Desk calendar using Futura Black, photograph courtesy of H is for Home
By Stephen Coles
Mid century typeface: Helvetica and the cold sans serif
In the documentary film, Helvetica, graphic designer Michael Bierut sums up the mid-century modernisation of graphic design by describing a single Coke ad from 1969. “It’s the real thing. Period! Coke. Period! In Helvetica. Period! Any questions? Of course not. Drink Coke. Period! Simple.”
McKann Erickson’s campaign exemplifies a 1960s revolution of clean, modernist typography. The short, bold, sans-serif statement was a stark reaction to the hand-rendered script lettering and long-winded copy that cluttered print advertising of previous decades.
Mid century typeface: Futura and the clinical side of modernism
The credit for sparking this shift could go to Doyle Dane Bernbach, whose “Think Small” ad for Volkswagen turned heads in 1959. Designer Helmut Krone used a traditional ad layout: two-thirds image, one-third copy, with a headline between them. What made the ad so striking (besides the spare photography and Julian Koenig’s clever copy) were the short paragraphs punctuated by single-word lines, all set in a typeface rarely used for text: Futura.
Geometric and uniform sans serifs are indeed typographic symbols of modernism. But Futura, Helvetica, Univers, and Eurostile were by no means the only typefaces favoured by mid-century designers. To me, they represent the colder, clinical, machine-made side of modernism. More metal than wood.
Mid century typeface: Century Expanded and the sculptural serif
When I think of the sculptural teak of a Juhl or Wegner armchair, or the fluidity of Saarinen’s Tulip chair, or the organic curves of the Eames’ bent ply, I think of warmer stuff. I think of the rich sparkle generated by serif text type like Caledonia and Century Expanded. I think of Ultra Bodoni, Craw Modern, Carousel, and Pistilli Roman — curvaceous sirens whose extreme stroke contrast (the difference between thick and thin strokes) and big ball terminals attracted viewers to advertising, logos, record covers, and magazines. An industrial stencil variation on this theme was used by Le Corbusier in his plans, later by the Eames, and now in the pages of MidCentury magazine. The period 1965–75 was also the heyday for other bold stencils, like Futura Black and Glaser Stencil.
Along with high-contrast serifs, the period is marked by weighty, stout slabs like Egyptienne, Hellenic Wide, Clarendon (a favourite of graphic/industrial designer Massimo Vignelli), and Volta (found on Josef Albers’ album art and the covers of children’s book author Dick Bruna).
Mid century typeface: the workmanlike warm sans serif
There are warm mid-century sans serifs, too. Akzidenz-Grotesk (sold to English-speakers as Standard) was Helvetica’s predecessor and frequently employed throughout the 1950s and 1960s. ATF’s Gothics (Franklin, News, Alternate) and Trade Gothic were American staples ever since the ’30s. And Stephenson Blake’s and Monotype’s Grotesques were similarly common in the UK. These sans serifs are unadorned, but their subtle weight modulation and angled endings lend more life than Helvetica can. They are unpretentious and workmanlike; clean, but not sterile.
Mid century typeface: a reflection of Modern architecture
At its best, mid-century modernism married two moods: cold and warm. The strict, straight, and mechanical was tempered by a human touch and the imperfection of natural forms. And despite the emphasis on functionalism, the movement also had a sense of humour and whimsy. This was reflected as much in mid-century typography as it was in furniture and architecture.
Visit Fonts In Use to see examples of the typefaces mentioned in this article
Read Stephen Cole’s review of the typefaces in MidCentury magazine
For more on the redesign of MidCentury magazine, check out the magculture review
See Domus Danica logo and ads from 1965 that use Optima and Helvetica
See Herman Miller ads from 1952 that use Caledonia and Century Expanded
See a Herman Miller ad from 1960 that uses Standard