Retrofuturistic Typefaces

One of the most widely-used and recognizable tools designers have used to convey technological innovation over the last 55 years is MICR-inspired typography. An acronym for Magnetic Ink Character Recognition, the original MICR font was developed at Stanford University and General Electric Computer Laboratory in the mid–1950s in the hopes that banks could use it to automate their check processing systems. That font, E-13B, allowed numbers to be scanned quickly, saving banks time and money. Its effectiveness resulted in the American Bankers Association (ABA) formally adopting E-13B in 1958, and by 1962, it was in widespread use.

Example of MICR font
MICR E-13B, 1958

By the mid–1960s, the first derivative versions were created by two different designers at almost the exact same time, suggesting a zeitgeist brought on by technology’s infiltration of daily life. Leo Maggs, who was living in England, is often cited as the first to create a MICR-inspired typeface between 1964–1965, which he called Westminster; but Franco Grignani in Italy developed his own version from 1964–1965 as well. Though they each assumed many of the same visual cues that defined E-13B, they were not machine-readable and, of course, were not intended to be.

Leo Maggs was working for the Hazell Sun Group’s design studio in London in the mid–1960s when he was asked by his boss, Peter Newbolt, to create a “futuristic” headline for the title of a magazine article. (The magazine was About the House, produced for Friends of Covent Garden Opera House.) According to Maggs, from an interview with Mercer Design, “Only a few words were needed, and I opted to draw them in caps based on the MICR system. Having completed the task to everyone’s satisfaction, I decided to complete the alphabet in my spare time. Ever an admirer of Eric Gill’s typeface designs, I based mine on the classic proportions of Gill Sans.” 

Maggs took his finished design to Letraset, which turned it down on the basis that it was “commercially unviable,” though several years later it released a similar version called Data 70. Westminster was eventually picked up by London-based Photoscript Ltd. and began showing up on film posters (Sebastian, 1968), books (Architecture 2000: Predictions and Methods, 1971), and album covers (The End of the Game by Peter Green, 1970).

Album cover the The End of the Game by Peter Green
The End of the Game by Peter Green, 1971;
Typeface: Westminster by Leo Maggs;
Via Fonts in Use

Franco Grignani, meanwhile, had developed a type treatment for the cover of Advertising in Italy in 1964. In an interview posted at AIAP, Grignani stated that the custom lettering was inspired by “IBM numbers” and “magnetic inks.” Since he did not create an entire typeface—instead, only the letters needed explicitly for the title—it is unlikely that he gave it the name Gemini, which is how it is referred to today. Grignani recalled, “In 1966, these characters were taken up in America, transferred to photocomposition, and immediately applied to the futuristic titling in thousands of publications.” Therefore, it is safe to assume that the American company that used Grignani’s design gave it the name Gemini, which, unsurprisingly, was also the name of NASA’s human spaceflight program from 1965 to 1966.

Cover of Advertising in Italy by Franco Grignani
Advertising in Italy, 1965;
Typeface: Gemini by Franco Grignani

Looking back, it’s a bit ironic that a font developed for something as mundane as automatic check processing would be appropriated by countless designers as the go-to signifier of sexy futuristic concepts. Still, for about a decade, from the mid–1960s to the mid–’70s, these fonts were widely used for the titles of sci-fi films, books, posters, and anywhere else an association with technology was needed. At a certain point, the scales tipped, and they became “retrofuturistic,” at which point their appearance suggested a knowing wink or tip of the hat to an already outdated vision of the future. During their brief heyday, however, Westminster and Gemini were joined by a host of other MICR-inspired fonts that infiltrated pop culture, including Amelia by Stanley Davis; Countdown by Colin Brignall; Moore Computer by James H. Moore; Data 70 by Bob Newman; and Orbit-B by Stan Biggenden.

Book cover for I Sing the Body Electric by Ray Bradbury
I Sing the Body Electric! by Ray Bradbury, 1971;
Typeface: Amelia by Stanley Davis;
Via Fonts In Use
Byte Magazine cover
Byte magazine, 1977;
Typeface: Countdown by Colin Brignall

Given the widespread use of MICR-inspired fonts, the release of Sagittarius by Hoefler&Co. comes as a breath of fresh air. It possesses only the slightest trace of the ham-fisted retrofuturism we’ve come to associate with pulpy sci-fi novels and techno-utopian nightmares. Additionally, type designer Jonathan Hoefler wanted his version to be more flexible. As explained on the Hoefler&Co. website, “In the interest of versatility, Sagittarius takes a different approach: its letters make only oblique digital references in order to remain open to other interpretations. For projects that demand louder overtones of science fiction, the fonts include a number of kinds of digital flotsam that designers can incorporate, by degrees, at their own discretion.” This flotsam includes symbols that look like bits of barcode and various other ornaments that dovetail nicely with the streamlined alphabetic characters. Without these stylistic extras, Sagittarius could easily be applied to neutral, non-technology applications, including the “beauty and wellness aisle,” as Hoefler&Co. points out. With this in mind, the future has never looked so bright.

Type specimen for Hoefler Saggitarius
Sagittarius by Hoefler&Co.