1973 Newspapers Predict Future of Type in Dexter

  • Fonts in Use
Fonts in Use, Oops! | Yves Peters | November 18, 2008

One of the most entertaining continuing series about typography on the interwebs is Mark Simonson’s Typecasting: The Use (and Misuse) of Period Typography in Movies. Originally a single overview of typographical anachronisms in movies, it spawned the follow up series Son of Typecasting. What Mark does is research the use of period typography in movies and television series, checking the creation dates and probable usage of the featured typefaces against the time frame the story is set in. The goofs he uncovers are guaranteed to elicit a chuckle if you’re a type enthusiast with an inquisitive and critical mind. Conversely it is very inspiring every time he demonstrates how a design team gets every single detail right through careful research.


Still from Back To The Future III.

I already made a small contribution to the series once. When watching the third instalment in the Back To The Future movie series with my kids this summer, I noticed something odd. Although it went by pretty fast I recognized Helvetica (1957) and Eurostile (1962) carved on a tombstone in the year 1885.


Still from Dexter, Season 1, Episode 11. Headline set in Frutiger, an unlikely choice.

And now it happened again. I’ve written a couple of articles on Showtime’s Dexter television series recently, telling how good both the spoof magazine covers marketing campaign and the Emmy Award winning opening credits are. Yet today I must report a goof I detected in the show. A couple of days ago my wife and I were enjoying “Truth Be Told”, the 11th episode of the first season – argh, the suspense! At some point Dexter is searching through newspaper archives, looking for clues as to what exactly happened to his mother, and the conditions in which his stepfather found him. A couple of newspaper front pages are briefly seen in this scene, and that’s when I noticed something odd. Some headlines in the newspapers dating from 1973 were set in artificially squooshed Arial. Yet that typeface was only released in 1989/90. When examining the screenshots I was sent by Sunny Gosal I also saw Frutiger and force justified (!) Times Bold Italic being used, both quite improbable choices. A similar thing happened to me when reading the otherwise exquisite comic book trade paperback Top 10: The Forty-Niners. The apparition of Arial in newspaper headlines of that time (1949) brutally shattered my suspension of disbelief.


Still from Dexter, Season 1, Episode 11. Headlines set in Times caps and Times Bold Italic, also an unlikely choice.

Many people will find this trivial and actually they may very well be right. On the other hand, how much effort would it take to get it right? I decided to put this to the test. It only took me a little research to uncover NewspaperArchive.com (thanks, Florian), an online database which allows you to “Easily Find Over 3.03 Billion Names; Over 1.01 Billion Articles; Search 94.4 Million Pages; 784 Cities; 240 Years; 3,084 Titles”. After browsing a random selection of American newspapers from 1973 I was able to determine within minutes that they mostly used geometric sans faces like Metro, Futura, Erbar et al, or modern serif faces like Bodoni for example. So there you go, it’s not that hard after all. And for the design team, it’s not really about briefly shattering the illusion for a single type geek watching the television show you worked on. It’s about taking a little more pride in your work. But again, I realise this may seem trivial to most people.


Still from Dexter, Season 1, Episode 11. Here it’s not very clear, but I think the headlines are set in squooshed Arial.

Still from Dexter, Season 1, Episode 11. Again, it’s still not very clear, but I think the headlines are set in squooshed Arial.

Still from Dexter, Season 1, Episode 11. This on the other hand clearly is squooshed Arial. And the heads in force justified Times caps and Times Bold Italic are highly improbable.

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12 Comments:

  1. nice work. thanks again!

    Posted by Simon Robertson on Nov. 18, 2008
  2. This is so type-nerdy – I loves it!

    Posted by Jeff on Nov. 18, 2008
  3. Yves, would you go as far to say that a typeface defines an era/time and if so what would you say defines 2000-2008?

    Posted by Mr X on Nov. 19, 2008
  4. Yves, would you go as far to say that a typeface defines an era/time (…)

    Actually not at all. I was just pointing out that when designing period props you should do some research, to ensure that you don’t use typefaces that were only released in 1990 for a newspaper that’s supposed to date from 1973. ;)

    Posted by Yves Peters on Nov. 19, 2008
  5. This reminds of last weeks episode of The Office, where Jim says to Pam (roughly) “But I thought you were good at Flash.” “Then she says, “yeah, but they just switched to Acrobat, just after I got used to Quark.”

    … Now how hard would it have been to call a graphic designer and ask a simple question. Trivial, but it really bothered me.

    Posted by Joseph Sims on Nov. 19, 2008
  6. Great post. Can you imagine watching TV with Mark Simonson!

    Posted by johno on Nov. 19, 2008
  7. Well, Mark once gave us a pretty accurate description what it’s like to go to the movies with him. That thread is filed in my Typophile Classics folder. Hilarious. ;)

    Posted by Yves Peters on Nov. 19, 2008
  8. Sorry for being a bit thick but what’s wrong with Times Roman in the 1970′s? I thought Times was a transitional from ~1800? Or do you simply mean that US papers used Bodoni at that time?

    Posted by Klaas on Nov. 22, 2008
  9. Oh no, it’s not Times that’s wrong — sorry for not making myself entirely clear. It’s the force-justification that’s a typical outgrowth of computer typography. There wasn’t any of that horrendous spacing in the seventies;

    Posted by Yves Peters on Nov. 22, 2008
  10. Thanks for this – as someone who designs movie props, I’m always trying to pound home the point that yes, people DO notice when you get the type all horribly wrong. Sometimes, on a show I’m working on, they’ll have a few props designed by someone else (unbeknownst to me), and then I get to watch the movie and see one of my props appearing next to something that makes you want to gouge out your eyes with a grapefruit spoon. That’s showbiz!

    Posted by Ross MacDonald on Dec. 1, 2008
  11. Huh…went back to my copy of the 49ers and the newspaper’s all wrong. This seems to be a theme in Alan Moore’s work. Lots of written material in Watchmen, and most of it is way off, typewise. Same with The Black Dossier. Part of the problem is he likes to talk so goddamn much that they they tend to use condensed (probably faux) faces just to fit it all in. It seems that For all the lettering sophistication in comics (witness Eisner), nobody thinks about type.

    Posted by Noam Berg on Dec. 12, 2008
  12. I like your wishes

    Posted by Kamron on Dec. 17, 2008

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