Typecasting: Hollywood Font Bloopers

A little fun with finding Hollywood Font Bloopers

You’ve seen them. Blockbusters with big stars and bigger budgets that place in the distant past. Directors and designers take painstaking care to capture every detail of the era accurately, from the beading on a flapper dress, to the set design, to that vintage Rolls Royce rolling down the street. All the details are in place. Except one.


But there are font police out there who have a little fun finding and identifying wayward fonts.

“It drives me crazy,” says font designer Mark Simonson. “They spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to make sure the hairstyle is right in a period piece. The corset has the right number of loops.  The set looks perfectly like the 1800s. And then they drop Helvetica into it.”

typography mistake on a tombstone
Back to the Future: How did Helvetica (1957, top) and Eurostile (1962, middle) end up on a tombstone in the year 1885?

Helvetica, as type-lovers know well, wasn’t designed until the 1950s. Call us cranky, but it is a funny piece of inconsistency when you look closely. In fact, fonts are consistently mismatched in a surprising amount of popular movies. Almost Famous mis-designs Rolling Stone‘s cover. Back To The Future uses Helvetica on a tombstone from 1886. And Raiders of the Lost Ark is type-perfect in every sequence save one: the map montages.

Raiders of the Lost Ark Map
Sorry, Indy: In Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) which is set in 1936, we see ITC Serif Gothic (designed in 1972).

Typography stumps even the most careful filmmakers.

Take Titanic. James Cameron had the Herculean task of making the film accurate. The man has a reputation for being a perfectionist, with good reason. When an astrophysicist complained that the stars in the night sky weren’t aligned  as they would have been on April 15, 1912, Cameron re-edited the scene to reflect the proper skyline.

One thing he didn’t get right? The typography. Cameron is what we call a Helvetica-offender, a filmmaker who uses the font in scenes that take place before its creation. Check out the dials on the ship. To most viewers, they’re just numbers. But to typography purists, it’s like pulling out a Blackberry on the Titanic. That’s just wrong.

titanic graphic

Mad Men is another offender. Lauded by historians for its point-perfect depiction of the 1960s, Mad Men makes a mess of its fonts. Eagle-eyed viewers have spotted many fonts from the future in shots of the print ads, including Fenice (1980), Balmoral (1978), Amazone (1958), ITC Kabel (1975), Bookman Old Style (1989), and Gotham (2002). Mark Simonson wrote this typographical takedown of Mad Men in his blog.

lipstick ads from the past
Oops: these lipstick ads feature Fenice (1980) with Balmoral (1978) for the script type.

As he writes here, “Whoops—Zapfino (1998). I guess they use Macs.”

vintage airline ad

Hey, nothing’s perfect. Sometimes being overly type-sensitive is like an allergy — something that gives you a bad reaction to otherwise enjoyable moments. Is this obsessive-compulsive nitpicking, or is there something to take away here?

Well for one thing, it shows that while filmmakers take great pains to get certain forms of design right, such as costuming, cars, and set pieces, typography often falls by the wayside. It happens all the time. Other notable films with font bloopers include The King’s Speech, Gangs of New York, The Artist, L.A. Confidential, Chocolat, Ed Wood, and Good Night, and Good Luck. It does seem to be an overlooked detail that many type lovers notice.

rolling stone magazine cover
The logo and photo look fine, but the main headline is set in ITC Galliard (1978), which was never featured in Rolling Stone.

Helvetica, the fall back font

Tellingly, many of these errors are based on Helvetica popping up where it shouldn’t. This trend shows the all-encompassing reach of Helvetica, the font of the 21st century. It has become so widespread and well-known that it often serves as the default font when designers need something clean and clear, regardless of historical accuracy. There are many versions of this ubiquitous font that did exist in earlier versions, so fair is fair.

Like we wrote, Helvetica is the one font to rule them all.

vintage CBS News sign
D’oh! The CBS News sign is in Helvetica, which wasn’t created yet.

We may be font geeks, but you don’t need to be to get it right these days. Historical information on typography is easier to find than ever. And many true vintage fonts are now available in electronic form. So hey, Hollywood: watch your bloopers and fix your fonts. Don’t you know that typecasting is never good for anyone?