Title design is a dynamic and interesting subset of the graphic design world. The typeface, font, and formatting of a title all play a part in the overall success or failure of a particular design. Using the wrong typeface can throw off the mood of a project faster than Spock beaming up to the Enterprise from an exploding planet Vulcan. A typeface that doesn’t fit can quickly jolt an audience out of a fictional world. Especially in a science fiction film, where you’re trying to get the audience to buy in to the time, place, and concept of the world.
While all science fiction stories are obviously not based in the future, I wanted to focus on recommending fonts that provide a timeless feel. Designs that give a clean and modern look. Something that will still look futuristic to an audience 30 years from now. Even if that audience is strictly AI robots we created that eventually took over the world and killed all of us. (Hey, you never know.)
These fonts work well as opening titles, lower thirds, computer readouts, intertitles, or even as logos of futuristic fictional companies.
Typeface vs. Fonts
While I used the term “futuristic fonts” in the title of this article, I think it would’ve been better to go with “futuristic typefaces.” That didn’t seem to flow off the tongue as nicely, however, so I went with the former.
Perhaps to the surprise of many, these two terms are not entirely interchangeable. A typeface is actually a family of fonts, often times from the same designer. For example, the Futura typeface was designed by Paul Renner in 1927 and has a font family consisting of different weights and styles (bold, medium, italic), each one of those being a different font Get it?When designing a title, doing something as simple as changing the font of a typeface can communicate a very different feel to an audience.
The difference between a typeface and a font is only the tip of the iceberg in regards to the complexity of title design. Creators that ignore this area of design are missing out on a huge creative opportunity. However, you have to know how to do it right.
The first step is to learn the lingo.
Anatomy of a Typeface
Before we get into the specific fonts to use in a futuristic world, let’s brush up on some typography lingo. You’ll need to understand some of these terms to better understand why certain typefaces work in a science fiction setting while others don’t.
The Elements of a Typeface
A lot goes into designing a custom typeface. Check out the image below just to see how detailed the terminology can become.
- X-height – The height of the body of a lowercase letter.
- Ascender line – The invisible line denoting the highpoint of ascenders.
- Apex – The point in a letter where left and right strokes meet.
- Baseline – The horizontal line where the text sits.
- Ascender – The part of the letter that ascends above the x height.
- Crossbar – The horizontal stroke in letters.
- Stem – The full length vertical stroke of a letter.
- Serif – Extra stroke found at the end of main vertical and horizontal strokes.
- Leg – The short descending part of a letter.
- Bowl – A rounded and fully closed part of a letter.
- Counter – The space in a closed or partially closed area of a letter.
- Collar – The stroke of a letter attaching two bowls.
- Loop – The enclosed or partially enclosed counter below the baseline of a double-story g.
- Ear – A small stroke extending from the upper-right side of the bowl of a lowercase g.
- Tie – A horizontal middle stroke.
- Horizontal bar – A horizontal stroke.
- Arm – A horizontal or upward sloping stroke that does not connect to a stroke or stem on one or both ends.
- Vertical bar – Vertical stroke
- Cap height – The height of a capital letter measured from the baseline.
- Descender line – The invisible line marking the lowest point of the descenders.
Serif vs. Sans Serif
Typefaces are classified as either serif or sans serif. A serif typeface has an extra stroke at the end of main vertical and horizontal strokes of the letters. Conversely, sans serif is a typeface without serifs, hence the French word sans (without). As you’ll soon notice, this is an important topic when talking about typography in science fiction. Sans serif typefaces are very popular in the genre, as they have a modern feel and are known for increased legibility on digital screens.
In addition to all of the individual elements of a typeface, there are a number of formatting options when working with type, including leading, kerning, and tracking, just to name a few. Formatting is a large part of the design process and will help achieve some interesting looks to match a science fiction theme, which I’ll discuss in further detail in just a minute.
First, let’s have a closer look at these formatting options.
Leading is the vertical space between lines. If the leading on your text is too small, the copy might be hard to read. It’s called “leading” because back in the day of physically setting type, the letters were imprinted from lead stamps, and the size of those stamps determined the distance between lines.
Kerning adjusts the horizontal space between two adjacent letters. Adjusting the kerning between specific letters is often necessary to make a title more evenly balanced.
When you change the tracking you’re adjusting the horizontal space between every letter, not just two as with kerning.
Now that we have a better handle on the terminology, let’s have a closer look at how we can find the best typeface to use for a sci-fi project.
Typography and Sci-Fi Themes
There are many themes in the science fiction genre—loneliness, isolation, abandonment, curiosity, wonder, open space, immortality, imminent danger, etc. Title designers can use typography on screen to help communicate and highlight these themes.
As I mentioned earlier, title designers have the added challenge of making a typeface look futuristic. Will the futuristic typography of today still look “futuristic” when you look at it 30 years from now?
If you look at popular sci-fi films and television over the last five decades, you’ll notice a pattern when it comes to design. There are a collection of typefaces which are used time and time again in the genre. Whether it be in the main opening credits, on title cards or promotional materials, these designs are synonymous with a futuristic or timeless aesthetic.
Let’s take a look at a few typical examples.
Eight “Futuristic” Typefaces
Modern and classic, Futura is a geometric sans-serif typeface created by Paul Renner. It is based on geometric shapes that became representative of visual elements of the Bauhaus design style of 1919–33.
The name of this typeface already implies that it would be a popular fit for any sci-fi film set in the future, and indeed it is. In fact, it was rumored to be Stanley Kubrick’s all time favorite font. Futura can be found throughout Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey on title cards, computer screens, and the end credits. You can even spot the typeface on HAL 9000.
Futura is used on location title cards in both Captain America: Civil War and Star Trek: Into Darkness, as well as the theatrical posters for Gravity and Interstellar.
Ridley Scott’s smash hit Alien allegedly used a slight variation of Futura for the film’s famous opening title sequence. Some, however, argue that it was in fact Helvetica Black, and not a variation of Futura. Whatever the case, it was a successful design.
There are a couple of reason this typeface works for futuristic fonts. First, it has a simplicity and uniformity one might attribute to the efficiency of an AI or other technologically advanced society. Secondly, simple sans serif fonts tend to stand the test of time as they don’t have any overtly ornate characteristics which may become dated.
Eurostile Bold Extended
Designed in the early 1950s as a modern interpretation of sans serif letterforms, Eurostile was initially called Microgramma and was drawn as an all-cap typeface. Nearly ten years after its creation, lowercase characters were added. The design was completed in 1962 and renamed Eurostile. Microgramma and Eurostile were both released originally as fonts of handset metal type. Later they were interpreted as fonts for phototypesetting, dry transfer letterings and finally as digital fonts.
As Dave Addey from Typeset in the Future points out on his blog, the Eurostile Bold Extended typeface is used in countless sci-fi titles. You can find it popping up on title cards for Iron Man 3, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Back to the Future, Edge of Tomorrow, Starship Troopers, Moon, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. The typeface is also used in many opening title sequences for famous films and television shows including Pacific Rim, Battlestar Galactica, and District 9.
Again, another lovely find from Dave Addey at Typeset in the Future. If you’re looking for something a little different, perhaps in the futuristic-yet-retro category, then check out Pump Demi. This typeface is found on the back of Captain Dallas’ jacket in Ridley Scott’s Alien.
Who else wants a Nostromo jacket? I certainly do.
ITC Serif Gothic
Look closely. As the name infers, this typeface is indeed a serif. Some might say it’s more of a semi-serif. ITC Serif Gothic has the distinct honor of showing up in both Star Wars and Star Trek. It was the supporting typeface on both the poster for the original Star Wars movie and first five films in the Star Trek motion picture series. You can also find it in the tagline for the Star Trek: The Motion Picture poster.
For the new Star Wars films, you can find this typeface located distinctly between the Star and the Wars in the title sequence. And I don’t want to hear any of this “but Boone, Star Wars is fantasy, not sci-fi” nonsense. That’s a discussion for another blog post (heck, that’s a discussion for another blog.)
Idler is a very new typeface, released in 2011 by Mark Butchko. It is an intriguing type family that is meant for big, bold headlines. With Idler you can layer the various weights to create a number of colorful 3D looks.
Ironically, Matt Curtis of Fugitive Studios took just the inner layer of this typeface to create the look of the Ex Machina opening and closing titles. He definitely achieved a unique futuristic look for the film that is anything but big and bold.
Okay, you caught me. This typeface isn’t exactly futuristic. However, it’s hard to leave this one out when discussing sci-fi typography in 2017, since it’s the title font of the iconic sci-fi series Stranger Things.
ITC Benguiat is the brainchild of Ed Benguiat, who is well known in the graphic design world. Benguiat has created more than 600 fonts and worked on some of the most famous movie titles of the last century. He helped usher in the era of digital fonts, including his signature ITC Benguiat typeface.
This font ended up being the perfect fit for Stranger Things, the wildly popular Netflix show currently in its second season. Creative studio Imaginary Forces won an Outstanding Main Title Design Emmy for their work on the project. They based the design off of old Stephen King paperbacks.
Bank Gothic is a sans serif typeface designed by Morris Fuller Benton in 1930 for the American Type Foundry. It is used heavily in posters and advertising for movies, including X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and The Day After Tomorrow.
It served as the typeface for the title graphic in Duncan Jones’ critically acclaimed 2009 feature film debut Moon.
Viewers with a sharp eye will catch this typeface being used as Klingon subtitles in JJ Abrams’ Star Trek: Into Darkness.
While Stanley Kubrick’s favorite typeface was the sci-fi popular Futura, he decided to go with Gill Sans for the typeface of choice when designing the title graphic for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Another modern typeface, Kubrick appreciated the clean look of the sans serif typeface. For the title graphic, Kubrick switched out the zeros with Os.
So there you have it! Eight fonts to get you started on your next science fiction project.
By the way, if you’re a fan of typography in sci-fi, then you no doubt have heard of Dave Addey. I would remiss not point you in the direction of his website, Typeset in the Future. He’s also currently working on his Typeset In The Future book, which is set for a Fall 2018 release. If you’re a fan of title design or sci-fi, this will definitely be a must-have for your library!
Another great source for detailed information and inspiration is Art of the Title. They not only analyze inspiring title design in popular TV and films but also focus on studying entire opening sequences. The site includes historical information as well as interviews with title designers and creative directors.
What is your favorite futuristic typeface? Let us know in the comment section!
(Note: picking the right font for a sci-fi film can be so important, that if you get it wrong, you just may become the butt of a SNL sketch.)