You’ve never used the real Futura.
Instead, you’ve used either a copy—one of Futura’s many contemporary competitors created shortly after its release in 1927—or a copy of a copy, one of the dozens of digital Futuras now on the market. Many more knockoffs are just simple reproductions adapted to new formats; many of these even inhabit the name Futura, despite their genealogical or stylistic differences from the original designed by Paul Renner for the Bauer Type Foundry. Only experts and wonks can, or want to, tell the difference between the original, the blatant rip-offs, and all the contemporary digital copies. To most viewers, the copies—and even some of the modern hybrids—are Futura.
Futura was never in a class totally of its own. The fact that it persisted and became the modern model of the geometric sans serif–visible everywhere from Best Buy to Wes Anderson films–is remarkable in itself.
Bauer Type Foundry’s Futura was only one of many geometric sans serifs to be designed in Germany during the 1920s and ’30s. Practically every German company had its own, and all of their typefaces have slightly different proportions, interesting backstories, and unique features to commend them. So how did Futura beat out all its competitors, imitators, and copies to become known as the quintessential geometric sans? In part, good timing.
The aftermath of World War I was a tumultuous time for European economies. In Germany, between 1918 and 1924, the value of the Reichsmark plummeted, with devastating effects for business and industry. In 1924 the U.S. State Department helped arrange an influx of 800 million marks into the German economy in an attempt to stabilize postwar European finance, known informally as the Dawes Plan. The loans put a temporary end to Germany’s devastating hyperinflation, and helped prime the pump for German war reparation payments to France, Great Britain, and, by extension, the United States. In 1925 a consortium of European type foundries capitalized on this infusion of investment and joined the Continental Type Founders Association. They opened an office in New York, giving them the advantage of marketing type directly in the United States. Rather than join the association, Bauer opened its own independent New York office in 1927. Almost immediately, Bauer began marketing and selling a new typeface it hoped would be a harbinger of success to come: Futura.
Only three German geometric sans serifs, including Futura, were released in the United States during what would become a short window of economic prosperity in the aftermath of World War I. Little did these companies know that there would only be a few short years of stability before the market crash of 1929, and that in 1930 American tariffs would impose barriers to entry for German types not already in the United States. Had Futura been sold a few years before or after, it may never have found a place in the U.S. market. The European geometric sans serifs that were released after Futura barely had a chance.
Yet Futura’s success was not just due to good timing. The evidence that Futura was the most popular of its cohort is that it was the most widely imitated.
Within a year of its release, Futura had already been ripped off. To meet American market demand, the Baltimore Type Foundry created an indistinguishable copy called Airport Gothic. The use of Futura in the October 1929 Vanity Fair redesign prompted its art director, Mehemed Agha, to commission a custom version of Futura called Vogue for a similar redesign of Vogue magazine. Designed by Intertype in 1930, the custom typeface was created in part to achieve compatibility with the company’s compositing machines (and no doubt to avoid licensing fees).
Linotype, not wanting to miss the new demand, commissioned the famed type designer W. A. Dwiggins to design a new sans serif typeface. Dwiggins created a truly original design called Metro, based loosely on geometric principles but with humanistic strokes, released in 1929. Yet within a year, commercial pressure forced Dwiggins to make changes to get Metro to look more like Futura: a single-story “a” and sharp pointed tips to the angular strokes of “M” and “N.” Released in 1930, Metro No. 2 is likely the only version of Metro that you’ve ever seen, as it quickly eclipsed the original in popularity.
In 1930 the Chicago-based designer Robert Hunter Middleton created his own Futura-like design called Tempo for Ludlow. Breaking from the geometric rigidity of Futura, many of Tempo’s italic capitals feature a slight curve. The wavelike shapes give Tempo a light, warm, and breezy air absent from the mechanical precision of Futura. This is especially true with the “cursive capitals” alternate letters in display sizes, which give the type a distinct and friendly look. And yet, bending to market pressures, Ludlow released Tempo with enough alternate characters to instantly dress it up to look like Futura.
By 1937 Futura’s popularity was extensive enough that Linotype’s competitor, Lanston Monotype, marketed its own slavish copy of Futura called Twentieth Century for its machines. The same year, Intertype, a close rival of Linotype machines, managed to secure a license from Bauer to make Futura on its own system of linecasting type machines.
By 1939 Linotype realized that the redesigned Metro was not enough to meet the demand for a Futura-like typeface. In response to the company’s tactical defeat, it created an expansive type family called Spartan that was largely indistinguishable from Futura.
Within a decade of Futura’s release, every major American type company now had a Futura-like typeface in its catalog.
Even with all the Futura copies, and despite new tariffs on American goods, the original—Bauer’s Futura—remained a bestseller. It success is partly evidenced by the fact that it merited a boycott: In 1939 major American printers, advertisers, and publishers united to ban typefaces from Nazi Germany. Rather than send American dollars to fund Nazi aggression, they called for spending money on American typefaces. To “avoid sacrificing artistic merit,” they provided a guide of American substitutes—composed of Futura-inspired copies and knockoffs—and proved Futura was more than just another competing typeface.
America’s entry into World War II in 1941 ended what little trade remained between the United States and Germany. By all rights, the end of trade and anti-German war propaganda should have killed the Futura brand forever in favor of an American knockoff or competitor. Yet by 1941 the aesthetic idea of Futura was too big to die: Even American military propaganda posters and U.S. military war maps used Futura or, more likely, its American copies.
Even though fresh metal cases of Bauer Futura were unavailable during the war, Futura as an idea persisted in its competitors and copies. By the 1950s, when anti-German sentiments had quieted and German-American trade had resumed, Bauer’s Futura enjoyed an easy reentry into the American market, where demand for the product, name, and aesthetic had never died. By the mid-1950s Futura was still the established brand leader in the United States, despite a decade of near-exclusive availability of American versions.
Today, in an age of open software and open type, the new legends are made from people and designs that are virally copied, shared, and used as templates. In this vein, it is appropriate that Futura’s popularity continues through its dozens of digital copies. Every major type company of the last 20 years has its own licensed version: Bitstream Futura, Adobe Futura, Paratype Futura, Elser & Flake Futura, Neufville Digital Futura, Berthold Futura, and even Monotype Futura and Linotype Futura. The idea of a geometric sans serif and its name are now so powerfully linked that people want Futura—not a substitute. Even though we now buy Futura from any number of companies, all of them send royalties back to the Renner family for the Futura name, in licensed trademarks of Bauer types.
In 50 years, it is possible that the only version of Futura anyone will remember will be a free version on GitHub or Google Fonts. (Appropriately enough, the only open-source Futura is named after its major American copy: Spartan.)
Though any new creation loses Renner’s hand or Bauer’s machine precision, in an age of mass production, the model proves far more useful as a template than the original design. Tiny lead letters packed in heavy boxes and stored in orderly trays reach only as far as their modes of distribution. Futura is really more about a far-reaching idea: a self-assured geometric sans serif, not too rigid but still precise, simplified forms thoughtfully stripped of extraneous complexity, a marriage of hand and machine. It is an aesthetic idea about modernity–clean lines with a slight human touch, embodied in a name filled with hope.
Douglas Thomas is a graphic designer, writer, and historian. He holds an MA in history from the University of Chicago and an MFA in graphic design from the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he also taught. He currently teaches at Brigham Young University. His design work has been featured in Communication Arts, Print magazine, and Graphis. Buy a copy of Never Use Futura here.