the ancient proportions to provide models for reproduction. Almost every lettering manual since has a similar system based upon 3 primary shapes: the square, circle and triangle. 500 years later, these same shapes began to permeate visual culture as signifiers of something new and radical.

Renner was working at the nexus of his own personal, classic taste, heated debates about the abolition of fraktur for roman type, and the reductionism of the avant-garde zeitgeist. He re-evaluated ancient letterforms through primal geometric construction to create Futura. Geometry fulfilled two promises: the foundation of the past and the machine-made progression of the future.

Experimental alternates

Konrad Friedrich Bauer: Wie eine Buchdruckschrift entsteht. Bauersche Gießerei (1959).

The “first designs for Futura”, dated c.1924. The originals are lost. Reproduced in Typography: 7 (1938).

F. H. Ehmcke, “Schrift, ihre Gestaltung und Entwicklung in neurer Zeit, Versuch einer zusammenfassenden Schilderung” (1925).

Futura’s capitals had a solid model, they seem to be fairly well established early in the process. A flat-sided M was tested, and the long-tailed J was altered soon after the first release. The lowercase offered a lot more room to manoeuvre. From the very start Renner designed and tested strange and daring alternate lowercase forms. Remembering Futura was intended for long-form text setting, these are truly radical departures from the grotesks of the era. The bowl of b d shrink and float, m n arches are flattened and snap to the grid, g has arrived from another planet. The point and counterpoint of the uppercase and lowercase is exciting and fresh.

Almost a century later they still look amazing. It’s 2022 and they’re still like new; their primal geometric power is undiminished. And they’re surprisingly readable. Sprinkled carefully in a paragraph of text they’re noticeable but not overly obtrusive. In headlines they command attention. I can almost imagine Renner working today, uploading them to his Instagram account.¹²

Reynolds reckons Renner would have hated the ’gram. Bauer would have loved it — they were very good at marketing.

Futura, Bauersche Giesserei [Bauer Type Foundry] specimen booklet, (1927). Reproduced with kind permission of Letterform Archive.

Futura, Bauersche Giesserei [Bauer Type Foundry] specimen booklet, (1927). Reproduced with kind permission of Letterform Archive.

Bauer’s first printed Futura specimen from 1927 proudly showed the alternates. Initially they could be ordered, but they disappear from subsequent specimens. I always wondered why the alternates vanished. I assumed the physical constraints of metal type pressured them away. Back then, type took up physical space, the more you made the more it cost. Furthermore, type cases had fixed arrangements. Altering a type case adds unnecessary friction to the process, throwing off (an already drunk) typesetter, possibly adding time and mistakes. Ordering a total replacement g might work, but not having two versions in the same case.

Reynolds wrote to Wolfgang Hartmann to ask what he thought. Wolfgang is the grandson of Georg Hartmann, who owned and operated Bauer when Futura was made. He replied:

“What is certain is that the special characters were no longer shown in specimens from 1930 onwards. They did not work commercially, as the sales department of the Bauer foundry recognised. In addition, the special figures made the cast fonts more expensive, because you had to cast them additionally; and so not only the casting time and fonting work¹³ had to be calculated, but also the unproductive¹⁴ justification time!”

I hadn’t fully considered it from the foundry’s point of view. I can now understand it wasn’t worth the extra work to manufacture alternates that had little customer demand. Happily times have changed, modern digital fonts can have all sorts of extra stuff in the character sets.

Fonting work (Teilarbeit) was largely done by women after the type was cast. A specific number of sorts for each character was packaged together for shipping.

Unproductive is not the best translation, but here is what Dan thinks Wolfgang meant: A typecasting matrix has no “side-bearings.” When a font was first cast, the “side-bearings” for each character was defined and set aside for reference. When the font was cast again, the typecaster would check out the font’s matrices and reference casting from the company matrix library. Each matrix is put in the machine individually. Rainer Gerstenberg told Dan, in the old days, they had ten minutes calculated into their wages for this work. Dan assumes Wolfgang means setting up these extra reference matrices didn’t earn the foundry any money.

The Future Medium character set with alternates. Red lines were rejected. Red characters are new.

As beautiful as I find most of the alternates, I didn’t include all of them in The Future. Most of the a alternates were interesting, but a bit unbalanced or fussy. The rejected e evoking Uncial script feels regressive. The flat-tailed g really rubs me the wrong way. It makes logical, geometric sense but manages to feel awkward in headlines and text. The new additions, f h r u, compliment the original squared versions.

One of my favourite default letters is j. It’s such an elegant solution — a single dotted line. In the early drafts of Futura there’s a more regular version of j with a hooked tail, closely matching f. I’m still surprised it made the default character set. Futura has a few contradictory details and finishes. Upon isolated inspection, these “inconsistencies” seem baffling. Why don’t the C and G have the same terminals, for example? What about 3 and 5? And where the hell does u come from — why isn’t it a rotated n?

Sharp and diagonal details in Futura Halbfett.

Blunt and flat details in Futura Fett.

As the typeface gets bolder other letterforms change to accomodate the weight. Sharp points get blunt and angled terminals flatten. Some letters like e could be from a totally different typeface, but still they work together. I have a strong tendency to simplify and standardise details in my own typefaces, but Renner didn’t mind. His geometric reduction makes Futura seem like a logical, coherent system. To a large degree it is, but these lovely moments of dissonance save it from banality. They breathe life and bite and vitality into Futura. It’s a nice antidote to the usual homogenising in contemporary typeface design. The Future respects and retains the original divergent details and weight-specific changes. There’s only one key letter that differs.

Futura Mager (Light), 72pt.

Futura Halbfett (Medium), 60pt.

Futura Dreiviertelfett (Demibold), 60pt.

Futura Fett (Bold), 48pt.

The Future Light.

The Future Medium.

The Future Bold.

The Future Black.

S and s change dramatically in Futura Fett (Bold). Many type designers will admit struggling with S, they’re notoriously difficult to draw with narrow margins for success. I prefer the narrower, pothook style of s in the lighter weights. To be hyper-specific, I adore the 60pt Dreiviertelfett. It’s as close to perfection as one could wish for in this style. I’ve taken this form and pushed it as bold as possible in The Future. In the lighter weights I’ve maintained a more even balance between the counters and widended slightly, toning down the original’s hint of art-deco.

I think I understand why Bauer had to make the s change in the boldest weight. My assumption is “optical correction”, a suite of techniques type designers use to make letterforms look right at certain sizes.

Original geometry

Futura is a masterclass in optical correction. For an in-depth explantion, I recommend Tobias Frere-Jones’s Typeface Mechanics: 001. It’s oft-repeated, but: Futura’s O is not a perfect circle. The vertical and horizontal strokes of E are not perfectly even. A and N sharp bits ‘overshoot’, so do round characters. This is unlike an engineered draftsman’s approach, like highway signage lettering.¹⁵ There are known as optical corrections, basic techniques all type designers have used for centuries.

See the Metric and Calibre design information for examples of the “engineered approach”.

Lowercase optical correction involves thinning the joins between arches and stems to alleviate dark spots and ink build-up. While the underlying structure of lowercase letterforms offers wide scope for interpretation, the actual mechanics of drawing the shapes are much more stringent. In most styles it’s pretty easy and natural to do, but much harder in sans-serifs, particularly geometrics. On the spectrum between rigid mechanical geometry and excessive optical correction there’s hard choices to be made.

Futura Light.

Futura Halbfett.

Futura Dreiviertelfett.

Futura Fett.

In my mind, Futura is much more geometric than in reality. Whenever I look at old specimens I’m slightly taken aback. The lowercase letterforms are never as geometric as I imagine or as I want them to be. The o seems to keep fairly pure, but related rounds like a became ovoid, spreading horizontally or laterally. It feels like the shapes have deflated and they’re sagging. This is where Futura’s rational geometry cedes ground to personal taste, physical production limits and optical correction. But it wasn’t always so.

Brass plate from Futura development. Photographed from the collection in the Museum für Druckkunst Leipzig.

Brass plate from Futura development. Photographed from the collection in the Museum für Druckkunst Leipzig.

The Museum für Druckkunst Leipzig has the original brass plates from Futura’s development.¹⁶ They’re a fascinating relic of the process, you can clearly see the decision making process in the outlines and rejected letterforms.

Burke says the plates are copper. In German they’re «Messing», brass. Who knows, we’re not metallurgists!

Intaglio print from brass plates in the collection in the Museum für Druckkunst Leipzig. Mirrored.

Intaglio print from brass plates in the collection in the Museum für Druckkunst Leipzig. Mirrored.

Intaglio print from brass plates in the collection in the Museum für Druckkunst Leipzig. Mirrored.

Intaglio print from brass plates in the collection in the Museum für Druckkunst Leipzig. Mirrored.

Intaglio print from brass plates in the collection in the Museum für Druckkunst Leipzig. Mirrored.

Intaglio print from brass plates in the collection in the Museum für Druckkunst Leipzig. Mirrored.

The museum also has intaglio prints from the plates. These are much more legible, and the same prints Burke rearranged and used in Paul Renner that captivated me years ago.¹⁷

“Paul Renner”, pp 92–93.

Comparison of a glyphs from the intaglio prints. Modified and filled from the original.

Close inspection of the prints and early specimens reveal early versions of Futura had much stricter geometry in the lowercase. I’m intrigued by how it went from solid geometry to squishy not-quite-circle. We can reasonably conclude that the crossed out glyphs were actually made, printed, assessed and rejected. The changes can’t have been for optical correction alone, the first versions seem perfectly fine to me. Bauer’s reasons are probably lost to time.

Early version of Futura, 1927.

Later version of Futura, exact date unknown.

Comparing the early and later versions above, it’s clearly visible. In Handgießer, a and d have thinner joins and the bowls are less round, more oval. Same with e, it’s much less circular. The first forms are stunning. They’re perfect renderings of the geometric concept and harmonise better with strict forms of the capitals. I wanted to reassert the original geometry and retain the conceptual purity. The Future is what I imagine Futura to actually be.

If The Future is imagination, The Future Mono is speculative fiction: What if Renner had moved to Japan¹⁸ and was asked to adapt Futura to Kyota Sugimoto’s typewriter?¹⁹ Geometric typewriter faces exist already, but I wanted a more severe, ruthless and weird take. I imagined Renner fully imbibing Japanese typographic aesthetics and allowing himself to be influenced. Alternates like the “stick-and-ball” r had to be fleshed out to accommodate the set-width. This lead to outlined punctuation, dots and quotes inspired by Japanese typographic punctuation. I flowed this into the rest of the character set. A rigorous application of rationality lead to some surprising results. Ignoring the bluntness of the original bolder cuts left a focus on sharp forms for effect.

I was researching typewriter fonts, working on Geograph and happened to glance at Typography Today by Helmut Schmid. I imagined Renner as emigre, moving to Japan and plying his trade.

Sugimoto invented the first Japanese Typewriter.

The Future Mono is the eccentric cousin, bending Futura’s rules to the limits of rationality. As far as I’m aware, Futura never had an official monospaced/typewriter version. Futura’s popularity lead to many extra styles: Futura Black, which was effectively a stencil, Futura Condensed, squarish versions called “Steile Futura” and even a bootleg script. Apart from the condensed, none of them are particularly successful.

Renner was rightfully proud of his work, and watched its immediate uptake and ongoing success over his career. However, once digital fonts became the norm, all official and unofficial digitisations of Futura focussed on the later letterforms with varying degrees of success and fidelity. I wanted to match the first versions, to align my imagination to reality.

One of the earlier specimens of Futura bears the legend Die Schrift unserer Zeit, The Typeface of our Time. Renner was told this by a colleague during the early design phase. Many grandiose statements are issued in the world of type design, but this one proved true. It’s a been a guiding light ever since. For 90 years Futura has continued to be the typeface of our time.

***

Special thanks to Dr. Dan Reynolds for his advice, patience and research. Futura® is a trademark of Neufville Digital.

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14 styles

Notes & references

Bauersche Giesserei, [Bauer Type Foundry].

Christopher Burke, “Paul Renner, the art of typography” (1998).

Christopher Burke, “Paul Renner, the art of typography” (1998).

Petra Eisele et al, “Futura: the typeface” (2017).

“Paul Renner, the art of typography”, pp 195.

“Interview mit Paul Renner” in Der Druckspiegel (1947). See also Paul Renner, “Fraktur und Antiqua” in Schweizer Graphische Mitteiligen (1948).

My confusion was exacerbated by FF Meta Serif’s working title, “Meta Antiqua”.

Anything “ITC” is shorthand for “large x-height”, a common strategy for many ITC typefaces in the 1960s and 70s.

That’s why it’s named Akzidenz Grotesk. The term “Akzidenz” comes from the German ‘Akzidenzen’, a catch-all word meaning ‘jobbing printing’. This referred to jobs that weren’t ‘proper’ book work, or body text in magazines and newspapers.

Christian Mathieu, “Berlin’s typographic legacy“, Fontstand News June 2022. Retrieved 13 June 2022.

Advocates included such luminaries as Jakob Grimm, author of the fabled children’s tales.

Reynolds reckons Renner would have hated the ’gram. Bauer would have loved it — they were very good at marketing.

Fonting work (Teilarbeit) was largely done by women after the type was cast. A specific number of sorts for each character was packaged together for shipping.

Unproductive is not the best translation, but here is what Dan thinks Wolfgang meant: A typecasting matrix has no “side-bearings.” When a font was first cast, the “side-bearings” for each character was defined and set aside for reference. When the font was cast again, the typecaster would check out the font’s matrices and reference casting from the company matrix library. Each matrix is put in the machine individually. Rainer Gerstenberg told Dan, in the old days, they had ten minutes calculated into their wages for this work. Dan assumes Wolfgang means setting up these extra reference matrices didn’t earn the foundry any money.

See the Metric and Calibre design information for examples of the “engineered approach”.

Burke says the plates are copper. In German they’re «Messing», brass. Who knows, we’re not metallurgists!

“Paul Renner”, pp 92–93.

I was researching typewriter fonts, working on Geograph and happened to glance at Typography Today by Helmut Schmid. I imagined Renner as emigre, moving to Japan and plying his trade.

Sugimoto invented the first Japanese Typewriter.

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