What does it take for a font to change the world? Amongst thousands of typefaces, only a handful have had a significant, wide-reaching and long-lasting impact.
A testament to the power of type, here you’ll find fonts that have the power to win landslide elections and build empires, as well as helping billions of people reach their destinations every day.
From the world’s first official typeface to the font that inspires near-universal loathing, these are the 10 typefaces that changed, and continue to shape, the world we live in.
1. Trajan’s Column: The Original Serif
In 113 AD, the Roman Emperor Trajan completed a column that commemorated his victory in the Dacian Wars. A prominent feature of the column is an inscription set in capital letters at its base.
This Roman inscription is often described as the original serif typeface, and its square, honest and imposing design has become the basis of almost every serif font since, including of course Trajan, a font based on the inscription designed by Carol Twombly for Adobe in 1989.
Roman is one of the three main historical groups of type (in addition to blackletter and italic), and the influence of Roman type design can be seen across a huge range of serifs and sans serifs too. Bembo, Baskerville, Caslon, Jenson, Times New Roman and Garamond all employ Roman traits.
As a result, a huge number of the fonts we see in use today are based on a style that was established nearly two millennia ago. So the next time you send an email written in Times New Roman or set a heading in Trajan Pro, remember that you’re using a font that was originally created by an ancient emperor to boast about his war victories.
2. Textura: The World’s First Font
Textura, also known as blackletter, can claim to be the world’s first ever ‘font’. German printer Johannes Gutenberg invented the first mechanical moving type in 1439, with the chunky, Gothic letterforms of blackletter being used to print Bibles, pamphlets, and manuscripts.
Although the metal-cast concept of a font was very different from the digital format we use today, the fact that the type could be reproduced quickly and identically makes Textura not so radically different from the OpenType and TrueType fonts used on computers now.
Textura probably has one of the strongest claims to be a world-changing typeface. Although the design and styling of Gutenberg’s blackletter were not particularly radical (individuals had been hand-drawing in a blackletter style for some time beforehand), Textura opened up accessibility to printed matter that was closed off to many ordinary people beforehand. Printed materials were no longer a preserve of the extremely wealthy, as people of various social classes were now able to access them.
Access to printed materials—sometimes written in the native language and not Latin, as was the case with Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible—was eye-opening for Europeans in the Middle Ages, leading to major social shifts, such as the Protestant Reformation.
3. Baskerville: The Perfect Typesetting Font
What were typefaces originally invented for? Although designers today often praise particular fonts for their ability to make a webpage heading look punchy, most typefaces of the 17th and 18th centuries were designed with typesetting books in mind.
Books can be lengthy, and for this task you need a typeface that, above everything else, reads well. Old-style serifs such as Caslon did a good job of this for some time, but it wasn’t until an English businessman called John Baskerville decided to create books of the highest possible quality that the ultimate typesetting font, Baskerville, was born.
Based on the foundations laid down by his old-style predecessors, Baskerville nonetheless took a radical approach to crafting the perfect font.
Influenced by the calligraphy he had learned as a young man, for his new typeface Baskerville increased the contrast between thick and thin strokes, made the serifs sharper, and shifted the axis of rounded letters to a vertical position. Overall, the final effect was more consistent, regular, and exceptionally readable. Ever the perfectionist, Baskerville also focussed on making the italic weight as beautiful as possible, adding intricate flourishes to some of the letterforms.
Now recognised as a transitional serif type style, Baskerville remains one of the most widely used typefaces in book design, and has been refined and adapted into many other related and well-loved fonts, such as Mrs Eaves and Big Moore (sometimes referred to as Baskerville Old Face).
4. Didot: The Typeface of Aspiration
While Baskerville is renowned for its functionality and efficiency as a typesetting font, it can’t claim a particularly glamorous reputation. Some fonts are designed for function, others for form.
Although Didot was designed with both form and function in mind, it's the former quality that has made it into the ultimate aspirational font.
Created in the late 18th century by a famous French printing family of the same name, Didot is a high-contrast ‘modern’ serif typeface with added stress on aspects of the letterforms. The contrast of line thickness throughout the typeface gives the letters an extremely elegant and refined appearance.
This innate elegance has made Didot, and its Italian relation Bodoni, a go-to typeface for brands looking to market luxury or aspirational products. Vogue magazine has used Didot in its masthead since 1955, with Harper’s Bazaar opting for a customized version.
A 2015 survey by typographer Sarah Hyndman concluded that Didot was considered to be the most expensive-looking in the selection presented to 368 people.
The aspirational power of Didot has been tapped by a huge range of brands looking to increase the desirability and luxury of their products, including Zara, who used Didot to create their controversial new logo. So if you want to tempt consumers to part with their cash, it seems Didot will always be a reliable money-spinner.
5. Gill Sans: A Country’s Identity
The designer of the font that has come to define Britishness at home and abroad, Eric Gill, is a divisive figure, known today as much for his controversial personal life as his impressive engravings, sculptures, and contribution to typography.
Controversy aside, it's difficult to compose a list of world-changing fonts without including Gill Sans.
Originally designed by Gill to use on signage for tourists visiting the Capel-y-ffin monastery in Wales in the mid-1920s, this versatile sans serif quickly became one of the most widely used typefaces in Britain.
Adopted by the BBC, the Church of England, and British Railways, and liberally splashed across shop and street signage, Gill Sans created a bridge between serifs and emerging modern sans serif type styles. A favorite amongst academics and publishers in the 1930s and 1940s, the proper and proud appearance of the rounded letterforms was used famously on the first Penguin book jackets.
During the Second World War, the Ministry of Information chose Gill Sans to typeset its wartime warning posters, making Gill Sans not only the most British of fonts but the font that is most evocative of the wartime period.
6. Frutiger: The Designer’s Favorite Font
Ask any designer what their favorite font is and alongside the range of new offerings, there’s a pretty good chance Frutiger will be named. With type guru Erik Spiekermann naming the humanist sans serif as ‘the best general typeface ever’, it’s clear that the typeface conceived by Swiss designer Adrian Frutiger in the early 1960s (though it wasn’t made publicly available until 1976) has a magical hold over designers and type fans alike.
The fact that Frutiger is so popular among discerning designers seems a little odd at first glance. After all, there’s nothing about Frutiger that’s particularly exciting. However, it’s the cleverly engineered subtleties of the typeface that make it enduringly usable.
Frutiger is arguably the most legible font ever created. Scaled to any size, it healthily competes with other sans serifs on readability and clarity, making it a firm favorite for signage design. Originally used for Charles de Gaulle Airport at Roissy, France, it has also been used on road signage in Switzerland and public transport in Oslo, Norway.
Due to its legibility, neutrality, and clean appearance, Frutiger is also one of the most widely used typefaces in corporate, health and military branding, with O2, Deutsche Post, DHL, the British Army and Royal Navy being just a few of the hundreds of large organisations who employ Frutiger in their logos, stationery, signage, and labelling.
So it becomes clear why Frutiger is the designer’s favorite font—it is the ultimate embodiment of form following function.
7. Akzidenz Grotesk: The Original Grotesque Sans Serif
You might be surprised to realise that Akzidenz Grotesk was created in the late 19th century. Contemporary to the Art Nouveau movement which celebrated ornate, fluid type styles, and before the Art Deco period and the creation of Gill Sans, it seems extraordinary that this incredibly contemporary-looking typeface was designed before the 20th century.
In many ways, Akzidenz Grotesk was ahead of its time, and is one of the unsung heroes of type design. In part this is due to its designers’ intention for it to be a ‘jobbing’ font, used on publicity, tickets, and forms, as opposed to a font for fine printing.
Released in 1898 by the Berthold Type Foundry of Berlin, Akzidenz Grotesk is simple, unadorned, and functional, with an honest neutrality. The neutrality underpinning the font has proven to be its most influential characteristic, and its contribution to the development of the International or Swiss Style of the 1950s and 1960s cannot be underestimated.
A wide range of grotesque and geometric sans serif faces were based on Akzidenz Grotesk, including Neue Haas-Grotesk (later renamed Helvetica), Adrien Frutiger’s Univers, and Bauer and Baum’s Folio.
Although Helvetica’s universal popularity (see below) may have marked it as the most visible of the neutral sans serifs, Akzidenz Grotesk is without a doubt the most influential in the development of type design.
8. Helvetica: The World’s Most Visible Font
Originally named Neue Haas-Grotesk, the world’s most visible font, Helvetica, was designed in the 1950s by Max Miedinger, who was working for the Haas type foundry in Switzerland.
Designed to compete with grotesque sans serifs being offered by other foundries, Neue Haas-Grotesk was not wildly different, but the tall x-height and tight tracking gave the typeface a dense and sturdy appearance that made it an immediate hit at its debut in 1957.
After the font was renamed and marketed overseas by the Haas foundry’s president, Eduard Hoffmann, Helvetica’s move towards world domination seemed unstoppable. Adopted by a number of transport systems, such as the New York Subway, it also makes appearances everywhere in urban areas across the West, on signage, posters, flyers, and stickers.
Whether you love it or hate it (and there are many who passionately declare themselves in the latter camp), you’d be hard-pressed not to encounter Helvetica on a daily basis. Here, Helvetica makes the edit of world-changing fonts by being the font that most visibly characterises the world we live in.
9. Comic Sans: The World’s Most Hated Font
‘World-changing’ might be a generous description for possibly the most hated font of all time—the infamous Comic Sans.
Created in 1994 by Microsoft employee Vincent Connare, Comic Sans is loosely based on the handwritten style of type found in 1950s comic books. Connare wanted to create a font that was warm and fuzzy to pair with the company’s newest software package, Microsoft Bob—a user-friendly aid represented by a friendly animated dog.
Connare’s design did fulfil his desire for a warm font to replace the more clinical Times New Roman being used for Bob’s messages. And when Comic Sans was released into the world via Microsoft 95’s font menu, it quickly became every Microsoft user’s go-to font of choice.
In spite of its childlike, informal design, it was used everywhere and on everything, from small-scale items like restaurant menus and greetings cards to what some deemed inappropriate and bizarre venues, such as Time magazine, Adidas adverts, and the sides of ambulances.
Overuse of Comic Sans led to one of the largest Internet hate campaigns in history. A business providing mail-order ‘Ban Comic Sans’ mugs, caps and T-shirts even sprang up to feed demand for the mass movement against the font.
Comic Sans remains one of the most widely used and widely detested fonts in circulation today, two claims earning it a controversial place on our list of world-changing fonts.
10. Gotham: The Font to Believe In
Does a font have the power to win an election? Or convince millions of people to put their trust in one person? In the case of Gotham, the simple yet striking sans serif based on city signage, it certainly does.
Gotham was created in 2000 by Tobias Frere-Jones for Hoefler & Frere-Jones, a New York type foundry, and it was designed initially for GQ Magazine. Its attributes were immediately evident—a font able to balance both a sense of newness and familiarity through its clean lines and solid, authoritative appearance—but it wasn’t until 2008 that its potential as a font with world-changing impact was realised.
Adopted by the team behind the Obama presidential campaign, Gotham was chosen in part because of its visual characteristics—the font lent an air of solidity, durability and trustworthiness to the ‘CHANGE WE CAN BELIEVE IN’ slogan. The team’s original choice, Gill Sans, was rejected in favor of the more flexible Gotham, which was available in more than 40 weights and styles.
When Obama won the presidency, his victory speech was conducted in front of banners featuring Gotham. Hilary Clinton’s campaign managers opted for New Baskerville Bold, which felt like a staid and unprogressive font choice by comparison, and might well have contributed to her loss.
Gotham’s association with victory and honesty was solidified by Obama’s victory, and it’s since been used on a wide variety of media looking to monopolise its authority and transparency. Extremely popular for movie poster design, it is also used for the credits of Saturday Night Live and promotional campaigns on the Discovery Channel.
Gotham also has an austere, all-American quality, which made it the ideal candidate for setting the inscription at the Freedom Tower at Ground Zero.
Perhaps more than any other font on our world-changing list, Gotham demonstrates the psychological power of type and its potential to literally change the world, one vote at a time.
Conclusion: 10 Typefaces That Changed the World
From typefaces that had a significant influence on the development of type design to fonts that defined national identities and shaped political campaigns, this article has explored how the humble typeface can wield extraordinary power and influence in the right hands.
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