Trajan Is The Movie Font

Many of you may have seen this video on YouTube (it's rather popular, apparently!). As a designer, I find it absolutely hilarious - mainly because it's absolutely true!

I do disagree on one point, though: Trajan hasn't totally overrun the entire movie industry quite yet. There is one segment that resists the classical charms of this font, that being comedy movies. Don't worry, though, they have their own lazy designers who more often than not, resort to this:


Almost always Gill Sans Bold (possibly one of the ugliest sans serif fonts ever, and an embarrassment to the Gill Sans family) or Futura Extra Heavy. If you can squish the kerning up to join all the letterforms together, then you're well on the way to the perfect comedy movie title.

So why does this repetition happen? Laziness, for sure. Why think of a new font/logotype for each new movie when you know that something that was done previously will work just as well. In a way, these typeface choices act as a kind of visual shorthand for the viewing public: Trajan = Epic. Distressed Trajan = Horror. Big Fat Sans Serif = Wacky Comedy. Adam Sandler. Jim Carrey. Straight away, you have some kind of idea about the movie. That's a plus on a crowded video store shelf, where you've only got a few seconds to attract a potential viewer. Not that I'm condoning this kind of design at all... I can't stand lazy, no thought typography. I was always taught to pay close attention to the appropriateness of type, and I think it's a great thing to remember.

Let me give you an example. At a previous agency, a client asked us to design a logo and brochure that evoked a stylish, 1930's kind of feel. I briefed the job into a junior designer and went away to do my own work. A couple of hours later, I checked in with the junior and was horrified to find that they had typeset the whole thing in Helvetica.

"Why did you do that?" I asked.

The junior simply replied, "Because it's a nice font".

And it can be, if set well. There are agencies out there who only use Helvetica Neue in every job they do, and it looks fantastic. But in this case, Helvetica was not an appropriate font to use. Helvetica was not invented until the 1950's and shares none of the aesthetics of the 1930's period we were trying to evoke. I explained this to the junior, who just looked at me a little blankly and asked which font I would use.

The short answer was "Futura" (because we were on a deadline), but there's more to consider than just the obvious answer. Take a look at this:

Here we have four fonts, all set at the same point size. Firstly, we can see that Helvetica displays none of the characteristics of a 1930's style font: it's what's known as a grotesque font (so called because purists thought this type of type was hideous when first introduced in the late 19th Century), while the others all display elements of the humanist style of sans serif fonts.

The next font, Futura, is appropriate to the task at hand because it's from the 1930s. You can't get more authentic than the real thing. Gill Sans is another font from around the same time period, making it another possible choice.

The last two fonts shown, Neutra and Nevis, are modern, computer generated fonts. But they have the look and feel - the elegance - of a 1930's font and are therefore appropriate. Neutra's extremely small x-height is particularly redolent of 30's style, while Nevis is very heavily based on Johnston Sans, another Eric Gill typeface that is famous for its use on the London Undergound.

A good typographic designer has an innate sense for this kind of stuff - a knowledge of the history of type and the ability to find new fonts that fulfill old roles in design. There's always an obvious choice for a typeface, but sometimes further investigation makes a good design great. For my part, I wish I'sd told the junior designer to use Neutra for that brochure, because it's a lovely, lovely typeface.