The political uses of typography

  • Words Ayla Angelos

Few typefaces carry as much political weight as Futura. From avant-garde to mainstream, to being in Barbara Kruger’s hands and then appropriated by fashion, we explore the journey of the most-used typeface, from its inception in the 1920s to its role in shaping cultural discourse today

The question raised, both by such popular books as Simon Garfield’s Just My Type and by the graphic designer Otl Aicher, is the extent to which it is not only words, but also the font in which those words are printed that can carry meaning. Aicher challenged the use of capital letters in German as representing the submission of society to authoritarianism. And as if to confirm his view, when Herbert Bayer used a lowercase b for the Bauhaus identity, the Nazis regarded it as a provocation and a subversive gesture that confirmed their suspicion of what they called cultural Bolshevism. This did not, however, stop Bayer from working for the Third Reich on a series of posters after 1933. Perhaps a better question to ask than ‘are typefaces political?’ is ‘can the meaning of a font change over time or is meaning inherent and fixed?’ Certainly, there are few typefaces that have been called on to carry as much political weight as Futura, or that have gone through so many shifts in perception, from culture to commerce and back.

Courtesy Bauer Type Foundry

Futura is the work of Paul Renner, dating back to 1924, a designer who certainly hoped to express his view of the world in the way that he drew each letter with simplicity and directness. When the typeface was released by the Bauer Type Foundry in 1927, Frankfurt was in the middle of a radical experiment in building enlightened social housing using prefabricated construction techniques and simple modern forms. The City Architect Ernst May brought Grete Schütte-Li-hotzky from Vienna to design the famous Frankfurt kitchen, mass produced for the city’s thousands of new homes. For Renner, Futura was an attempt to distil the essence of the machine age represented by that new vision of what a city could be, into a font, encapsulating the same ethos of clarity, precision and optimism that defined the early 20th-century modernism of Frankfurt. The foundry released the font in light, regular and bold weights, and it was an immediate commercial success. Its design, characterised by clean lines, a perfectly rounded ‘o’, uniform strokes and geometric forms, stood in stark contrast to the ornate embellishments of the Victorian era. In 1930, the type family grew to include semi-bold, bold condensed, light oblique and regular oblique, plus a book weight which was added in 1932. Today there are some 20 Futura styles, applied in a range of media.

Futura was marketed perhaps opportunistically as the “font of the future” by the Bauer Type Foundry. Bauer had used the slogan before when it was promoting Wienyk-Kursiv, an elaborate and somewhat prim script it released a decadeearlier, and which never lived up to its namesake.Design historian Dan Reynolds once suggested, “I think the company had a marketing slogan in its back pocket, which it hoped would eventually stick. With Futura, it finally did.”

Courtesy Bauer Type Foundry

With the rise to power of a Nazi party violently opposed to what it called ‘degenerate art’, typography became a visible everyday expression of a culture war. The Nazis insisted that gothic blackletter fonts, supposedly rooted in Aryan heritage, were the only true German way to print a text. To use Futura was not only to make a political statement, but a potentially life-threatening one. Renner himself was arrested, dismissed from his professorship in Munich, and forced into exile in Switzerland.

That early history has not stopped what started out as an expression of an avant-garde idea from becoming, by some measures, the most ubiquitous typeface in the world. Futura became ubiquitous enough for NASA to use it somewhat inelegantly in all capitals on the plaque Apollo 11 left behind on the Moon, marking the first lunar landing of an astronaut. The advertising industry was quick to adopt it as a way to signal the aspiration of a brand to present itself as progressive and forward thinking. Doyle Dane Bernbach’s self-deprecating ‘Lemon’ campaign for the Volkswagen Beetle in 1960 was an early example. Its political roots go back to a time when it was used to communicate powerful messages, and so it is not surprising that it has been seen as a vehicle to communicate commercial messages in an equally powerful way. Some have suggested that its saturation through advertising has diluted its impact. In 1992, there was even a tongue-in-cheek campaign to abolish Futura Extra BoldCondensed, citing its overuse in commercial contexts and labelling it the most overused typeface in advertising history.

Courtesy NASA

Beyond advertising, the film director Stanley Kubrick, who was notoriously particular about typography, liked the clarity of Futura, which he used in the titles for 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange. Wes Anderson also shares his enthusiasm for the font, even going so far as featuring it in the set design for The Royal Tenenbaums.

Douglas Thomas published Never Use Futura (2017), a book in which he took amore nuanced view of its history. “Futura is the lingua franca of 20th-century advertising,” Thomas explained in an interview with Artsy. “So if you’re trying to critique commercialism, what better than to use the same visual language as the advertisers themselves?

That is exactly what such feminist artists as Jenny Holzer, Guerrilla Girls and Barbara Kruger have done. Guerrilla Girls, for example, created posters in the 80s with headlines like “When Racism & Sexism Are NoLonger Fashionable, What Will Your Art Collection Be Worth?” and “Do women have to be naked to getInto the Met Museum?”. The blend of wit, direct language and Futura Bold Extra Condensed was provocative, and, by speaking the language of advertising, made for a powerful way to communicate.

Barbara Kruger Untitled (Our Leader), 1987/2020 Single-channel video on LED panel, sound, 24 sec.350.1 × 200.1 cm

Perhaps one of the most notable contemporary artists to harness the power of Futura is Barbara Kruger. She brings to her work the direct experience of her early job with Condé Nast as a magazine designer creating layouts for glossy magazines that had to hold their own against advertising spreads. Her bold, uppercase letters in red and white, set against black-and-white photography, shout “I shop, therefore I am" and “Your body is a battleground". It’s creative propaganda, a stand against consumerism. Yet she’s never liked the term ‘political art’. By appropriating the visual language of advertising and subverting it, Kruger exposes the underlying messages of consumer culture, women’s rights and power structures, while demanding that her viewers confront uncomfortable truths.

Barbara Kruger Untitled (No Comment), 1252020 Three-channel video installation, colour, sound, 9 min. 25 sec. Installation view, BARBARA KRUGER: THINKING OF YOU.I MEAN ME. I MEAN YOU. The Art Institute of Chicago–AIC, Chicago, September 19, 2021-January 24, 2022 Courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers Photo: The Art Instituteof Chicago

Kruger’s use of Futura is sharp, intentional and timeless. In her hands it remains a biting weapon. Kruger’s solo show at The Serpentine, her first in London for 20 years, reminds us all of her potency. Murals, large-scale room wraps, immersive artworks and bold use of text are both medium and message. In her sharply observed choice of Futura as her primary typeface, Kruger has given the font a new twist.

Barbara Kruger THINKING OF YOU.I MEAN ME. I MEAN YOU. Installation view, The Art Institute of Chicago–AIC, Chicago, September 19,2021-January 24, 2022 Courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers Photo: The Art Institute of Chicago

What was avant-garde and became first mainstream and then banal commercialism, was reclaimed by Kruger for use by critical voices. And inevitably it gave the most voracious consumers of culture, advertising and fashion, another chance to exploit it.

Supreme, a clothing brand that started out as a small skateboarding shop in New York, famously appropriated Kruger’s Futura Bold Italic for its logo. Then when street clothing brand Married to Mob used the Supreme logo to brand ‘SupremeBitch’ hats and T-shirts, Supreme sued demanding $10million for copyright infringement. This provoked Kruger to send a blank email with an attachment titled ‘fools.doc’ saying,“What a ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool jokers. I make my work about this kind of sadly foolish farce. I’m waiting for all of them to sue me for copy-right infringement.”

This feature appeared in Issue 2 of Anima, head here to purchase a copy or subscribe