Neil Armstrong’s first words as he stepped onto the surface of the Moon are amongst the most famous in history. Imagine the immense pressure as, with the eyes of the world on you, you begin moving down onto the surface. You will forever be known as the first man to step foot on the Moon. Since the dawn of time, men have mythologised this place, dreamt of reaching it. You will be seen as a pioneer, a model of bravery and a standard bearer for the space age. Your words will be heard not just by mission control, 400,000 kilometres and 4 days of cramped space flight behind you, but by all of mankind, across the planet, for all of history. Your words matter. What you say next is important. This is the ultimate public speaking engagement. Don’t screw up. DO NOT SCREW UP.
“That’s one small step for man…”
You screwed up.
A pause. Maybe that pause was Armstrong realising his mistake. One small step for man? That doesn’t make sense. Man means mankind. You didn’t mean mankind, not yet – the mankind bit comes later! You meant man, as in you, because YOU ARE A MAN – you should have said ‘one small step for A man,’ you lunar idiot.
The pause is now dripping in dramatic tension and gravity. Which is ironic, as gravity is one of many things in which this particular extra-terrestrial body is lacking.
You carry on: “…one…” (another pause… too late now…) “…giant leap for mankind.”
Phew. Maybe, just maybe, you got away with it.
Armstrong’s understandably flustered moment of imprecision contained a mistake; an aural typo. The first printed words on the surface of the Moon, however, were not characterised by breathless excitement and imprecision, but by the precise, steady geometry of Futura.
The lunar lander module, which to this day remains on the Moon’s surface, bears a plaque which proudly proclaims to any curious visitor in precise upper-case letters set in Futura Medium, and in terms which don’t confuse the concept of man and A man, “HERE MEN FROM THE PLANET EARTH FIRST SET FOOT UPON THE MOON JULY 1969, A. D. WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND”.
Why was Futura chosen for the task of communicating this message? Well, with its crisp, geometrically derived letter forms, Futura speaks in a clear and calm voice of an exciting modern age. When Paul Renner designed Futura in Germany in 1927, he wanted it to be new and modern, rather than a revival (or redesign) of an old font. He believed that his typeface should look and feel modern, and Futura still manages that more than 85 years later. It isn’t the longest-serving geometric sans serif typeface (that honour is held by the slightly more Germanic-looking typeface Erbar) but Futura is arguably the most successful.
Futura’s alphabet is typified by efficiency and clarity. Each stroke seems to reject the history of typography wholesale – there are no serifs, flourishes, no real contrasting weight between strokes. The letter O is a Moon-like perfect circle. Other letters, such as the a, b and d are made from similarly circular bowls. Letter terminals finish cleanly and abruptly. Yet despite bold design choices, Futura still manages to carry a warmth with it. The proportions are well balanced, particularly in the lower case. The circular derivation of some of Futura’s lower case letterforms gives them a pleasing quality, with the x-height and the letter width being similar. The curve of the lower case u or the descender on the g are softly seductive in contrast to angular w and y’s straight descender. Crucially, there is no sign of the overtly German blackletter typefaces which would have been prevalent in Renner’s upbringing – Futura is a rejection of that type.
Renner’s own politics were fiercely anti-Nazi, and in 1933, when Hitler came to power, he was arrested as a political prisoner. In a way, his Futura reflects his opposition to nationalism. It is a typeface which, due to its characters being stripped of character, is universal and looks to a utopia free of nationalism or division.
After the Second World War many German scientists switched their allegiance to the USA. They had worked on perfecting rockets to land in towns and cities to bring death and destruction, but now saw a chance for forgiveness and rehabilitation, using their skills for a more peaceful purpose.
As they worked on the technology needed to send man to the Moon, and as America looked to a new age of space travel in the name of peace, it’s easy to understand why Futura was chosen to mark this start of a new age, with all its hopes for unity, rejection of the old, and celebration of the future.