Typeface advice for mid-century design/architecture-themed documentary film

I'm producing a film that's centered around mid-century modernism, design, and architecture. The subjects of the film are American designers and architects, and the time period is chiefly between the very early 1950s and the mid 1960s. I'd love your opinions and your help in researching period- and genre-appropriate directions to take my onscreen titles. More info inside.

I'm far from an expert on typography. I currently have the titles, credits, and cgs set in Helvetica... which I realize is the safe but uninspired (and perhaps not period-correct, in terms of American design) route. I'm looking for avenues to branch out into, and your forum has the reputation of being the best and most knowledgeable type group on the internet. I seek your wisdom. I am a beginner, but I am not wary of reading wordy or difficult primers to type of this period--so by all means, suggest them if you have any great ones.

For inspiration, I've been perusing the [Bad link] (which is a wonderful resource), and I've found a few that looked fairly representative of directions I could see us going in. Please feel free, if you have the time and the inclination, to critique these or to suggest other avenues to follow.

Here were some standouts, to my layman's eye:

Again, it's a film on mid-century, trending towards high-modernist, design and architecture. I'm looking for something that plays well with that. I feel only barely adequate to cover these topics... and entirely inadequate with the typographic treatment. Whatever directions you could suggest will be thoroughly considered, and very appreciated. -John

clauses's picture

Stephen Coles is the man on this question. He runs [Bad link] and is a type connoisseur par excellence.

Nick Shinn's picture

Saul Bass.

JamesM's picture

One of my favorites Saul Bass title sequences is the animated type in Hitchcock's North by Northwest. And incidentally it ties into the architectural theme the poster mentioned. You can see it here:


My favorite moment in the title sequence is where Hitchock himself is seen running for a bus his name is sort of shoved offscreen.

The Wikipedia article on Saul Bass lists other movies he did the titles for.

dezcom's picture

The difficulty with the mid 20th century as an American angle pointing towards the European style in architecture is that the most accurate face for that time would have been AG, a European font. The architects who you might look at were as expected, Mies, et al. You could look on their American buildings and see what the original signage was done in? Wright and Conn were "The Americans" of note. Looking at their signage as public buildings would be more accurate than looking at hollywood film titles. I assume your story is much more about architecture than film titles? Wright has a typeface available from P22 but that might be too distinctly him and not the genre.

I might also suggest letterspaced Futura caps as having the correct feeling of the time. Clarendon caps were another oft seen architectural face.

Also, here is an image from a MoMA show of the period called "Signs in the Streets":


28282828's picture

Thanks for the many suggestions, I am perusing them all now.

Another idea that strikes me would be to use a very identifiably contemporary typeface to conspicuously contrast with the images and themes presented onscreen. What are peoples' thoughts about and experiences with trying something like this? This would seem to be a bit trickier and could have some pitfalls.

Which current typefaces could have a dialogue with older design elements... in a nuanced and helpful way, as opposed to a shouting at each other way? (does any of this even make sense? I'll try to elaborate if not.)

At any rate... great and very thoughtful suggestions thus far. My thanks. -John

cerulean's picture

When I think of architecture in the 1950s and 60s, I think of googie. So, Font Diner? I don't know how you're defining modernism exactly.

Stephen Coles's picture

Oh I hope he means true modernism. Googie is oogie.

As you mentioned, a clean grotesque like Helvetica, Akzidenz or Standard are safe bets. Standard is the American version of AG which was used for Vignelli’s modernist NY Subway signage system.

Trade, News, and Franklin Gothics were also quite popular in America at the time. (See NxNW, above.)

Alternatively, Chris has a good idea with Futura caps, a favorite of Kubrick.

I think it's difficult to invoke mid-century modernism with a serif or script unless it's the warmer, more whimsical or handmade side of the movement you're going for, which doesn't seem to fit your description.

A slab like Rockwell, Memphis, or Neutraface Slab might do. They tend to reference the earlier end of the era.

dezcom's picture

The problem with Helvetica is that to most people it now just says, "That default font I always get."
Univers or AG are better bets if that is the look you want.
I grew up during that era and studied design in the early 1960's. The Architecture department was one floor below and most of their professors were true modernists. They all studied at Ulm or IIT. They would never accept any type other than AG, or Futura. Helvetica and Univers were a bit past their time but would have been OK..

XK9's picture

I think it's worth pointing out that typeface selection alone is not the only issue. Line spacing and letter spacing should be considered. You may wish to look at typography from letterheads and brochures of that period. Particularly for the modernist furniture manufacturers and architecture firms you are covering.

If you have access to those resources, you should hire a designer who is expert in typography to set the type and assist you in composing the frames for your titles. This kind of collaboration will make a world of difference in your end result.

Here's my XK9 Title Recipe™ (Patent Pending) for making titles look sophisticated and more integrated into your moving images.

1. DO NOT USE OPAQUE TYPE. A slight transparency (80-90% opacity) will make the titles seem a part of the image. It will make it feel more like a title from films where a photographic process was used to composite titles.

2. NEVER USE A DROP SHADOW. If the image beneath the type is too bright- darken it. If that's not possible, consider cropping your shots and give your type its own area as a black, white or solid color field that bleeds off at least three of the four edges. If that's not possible, consider another shot or doubling up titles on a previous or subsequent shot.

3. DO NOT USE 100% WHITE. In addition to making your type transparent use a value below 100% white and tint it to match your shots. If your images are predominantly cool, try a tinge of blue. Warm, tinge of gold. If you are able try selecting a white value from your clip. You'll be surprised how dark and tinted "whites" can be.

4 . DO NOT ANIMATE THE TITLES. Unless you're an experienced motion graphic designer, do not even attempt to make your titles move. Nothing says "cheesy amateur video" like moving type. Fade up and fade out. Even better if appropriate, have it on your edited shot, cut to cut. If you're going to have one title immediately follow another do not put it in the same place on screen as the previous title.

5. TYPE SIZE & SPACING, USAGE SHOULD BE CONSISTENT. Use a few different sizes of type as possible; and NEVER MORE THAN 2 TYPEFACES. On size, use one for credits (DIRECTED BY) and one for names (Your Name Here). Unless the title of the film is a designed logo or title treatment, use a slightly larger version (perhaps bolder weight, too) of the same typeface. Letter spacing should generally be slightly wider than you would do for text; the light of the screen of a TV or theater can make titles appear bolder than they looked on your screen.

1985's picture

How about Folio?

Stephen Coles's picture

Great tips, Bill.

And Folio is another good alternative to Helv, sure.

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