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Commentary

Trajan: the Fallback Font for Lazy Movie Marketers

Stephen Coles on December 13, 2007

You don’t have to be a complete font freak like myself to observe that Trajan is the go-to typeface for promoting new movies. Carol Twombly’s digitization of the classic Roman inscriptional lettering is seen on countless posters, billboards and ads — usually for those films in the dramatic blockbuster category. The phenomenon is documented in a Flickr group, satirized in a epic (by internet standards) video by Cheshire Dave (of “Behind the Typeface” fame), and now mocked by Kirby Ferguson of Goodie Bag. Ferguson riffs on various topics of the day in a short zefrank-style monologue spliced with amusing imagery and acerbic tangents, and this time his target is Trajan.

Ferguson also keenly observed (as did J. Tyler Helms in August) that there is one other default movie poster type style: the extra bold sans serifs of blockbuster comedy, always in red.

Once in a long while, a blockbuster marketing team branches away from Trajan. The “Da Vinci Code” people employed the underused Penumbra, but I suppose that wasn’t branching too far.

See also: FontShop’s list of Trajan alternatives.

20 Comments

  1. Yeah, but then in return they made an awful movie. The Trajan thing, though, is quite annoying.

  2. Ivo says:

    Really nice video. I like this guy.

  3. No forgetting yer poor old Inserat style typefaces, beaten into submission by the many layers of photoshoped ‘grunge’ effects in the name of teen horror movies and the mainstream genre that’s come to be known as ‘torture porn’. Yikes!

  4. sandro lopes says:

    Ok, I admit it. I’m also a font freak because I need to ID every font of everything that is written. Anyhow, I did notice that phenomenon for quite a while (years). “The Last Samurai” for instance — the Trajan writing has nothing to do with Japanese style of written expression. Pity.

  5. Peter says:

    Ouch! My employer’s logo is done in Trajan and I did my best to fresh’n up their corporate documents with Penumbra Half-serif, which looks much more modern than the full serif version. So this post is aimed straight at me. Perhaps, as a partial defence, I would note that Trajan is a venerable typeface drawn from ancient engravings that brings a certain gravitas that is (almost literally) as old as the popularization of the Roman alphabet. Also, the Penumbra Sans does look quite modern looking and there is much you can do with that and the Half-serif version.

    Cheers, Peter.

  6. nick shinn says:

    People who live in Helvetica houses…

  7. Sam says:

    Alumni of The University of Kansas are annoyed by Trajan as well.

  8. julianpang says:

    We’ve done some film posters from our local distributors (Melbourne, Australia) and haven’t used Trajan in any. However, we have worked on some posters where we had no control over the TT (that is “title treatment” for those who don’t know) because the distributor has ‘locked-in’ the concept with their inhouse design dept. And yeah, a lot of Trajan there. It’s the movie marketer’s equivalent of an executive’s trendy yellow and pink necktie – they all have one.

  9. Chris Lozos says:

    About time someone started the Trajan War, the face that launched 1,000 clips!

  10. J says:

    I assure you Helms was not the only one, or the first, to note that red Flyer means “this movie sucks” (and also, often, “this movie insults blacks”). You might want to Google.

  11. Andrew A. Gill says:

    Gee, Nick Shinn bashing Helvetica.

    What are the odds?

    Actually probably about as good as the odds on me bashing Helvetica.

    Yeah, I was digging the clip until he used Helvetica for the credits. The most horrendously overused typeface ever.

    That said, Trajan is actually really, really nice. Which makes it painful to see it overused and used improperly.

    “I Am Legend” should have used Optima, another inscription letter which looks better for graves.

  12. Interesting to note is the fact that The Matrix uses Times Roman of all fonts. Yet another proof that the movie was a significant departure from the norm.

  13. Kamron Rudisill says:

    This video was absolutely great. Thanks for posting it.

    Gill: I totally agree with your suggestion for Optima – it’s far more appropriate and smarter.

    I wonder though why there is so much uninspired design in film. I think most of the stuff coming out though is from one place, BLT. Strangely though they did do some of the direction for ‘Grindhouse’ which I absolutely loved. I wish all movies could have such exciting design.

  14. Chris says:

    I would rather see Trajan being overused than Comic Sans :P

  15. Seb says:

    As much as I agree with the ubiquity and overuse of this font, it’s not really up to the designers. The people that do these posters are contracted by the various studios, and are forced into use fonts that the studios own FULL licenses too. So, for example, if Universal Studio wanted me to do a poster, I would need to use a font from their library that is already licensed for the MILLIONS of things it will be printed on. ie. Posters, mugs, t-shirts, DVDs, soundtrack art, flyers for passes, subway posters, newspapers ads, ETC. The studio can probably AFFORD to re-license a brand new font, but i’m sure they are just cheap and would like to save the hundreds of thousands of dollars it would cost them to do so. That’s a big budget-eater even if your film’s budget is 4 million dollars. Spending a significant fraction of your budget on FONT LICENSING seems ridiculous when you already have a font that you already own the license for. (ie. Trajan)

    We just licensed a font for a brand new newspaper that will use it as its main headline font, and it is costing the newspaper 110,000USD for a 2 year license to use it wherever they want. That’s just one newspaper! Now imagine Universal Studios, releasing a NUMBER OF FILMS every year, and needing a font license for open printable access, for EVERY merchadizable item?? It’ll cost millions.

    The bottom line is, no one is really at fault here, and it just sucks that this is how it has to be.

  16. Darren Scott says:

    Did someone say Optima!!!
    Most awful typeface ever, has no redeeming qualities what so ever!! And Comic Sans is the Devil!!!!!!

    Trajan is a masterpiece, as is Helvetica, sadly both are over used, and usually badly used too.

  17. Andrew A. Gill says:

    I never said I particularly liked Optima, just that it would have been a better choice for the titles than Trajan.

  18. Gary Irving says:

    I love Trajan. But agree it is overused. Now Helvetica, gosh I hate that font. They should rename it “Stepford”! Nice and polite with no apparent personality.

    My all time favorite is Venetian (Centaur) — elegant with crisp serifs. Articulate. Black Tie. Anti Suburban. Anti Grunge.

  19. bostjan says:

    Great comment! But please, America, learn some latin. This Marcus figure would never have known you are reffering to him (or the typeface bearing his name for that matter) if he saw your movie. Check the web. Its something like tray-juhn.
    b

  20. Pete says:

    Seb, do you work for a movie house by chance?

    What do you suggest they spend that money they saved on font procurement?

    Multi-millions on distilled water for J-Lo to sip in her trailer?

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Typographica is a review of typefaces and type books, with occasional commentary on fonts and typographic design. Edited by Stephen Coles and designed by Chris Hamamoto. Founded in 2002 by Joshua Lurie-Terrell. Relaunched in 2009 by Coles and Hamamoto.

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