The first thing you notice about the SR-71 is the blackness of it. And then its shape, like a rip on the sky, as if it’s pushing through from another world. It looks fearsome, but it’s really nothing more than a flying camera, albeit one that could photograph your license plate from the edge of space at 2,000 miles per hour. It has no offensive capability because it can outpace and out climb anything that would come after it. So it’s an impressive feat of engineering, and even more impressive that it comes from the late 1960s, this thing that looks like it’s touched down from an entirely different era.
The success of its design is rooted in the purpose for which it was devised (to be the fastest aircraft ever built) and the process by which it came into the world could best be described as obsessive and complicated. Being made almost entirely of titanium to withstand the extreme temperatures of Mach speed, it broke every item of machinery employed to build it, so every piece was made by hand. They had to invent new fuel and lubricants, and build a new runway, all in total secrecy. The pilots (who had to be a precise height and weight) needed to wear space suits. This single-minded pursuit of the design goal necessarily meant pushing the envelope every step of the way and overcoming obstacles that, in this day and age, would simply be project-managed out in the early stages. The result was something fabulous and awe inspiring – even by today’s standards.
In 1967, at about the same time the SR-71 was flying its first missions over North Vietnam, a typeface was released by Dutch designer Wim Crouwel called New Alphabet. Like the Blackbird, it looked like an artefact out of time, at odds with the style of its age. It was conceived as a personal experiment to explore the limitations of the newly-emerging screen technology of the time. Its strictly right-angled structure (with just a pinch of stress in the corners) was, although industrial in appearance (bringing to mind girders bent into shape), designed to compensate for the lack of curvilinear detail afforded by early cathode ray tube monitors. Ironically, something so futuristic in appearance was designed with fairly primitive technology in mind. Today it wouldn’t look out of place in a type designer’s portfolio, and even when it was used on Joy Division’s Substance in 1988 it looked ahead of its time.
In the end though, both endeavours had their day. New Alphabet was never meant to be a commercial typeface (Wim himself described it as ‘unreadable’) and the SR-71 was finally retired in 1998. What they both proved is that by pushing the boundaries and looking beyond your immediate horizon, you can produce something truly progressive, exciting and enduring.