Typefaces That Defined a Century

Typefaces That Defined a Century

Almost everything you read has been carefully mulled over before it ever reached your newspaper, magazine, or monitor. Words will have been poured over – can a meaning be made clearer or an ambiguity removed? Yet once the creative process of writing has ended, the process of display begins. The same words must now be viewed in a variety of typefaces – what best reflects the style of the publication and what best suits the written word?

Typefaces can shape a century of knowledge in their own way. Some are inextricably linked to specific purposes. In this article we’ll take a look at those which shaped the period between 1900 and the present day.

Though this is ultimately a matter of opinion, we’ve done our best to explain our nominations. If you have other ideas, let us know in the comments below!

Times New Roman


Times New Roman is the font the average person is most likely to know. Its existence pre-dates the computers it became so readily recognised upon; its original design was for The Times newspaper in the 1930s. Until 2007 it was the default font in Microsoft Word, turning it into a familiar symbol of word processing.

Whether you grew up in an era of education with computers or have had to use them more regularly for work, TNR’s popularity has been – and looks to be – perennial. After all, how many other fonts have an abbreviation associated with them?

Alternatives: Garamond and its derivatives, like EB Garamond, Vollkorn, Calluna, Georgia.



Perhaps the only typeface to have a film named after it, Helvetica’s position in history is unquestioned. It’s a fantastically neutral font in every sense of the word; Arial was developed as a competitor of sorts to Helvetica’s position of total dominance.

Helvetica and its various iterations have made an appearance in iOS and OS X, posters, books, printed documents, and so much more. It’s at the heart of dozens of corporate logos, product descriptions and websites. It’s the corporate face of Lufthansa, American Apparel, Jeep, Toyota, Target and Scotch, at minimum.

Originally named “Neue Haas Grotesk,” the font was developed in 1956 and continues to be relevant sixty years later. Few faces can boast of having what appears to be a truly eternal popularity, and Helvetica is one of them.

Alternatives: Alte Haas Grotesk for a more ‘dated’ feel (we actually used it for the header picture!), Arial for a ubiquitous alternative.



While you might not have known the name, you’ll know Futura from the above picture. Designed in the 1920s by Paul Renner, Futura’s history ties neatly into the flourishing Bauhaus movement and extends beyond it. Its clean, rounded design lends it an air of modernity, connecting it to the future just as much as its name does.

It makes a cameo appearance in 2001: A Space Odyssey on the “Jupiter Mission” scene card, as this impressively-detailed blog posting observes. One need only look at older “visions of the future” to see just how neatly Futura fits into that idealised vision of the future.

Alternatives: Gill Sans, Proxima Nova.



If there’s one font worth connecting to movie posters, it’s Trajan. The font has become a standard for film posters. Flags of Our Fathers, Stardust, I Am Legend, Final Destination and Gallipolli are only a short list of films that have used Trajan in promotional materials.

To give you an idea of just how widespread Trajan’s use in film is, there’s a Flickr group dedicated to showcasing posters using it. While the lettering does work well for titles, Trajan’s original design is around 1500 years old at minimum, having taken its inspiration from lettering in Rome.

There are also several versions of Trajan in existence; the one used in our header picture is Goudy Trajan, available for free from Font Squirrel. The most famous version is simply called “Trajan” and was designed by Adobe, but it’s not available for free.

Alternatives: Virtually anything impactful. Owing to the ever-changing design of movie posters, anything could be possible.

DIN 1451


Perhaps a geographically niche entry into this list, DIN 1451 has been around since the 1930s. In more modern terms this is the typeface used for road signs and license plates in several European countries, most obviously Germany and Austria.

While it might not be an instantly recognisable typeface in the same league as Helvetica, it’s a standard font in some of Europe’s biggest countries. No doubt its original designers, the German Institute for Standardisation, would be delighted at how well it has standardised a key part of life in Europe.

Alternatives: None we can think of; what are your suggestions?


Whittling down a century of developments in typefaces is not an easy task; it forces you to carefully consider, and ultimately reject, ideas another person could make a compelling argument for. There’s a degree of opinion inherent in this kind of decision-making, and it won’t please everyone. Why, for instance, did we choose to include Futura and reference Gill Sans, rather than including Gill Sans and referencing Futura?

There’s no concrete reason why; the two are similar and either could be a worthy entry. We’re sure there are other instances where one typeface has been featured at the expense of another or one serves only as a footnote to another.

In these cases, we encourage you to provide your feedback and suggestions in the comments below.

Paul Ferson
Paul Ferson

Paul is a Northern Irish tech enthusiast who can normally be found tinkering with Windows software or playing games.

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