Paul Renner and Futura: The Effects of Culture, Technology, and Social Continuity On the Design of Type for Printing

Charles Leonard's picture

I have recently completed a master's thesis dealing with Paul Renner and Futura. It is available as a PDF down load from If that is too much to remember use etd. and browse by author (leonard).

I appreciate any serious commentary and input. The abstract follows:

This thesis reviews the circumstances that led to what Paul Renner called �the inflation of historicism,� places his response to that problem in the context of the Weimar Republic, details how the German attributes with which he began the project were displaced from the typeface that emerged in 1927, demonstrates that Futura belongs to a new category of serif-less roman fonts rooted in Arts and Crafts lettering, and considers why the specifically German aspects of the project have gone unrecognized for over seventy years. Renner�s writing is compared to ideas prevalent in early twentieth-century German cultural discourse, and Futura�s design process is placed in the context of Renner�s personal experience of Weimar�s social and economic crises. Objective measurements are employed to establish the relationship between drawings attributed to Renner and are used to compare features of Futura with other fonts of the period.

Té Rowan's picture

I'm sure he could have written it the way you suggested. I'm equally sure that it would have cost him points for sounding too much like he was writing for kindergarten! (scoff, scoff)

Charles Leonard's picture

Now, now.
John Savard > You are right, I do not like Tolkien—I prefer Sterne, Dickens, and Trollope.
when Nicholas Jenson started from that, but made something more harmonious with the Roman capitals than rotunda
Humanist minuscule accompanied by Roman capitals was developed by Poggio Braccolini and others as a manuscript hand a half-century before Jenson in Venice and Rusch in Strasburg chose to adapt that style to printing precisely because humanist minuscule was used for humanist texts. When they published law and theological documents they used textura, bâtarde was used for romances, and so forth.
the other major geometric sans-serif is Kabel
I believe that placing Futura in the category of geometric sans-serif is incorrect and obscures its real origin. My point in the thesis is that Futura, Gill Sans and Kabel are serif-less roman styles that at heart are Arts and Crafts styles with the accretions of history removed/replaced by adherence to the machine aesthetic current at the time of their creation.
Personally I admire Times Roman as a creation of modernity as masterful as Futura. It is just that Times Roman's functional modernity goes unnoticed because it appears to be a traditional style.

quadibloc's picture

I agree that Times Roman is very much a modern typeface, even though for its functional purpose it takes much from traditional styles. I hope it was clear my tongue was somewhat in cheek, even if I was ribbing you rather hard for what I felt was a bit too much politics in your thesis. Although that sort of thing may be normal in Arts faculties these days.

You make an interesting point about the categorization of Kabel and Futura. I can't be certain if it is valid, but there is one piece of evidence which even I can see - to which you did make reference in your thesis, by comparing the proportions of Futura Medium with those of Trajan - that might be noted. Kabel and Futura, as well as Optima and Gill Sans for that matter, all have the narrow capital E and F characteristic of the Trajan Column lettering, as opposed to the somewhat wider form of those letters even in most Roman typefaces.

Nick Shinn's picture

It's moot as to whether those proportions are derivative or coincidental, or whether they are the merely the hallmark of geometrically reductive form in any era in which it manifests.

Certainly, if one is interested in simplifying the basic letter shapes to a geometric schema, and has some knowledge of type history, one would be aware of previous eras in which similar design tactics were employed. Not just in Antiquity, but the Renaissance too (e.g. another German's work, the mathematician Albrecht Durer.

However, I would say that rather than being a dominant progenitor, that awareness would have acted as a bonus, reinforcing the contemporary strands of Arts and Crafts simplicity; Purism, De Stijl and Constructivist philosophy (and these were very intellectually grounded movements); Art Deco geometrics; and also perhaps the appeal of an ur-antiqua letterforms for Germans schooled in Fraktur. How could Renner resist, when so many pointers were in the same direction?

Futura is a great typeface because like all great design, it achieves a purity and universal usefulness by relating to and resolving all kinds of issues, simplifying and uniting complexities. There is no one origin from which it is derived, but many.

dezcom's picture

I agree that Futura could have had the many of the sources Nick stated above. My theory is more that such sources were amalgamated in Renner's collective memory and not specifically looked upon as models for his design of the face. He was right in the thick of the Modernists and Constructivists such that I think he contributed far more to them than he borrowed back.
I feel Futura is a landmark typeface and worthy of note. That is not to say that I want to read another book set in it as a text face. Never the less, it was a ground breaker.

charleski's picture

I see a spammer has bumped this (and several other older threads) to the top. While unfotunate, this did expose Mr Leonard's thesis to new readers, and I'd like to thank him for posting it for us. Georgia State has reorganised their archives, and the thesis can now be found at

piccic's picture

That’s actually fortunate, because it’s a great thesis, and I hope to be in touch with Charles once again in the future. :-)

Chris Dean's picture

@charleski: Please email me the username whenever you find spam.

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