Type in the Future Tense

Excerpted from the article originally published in Communication Arts Jan./Feb. 2000.

With the arrival of a new millennium, it’s worth taking a look at our notions of type of the future. Obviously, there is no way of knowing what type will look like at the end of the next millennium—or if it will even exist as we know it—but we can look at current type that reflects our ideas of the future.

Although to look at “futuristic” type design is at once problematic. What makes any typeface inherently futuristic? If you look at type associated with early 20th century modernist movements such as De Stijl or the Bauhaus, you cannot say that designers associated with these groups were intentionally making futuristic typefaces. One underlying factor of all type identified as having futuristic aspects is experimentation. Experimentation in type projects ideas we associate with the future. For example, type designs associated with the De Stijl movement of the ’20s is often very rectilinear in form or made up of a series of rectangular shapes like building blocks (that may or may not be connected); they convey a sense of architectural horizontal and vertical elements—stripped down to basic components. There are many other aspects of form in type design that convey a sense of what we associate with the future: The use of extended or oblique projects speed; rectilinear form emphasizes structure; the use of weight and contrast conveys mass or strength; stroke width accentuates line and becomes a metaphor for electronic circuitry and communication; abbreviated shapes and glyphic forms project images of text as a new and unfamiliar language; organic forms visually reiterate aerodynamic forms traveling through time and space; geometric and mechanical emphasis, or various combinations of these components—whether used in a subtle way or in the most avant-garde experimental design—transform the familiar letterform into something exotic and otherworldly.

Some of the most prominent examples of futuristic type today appear frequently in display lettering. This kind of lettering can have a powerful effect on how products are perceived and what they represent in terms of identity. It is seen in use on electronic games, fashion, broadcast sports titles, graphic materials and ads for action sports such as snowboarding that cater to a young demographic, and it’s also part of graphic design associated with contemporary electronic dance and techno music genres.

Another example is futuristic elements in the logotypes designed for vehicle model nameplates. Frequently die-cast and chromed, these nameplates have letterforms that are often oblique and extended, projecting futuristic aspirations. In this context this kind of type transforms our perception of the gasoline-powered vehicle, repackaging a technology basically of the late 19th century, into one that is sleek, sophisticated and a contemporary mode of transportation.
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Above (Clockwise from the top left): Taser ™ Round Black designed by Jim Marcus; Basis ™ Thin designed by David Weik, both from T-26 Digital Type Foundry www.t26font.com; Cyberotica ™ Bold designed by Barry Deck, Thirstype www.thirstype.com; FF Koko ™ Five designed by Kai Zimmermann, FontShop International www.fontshop.com; FB Clicker ™ designed by Greg Thompson, The Font Bureau, Inc. www.fontbureau.com.