Michael Bierut | Essays

Stanley Kubrick and the Future of Graphic Design

Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968

Imagining what the future will look like is never easy. Does anything go out of date faster than someone's idea of what décor, fashion and hairstyles will look like ten, one hundred, or a thousand years from now? But there was one artist who got it perfectly right: Stanley Kubrick.

Inspired by Jessica Helfand's recent post here on the peculiar graphics of the Apollo space program, and intrigued by an article on Kubrick's archives in the Guardian, I went back and watched 2001: A Space Odyssey. From the moment the prehistoric bone-as-weapon turns into the floating spacecraft (the best jump cut in the history of cinema), you know immediately you're in the hands of a master. And 35 years later (plus three years past due), it all looks better than ever.

As a graphic designer, I was interested to learn from the Guardian article that Kubrick was obsessed with typography, with a special affection for Futura Extra Bold. This font is so strongly associated with 2001 that I was surprised to realize that it appears only in the promotional material for the movie; the main titles are a kind of cross between Trajan and Optima, and I regret to say this is as horrible as it sounds.

In space, however, all is forgiven. In film after film, Kubrick proved himself to be a poet of the horrors and pleasures of boredom, and I mean that in a good way. The little boy going round and round on the Big Wheels in The Shining, the exquisitely slow zooms in the vast landscapes of Barry Lyndon: these are some of the most memorable images ever put on film.

In 2001, the everyday banality of space travel gets its own special treatment that will ring true with any Wallpaper-toting frequent flyer. Buck Rogers histrionics are rejected in favor of the simple pleasures of the low-cost flight to Fort Meyers; my eleven-year-old daughter, seeing the seat back video screens on the film's space shuttle, exclaimed, "Just like Jet Blue!" Graphic design provides the grace notes. 2001's vast space station is fully colonized by corporate brands, some still with us (Hilton), some still with us but a little more unlikely (the glamorous-sounding Earthlight Room is operated by Howard Johnson's) and some, alas, gone forever (Bell Telephone, Pan Am). Each logo is deployed with understated precision, contributing to the sense of place no less than the red Olivier Mourgue "Djinn" chairs and the Saarinen occasional tables.

Kubrick knew well the power of brand name as mot juste. My favorite line in Dr. Strangelove is delivered by Keenan Wynn as he grudgingly permits Peter Sellars to shoot off the lock of a soda dispenser to get enough spare change to make a phone call to the president to call off World War III. "If you don't get the President of the United States on that line, you know what's going to happen to you?" he growls as if he's delivering the biggest threat of all. "You're going to have to answer to the Coca-Cola Company." There, in one sentence, you have the DNA from which was to spring both Davos and Adbusters.

Kubrick's sense of humor in 2001 is more subdued, but no less evident. In The Making of Kubrick's 2001, a great out-of-date paperback edited by Jerome Agel (of The Medium is the Message fame), the space shuttle's daunting instructions for its Zero Gravity Toilet are identified as the film's "only intentional joke," and in Eurostile to boot. In an age where few of us can access the advanced features of our cell phones, it still gets laughs. Kubrick understood so well that the everyday hallmark of the 21st century would not be the wonder of technology, but our day-in, day-out struggle to master it.

Posted in: Business, Media, Typography

Comments [20]

interesting thought on graphic design ... I have always been a big fan of kubrick. it seems that todays design is going backwards towards more simplictic styles especially on the web.
Josh Singer

Michael's correct. Kubrick was a visionary and more, but he did get some things wrong. In that early scene in the shuttle waiting room as the official is phoning home on the video phone, he did not predict the redesigned Bell Telephone/AT&T logo, which was redesigned a few years later. Everything else is just as it will be, no doubt.

If we are nominating films for prescience, how about Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner?" No, not all those killer robots (though who knows, maybe they're today's design directors), but those toweringly huge L.E.D. television billboards, years before they were fixtures in Times Square and the Ginza. Today, they are all over the place, including selected subway and highway stops as well.
Steven Heller

In a recent documentary on the lost Columbia mission there was footage of Ilan Ramon talking with his kids on the videophone from the shuttle.
Avi Solomon

By the way, the video phone call between scientist Heywood Floyd and his daughter, which lasts for several minutes (and includes the following priceless dialogue: "Are you coming to my party tomorrow?" "I'm sorry, sweetheart, but I can't." "Why not?" "Well, you know...Daddy's traveling.") costs a whopping $1.70. The charge is posted at the conclusion of the call (in Eurostile). The little girl is played by Kubrick's real life daughter Vivian.
Michael Bierut

This is an ironic subject for me as last week I was told by some of my design students that 2001 was the most boring, stupid movie they'd ever seen. (Though the opinion may have been in retribution for my having made them watch two Peter Greenaway films.)

In a design context, I think of the menace that Kubrick puts into mundane text: the notes handed to the Tom Cruise character in Eyes Wide Shut, and the pages of typewritten variations on "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" that Shelley Duvall frantically sorts through in The Shining.

For 2001 fans, I recommend Arthur C. Clarke's The Lost Worlds of 2001, which has alternative scenes that never (thankfully) made it into the film. What's really fun is Clarke's commentary on the process of making the film. Like:

"November 10. Accompanied Stan and the design staff into the Earth-orbit ship and happened to remark that the cockpit looked like a Chinese restaurant. Stan said that killed it instantly for him and called for revisions. Must keep away from the Art Department for a few days."
Kenneth FitzGerald

This "what is the future gonna look like" is fascinating and continues to capture the imagination. Albert Robida's (1848 - 1926) "Twentieth Century" was recently republished, its filled with wonderful Victorian speculations of the next century. But I think the most memorable of these speculations was the artist/conception animations on the Wonderful World of Disney on the "Tomorrowland" episodes, hosted by that doyen of the V1 and V2 rockets, Werner von Braun. I haven't read enough about the making of 2001 (which, by the way, is only boring in the last 15 minutes) to say definitively that he borrowed his space vehicles from Disney, but I do remember some great space ship ballets on this show. It was also here that we saw video phones for the first time (prior to the 63-4 NY World's Fair), and global positioning devices. I recall the interior of what would probably be considered a concept car today complete with a navigational system that automatically guided the car; the kids were in the back seat watching TV. Oh how I longed for that future. While the Twilight Zone promised nuclear war, Disney promised SUV's with entertainment systems. I loved the Twilght Zone but its FX-props were never as good.
steven Heller

I've throughly enjoyed all the articles about "Kubrick and typography" that have popped up recently. They give me a guilty sense of satifaction. Last May when I turned in my "artist statement" for my senior show I was told to remove Stanley Kubrick's name as one of my influences because he had nothing to do with Graphic Design and made me sound "pretentious".

TJ Lomas

The visual I find even more striking than the jump cut is the composition of those scenes as static images. Place some type on the same axis as the bone or ship, and you've got a Herbert Matter poster (or Scher, if you prefer ;-). The influence of, or Kubrick love of, graphic design is so clear in 2001.

Even the film Artificial Intelligence there is evidence of inherent graphic design as displayed again through image composition, and user interface as shown with the alien space craft...

back to the subject... How much of the credit belongs to Arthur C. Clarke for the precog work? I am not as familiar with the details of the novel.

It's a shame that we can't mention 2010 for these same kind of design details, Hollywood stripped that movie of any subtlety. Perhaps 3001: The Final Odyssey, even without Kubrick, will re-reveal design as hero.
Marc Stress

Emblem (2001: A Space Odyssey) 2003

"Generated by algorithmically abstracting these films in time. Frames are sampled and organized in outwardly flowing concentric rings"
-Jason Salavon
Avi Solomon

I'll second Steve's comment about Ridley Scott but perhaps "Blade Runner" is too indelible; it seems few people since can manage to come up with a vision of the future that isn't just Los Angeles only more so with a bit of Tokyo thrown in. (Even supposedly-visually sophisticated folk like Robert Longo just redo it with a pinch of Max Headroom kitsch.)

Scott's best vision of the banality of space flight is the original "Alien." The future's merchant marine ship looked like a merchant marine ship and the talk was pay and work conditions. I find that blue collar vision of interplanetary travel—in space nobody can here you whine—plausible (as opposed to Bruce Willis' version of roughnecks" heroics.)

To go even further off topic, the first Alien movie is also a rare glimpse of a future of some reasonable sexual egalitarianism. I seem to remember that the part was originally written for a man then changed at the last moment. That may be why she managed to be neither a stereotypical female failing to do a "man's job" or some sort of drag queen on steroids who out machos the boys.
Gunnar Swanson

I would agree that films like Kubrick's 2001 and Scott's Alien set the bar quite high for films about the future. It seems that simplicity and practicality go a long way with film, print, and web design. As far as great literature on this subject, I would recommend to anyone Ray Kurzweil's The Age of Spiritual Machines. Kurzweil uses a lot of common sense and logic to propose a very believable future. A lot of what he writes could be applied to design today.
Cameron Lacombe

Few masters of vision and design could pull off the mastery of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. I would have to say that it is a very good example of futuristic insight. Everything, from the design of the costumes to the design of the Moloko Bar, suggests another world. The language is complex, the characters are unpredictable, and the insanity (which he does so well) is rampant. The thought of a treatment that can "program" a criminal into good behavior is something I consider more frightening than the thought of A.I.
Kathryn Chalmers

Visions of the future have been a subject of a number of movies. Kubick was definitely ahead of his time in capturing the future in 2001: A Space Odyssey. One movie I used to watch a lot growing up was the second Back to the Future. It was interesting to see Robert Zemeckis's interpretation of the year 2015 featuring flying cars, talking appliances and virtual reality. I thought the special effects were well designed for the time that is was made (1989) and it seemed visually believable. But I feel that many movies today that use special effects don't go for as much depth anymore and more for how it looks. Designers before the digital age such as Kubrick were forced to use their artistic abilities and skills with amazing results.
Sheri Marcotti

I find your post very interesting. I have always liked Kubrick but I never knew he was keen on typography... Anyway I think he has a special gift of feeling the beauty of this world and expressing it in his movies.
Jane, designer

Great post.... Kubrick may have been a bit off in terms of date in his film, obviously, but much has been accomplished in accordance to the plot.... and his and Spielberg's baby A.I. demonstrates the same... where the developments of gadgets and machinery become the main players in our world (a la HAL). We've got our lives stored on computers and the 'net, we've got astronauts who aren't "gee whiz!" heroes with guns that shoot lasers that you can for some reason see in space but are methodical, well-trained professionals, we've got omnipresent computers, i.e. cell phones, laptops, notebooks, digital equivalents of little black books that contain so much of our identities... although HAL was omnipresent in his myriad functions and his enormousness (the only thing Kubrick and his scientists didn't account for for the future was miniturization), we've made up for it in portability, having hundreds of tiny computers performing different tasks. It's literally the rise of the machines.

In terms of product placement, maybe he just had a certain clairvoyance about how films would be by the time 2001 rolled around... chock-full of strategic but blatant sponsorship and placement that intend on making you want to flee the theatre to buy a new Mac, drink a case of Coke, talk on your Nokia cell phone, etc... someday, it will indeed be "This interplanetary flight is brought to you by...."

There is a touch of irony, as well, that one of the finest movies about a future that is controlled by computers has little or no computer aid in its creation.... no CGI's in 1968. Hard to imagine a time when creativity was all imagination and hands on execution, with no digital aid.
Ryan Williams

This is largely irrelevant to the discussion but re:Michael's comment about the "best jump cut in the history of cinema" it's worth remembering that Michael Powell got there first in the WWII film Canterbury Tale in which a bird of prey becomes a Spitfire fighter
Teddy Jamieson

The best scene in 2001 is the one where David Bowman is forced to enter the Discovery through the emergency airlock with no helmet. The camera is located in the airlock, looking at Dave's space pod. There is utter silence for almost 30 seconds, and everything is still. Then WHOOOOOSSHHHH, Dave opens the hatch on his pod and gets blasted into the vacuum.

You are all missing the greatest part about the bone-to-space-station transition. At the end, the Space Baby, David Bowman, is floating above earth in the same position as the space station. So it's really a bone-to-space-station-to-SpaceBaby transition. Dave Bowman has become a being of pure energy, a "spirit" of sorts. They (the monoliths) have turned him into an inconceivable tool.
Frank Poole

it's true, "this" kubrick was brilliant in envisioning future images as well as in depicting past ones (the primitive landscapes so abstract and silent, so wonderfully in their stillness, light and colours).

i think the film is a masterpiece, and im amazed of his premonition on future devices, design events and , it's great to be the witness of such a genius artist.

i also think other two brilliant visioners were George Orwell with his futuristic book about a totalitarian society "1984" and Aldous Huxley with "Brave New World", depicting a perfect world, emotionless in which babies are artificially born.

ioana ienciu

I for one hope the future doesn't look like "The Future"; I hope it looks like the distant past.

I am not alone when I say that I find prolonged exposure to modern, man-made environments to be hateful to my animal senses; its smells and sounds, harsh lighting, relentless right angles and inharmonious colors all conspire to make one's forehead to throb like a frog's throat. I propose that the crude, angular "junkscape" vision of the future which now prevails is but an awkward stage in our development, and shall give way to a future that is not built, but grown. Think of the translucent light, clean air and dispersed sound such wonders would bring! We shall abandon the use of nuts and bolts for seeds and soil, employing the infinitely complex processes of Nature: imagine a city comprised of giant, sentient fungi! Three-bedroom orchids! Pitcher plant elevators! Laptop computers grown from Venus Flytraps!

I look forward to the distant future when our great-great grandchildren shall fly to the Moon in giant walnuts powered by xylem-phloem engines, and say upon arrival, "Nairobi, this is Whimsy Base: the Cashew has landed!"
Allen Crawford

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