RW2 Designs

Blog

The Many Typefaces of Michael Jackson

Last year, I did some research for a Michael Jackson project that I’m aiming to complete this year and just now have tentatively finished that grunt work. Michael delivered wildly iconic and successful looks over the course of his career (with the help of others of course), and Nancy Donald, Sony’s senior art director, contributed greatly to the cause: She was part of a team that gave each project a definitively distinct look and making it so that each copy of each album he released on the Epic/Sony label was worth obtaining.

I’ve been working on identifying and collecting each typeface that has been used on Michael’s albums from Off The Wall to Invincible, and possibly beyond. I’ve searched the internet, scoured over lots of photos, and compared original issues to special editions to find all of them and put them in a place where other fans can benefit, if they so choose to create a MJ-inspired project like I’m doing. Through the couple of MJ message boards I’ve seen, I haven’t seen anyone properly catalog these typefaces, so I’m just doing a community service. If I was them, I’d want something like this to exist. And if you see anything that needs correcting and/or updating, please don’t hesitate to contact me and let me know so I can keep this as up to date as possible.

Off The Wall

Original Release: ???, ??? / Special Edition Release: Trade Gothic Bold Condensed No. 20 Oblique, Helvetica Pro Light

Although this is the first album listed, this one took the most time before I gave up on it.  I looked at all the serifs on Myfonts.com, and the closest I could get for the body typeface was either Hoefler Text, Janson Text, or some kind of Garamond. The red titling wasn’t as apparent either, or either it hadn’t been digitized for webfont use, so that search proved fruitless as well.

The special edition’s typeface was easy to identify, and once I saw the titling of the old cover, I understood why the oblique Trade Gothic was used, to mimic what was on the original issue. Inside the booklet, the lyrics are set in a light Helvetica, with the tracking pulled tight.

While in the record store, I came across a different version of Off The Wall, and noticed the letterforms were similar, but different – note the “W” in Working Day and Night. It has 4 ending terminals instead of the 3 ending terminals on the original release.

 Thriller

Original Release: Futura Oblique / Special Edition Release: FreshScript, Futura

This was easy to figure out, with a twist. Obviously the same family – Futura – was used in both releases, but the new title treatment gave me a challenge. When you compare the new titles against the font you’d think was correct, you would initially be correct in thinking that the font is Rage Italic.

But wait!

A closer look at the font reveals that some of the characters in the titles actually belong to FreshScript, with some wild switching of letters and numbers. If you’re working in print, that’s somewhat acceptable if certain characters won’t read as smoothly as others, but if you’re working on the web like I am, then Rage Italic is the way to go – yes, you aren’t afforded that flexibility, but the quality is higher in my opinion: look at the uppercase “A”, “F”, and lowercase “y” and “z”, for example. Here is a Quora page that discusses the differences between the Futuras you might find on MyFonts, which is why I linked to two different versions. For my project, I’m using the Bitstream version for the reason listed within the Quora page, although it doesn’t have the original oblique in it.

Bad

Original Release: Haettenschweiler, Helvetica Inserat, Helvetica Light Condensed / Special Edition Release: Haettenschweiler, Helvetica ExtraCompressed, Helvetica Light Condensed

The name Michael Jackson on the front and back covers of the Bad album is set in Haettenschweiler, although it appears otherwise. As I was writing this post, I wanted to say it was set in Helvetica ExtraCompressed, but then I saw the difference between them in the vertical height of the characters, and more telling, in the uppercase “K”: the joint in Haettenschweiler’s was more identical to the cover’s than Helvetica’s was, and once I transformed the text – the secret – it was revealed to me in plain sight.

The song listing on the back cover of the original release is in Helvetica Inserat, and the body copy is in the light weight. For the special edition release, it seems they made the typeface choice a little bit more concise, keeping the body copy and front cover picks the same, but using the ExtraCompressed weight in the regular Helvetica font. For the Bad25 release, the tracklisting is in the Compressed weight.

Bonus! The iconic red “Bad” lettering was designed by Jeffrey Spear.

  • http://www.mjffc.org.uk/ Steven MJFFC

    Wow this is brilliant. As a designer and MJ fan myself, this is such a brilliant article on MJ font usage! Thank you for investigating and posting. I got here from The MJ Cast.

  • Kerry Hennigan

    Glad to see my favourite album (Blood on the Dance Floor) included! Good job with this Randall!

  • Rob Wilson

    the front BOTDF MJ font is Lightline Gothic Std