From the moment the credits of breakout Netflix show Stranger Things start, they transport you to the ’80s. Creative studio Imaginary Forces accomplished that largely through Benguiat, a decorative serif typeface that screams ’80s mostly because of its associations: the covers of Stephen King paperbacks and Choose Your Own Adventure novels, the copyright notice on old VHS tapes, and the covers of old Smiths albums, to name just a few of the cultural artifacts it has been tied to over the years. It’s homey, langorous, and yet a little fancy.
Type designer Ed Benguiat created ITC Benguiat (pronounced Ben-gat) in 1978 for the International Typeface Corporation. You might not know his name, but you know his work. Over the course of a nearly 70-year career, Benguiat has designed or redesigned the logos for Esquire, Playboy, the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, and more. He’s also active in the film industry: He designed the logo for Planet of the Apes, Superfly, and Twin Peaks. All told, he’s designed more than 600 typefaces.
Now 89, Benguiat tells me by phone that he never set out to create a typeface that encapsulated a certain period of time, the way his eponymous font seems to be viewed. His goals in designing ITC Benguiat were simple. “I just wanted to make a buck!” he says. “That’s the reason I did all of those fonts for ITC.” When he designed ITC Benguiat, he set out to design something “like Times New Roman or Bodoni–a pretty, readable font” that could be used in a lot of different contexts, and consequently, generate plenty of money in commissions and licensing fees. “Some people describe it as having an art nouveau look, but I never thought of it that way,” he says. “I just wanted people to use it as much as possible.”
By any standard, Benguiat accomplished what he set out to do. As the 1980s started, something about ITC Benguiat spoke to people. It smacked of the quaintness of Americana, of adventure in small rural towns, of Reaganism and the Cold War. That’s probably why people seem to so strongly associate it with Stephen King. A bespoke, hand-modified version of ITC Benguiat was used on several Stephen King covers through the ’80s, sometimes more heavily modified than others (compare the cover Carrie to Pet Sematary, where King’s name is much more compressed). “Stephen King and I were friendly for a while,” says Benguiat. “His publisher based all their type on Benguiat, just changed the serifs, made it more Latin-looking.” So while not always identical, both typefaces share the same creative DNA (like Stephen King and his alter ego, Richard Bachman).
“It wasn’t hard for a typeface to take off back then,” Benguiat says. “I mean, these days, there are millions of typefaces. You can just download them. Back then, companies might have access to just 10 or 15.” He says that when the ITC sent out a brochure with a new typeface, he almost always saw it for months or even years afterward. “It’s always been popular,” he says. “You can use it in a film title, a book cover, or on the sign of a small-town pizza shop. It’s really easy to use. It works everywhere.”
Even so, he says ITC Benguiat was uniquely successful. “Stranger Things has really made Benguiat into a big deal again,” he admits. Stories about the typography of the credit sequence are everywhere now. “Now everyone’s using it. I think I just saw it on a loaf of pumpernickel bread. It makes me proud.” As for Stranger Things: While Benguiat says he has yet to watch the show, he likes how his typeface was used in the credits. “They paired it with Avant Garde, which was designed by my old ITC partner, Herb Lubalin,” he notes. “Herb named Benguiat after me, so it’s like old times. We’re back in the driver’s seat together again!”