In film, there is a shorthand for the future, the typeface Eurostile Bold Extended. It appears on the interface screens of the time-traveling Delorean in Back to the Future(1985), and in the logo of Lunar Industries at the lonely lunar station in Moon(2009). It adorns the exterior of the USS Enterprise starship in the Star Trek franchise, and the Federal Colonies intergalactic megacorporation branding in Total Recall (1990). It gives both the Battlestar Galactica series title and the credits of District 9 (2009) an ultramodern tone.
As blogger and designer Dave Addey explains in his new book Typeset in the Future, out now from Abrams, he first noticed the ubiquity of the typeface in 2013. “No matter where I looked, or what I watched, there was Eurostile Bold Extended — the most sci-fi of all typefaces — staring back at me,” he writes. “It became an obsession.” Soon he found its genesis: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), in which it makes frequent appearances, from the flight deck of the Orion spaceplane to HAL 9000’s flat-screen displays.
In 2014, Addey started a blog — also called Typeset in the Future — to break down how typography and design contribute to building future and alien worlds in film. The book, based on material developed for the site, focuses on specific films to consider wider tropes, like those found in the 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Moon. Accompanying these essays are interviews with filmmakers and designers. For instance, type designer Antonio Cavedoni, in discussing Eurostile creator Aldo Novarese, notes that the typeface now synonymous with science fiction was actually a reflection of midcentury aesthetics. “That squared-off-rectangle shape was very much in the air at the time, particularly in architecture and industrial design,” Cavedoni says. “If you look at television sets in the fifties, they literally look like squared-off rectangles.”
Throughout Typeset in the Future, Addey shows how filmmakers have used the innovative design of the present to lend a believability to visions of the future. On 2001‘s Space Station 5 orbiting Earth, space travelers lounge in bright red Djinn fireside chairs designed by Olivier Mourgue around a Tulip table designed by Eero Saarinen. Sometimes these inclusions inadvertently date films. This is especially true when pioneering technology didn’t take off, like the 1964 Picturephone for videophone calls that appears in 2001. (It turned out many people didn’t want to be seen while making calls.)
While Addey’s attention to these design touches reveals much about the time and place the films were made, where Typeset in the Future really excels is in meticulous research into typefaces. He’s spent hours pouring over old design books to track down sources for type (sometimes finding they were custom to the films). A notable surprise described in Addey’s typographical excavation is that Eurostile is not used in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). Instead of its broad, boxy letters, there are old school serifs galore, contributing to a neo-noir vibe. Goudy Old Style is used on its opening crawl; Cheltenham Bold is employed for the missives on the four target replicants.
The bold typeface on the titular robot in WALL·E, meanwhile, is Gunship by type designer Dan Zadorozny who he calls “one of the unsung heroes of modern sci-fi type design” for his Iconian Fonts website which “features more than six hundred free hand-crafted typefaces, many of which have been used by sci-fi movies, TV shows, and book designers.” (Addey also points out that the punctuation in WALL·E’s name is not a hyphen or a bullet but a deliberately selected interpunct, a vertically centered dot which dates back to classical languages.) Buy n Large — the film’s megacorporation which helped drown the Earth with waste — has the same typeface and colors as the real-world Costco.
These kinds of details sometimes meander along subliminal lines, allowing for our mental immersion in imagined worlds. Other times, however, typeface can be central to a film’s setting. Addey calls the opening credits of Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien “nothing short of a typographic masterpiece,” where the film’s short title is dramatically revealed in “hyperspaced Helvetica Black,” the letters breaking apart making for an unsettling visual hint to the horror that will follow.
The Typeset in the Future essays are arranged chronologically for each film, so it’s possible to watch these movies with the book in hand, pausing to appreciate the similarities of the Federation logos in Star Trek: The Motion Picture to the flag of the United Nations, or the curious way the end credits of 2001 mix an “M” from Gill Sans into the Futura. As Addey writes, “While movie designers can experiment and push the boundaries, free from the constraints of having to make their designs work in reality, they are nonetheless driven by one overriding principle: It’s all about the story.”