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042: Gotham: An Incomplete History of Type



Name: Gotham

Release Date: 2000

Designers: Tobias Frere-Jones

Classification: Geometric sans serif

Owned By: Hoefler&Co.

Claim to Fame: The typeface that unified Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.


The typeface has been described as “contemporary yet distinctly familiar”. It was inspired by architectural signage from the mid-20th Century and it was the face of Obama’s highly successful presidential campaigns that helped unify his messaging across a variety of platforms and mediums, cohesively connecting communication and a nation. Today’s episode is all about Gotham.


The Gotham family is large with 66 versions, ranging from Gotham Condensed Thin to Gotham Ultra, with 64 varying widths, weights and styles in between. This typeface is characterized by its broad design, high x-height and wide apertures, which contribute to a high degree of legibility and readability. Although it’s a geometric sans-serif typeface, it doesn’t look like Futura and has lots of humanist influence. The typeface originated as a commission from GQ magazine. The brief stated that they wanted a sans-serif, geometric, masculine, new and versatile typeface, conveying both a fresh and established sentiment.


Gotham owner, type foundry Hoefler&Co., describes the face this way: “Every designer has admired the no-nonsense lettering of the American vernacular, those letters of paint, plaster, neon, glass and steel that figure so prominently in the urban landscape. From these humble beginnings came Gotham, a hard-working typeface for the ages.”


It has strong roots to New York City. Inspiration was drawn from walking around New York City and taking in the classic typography seemingly everywhere. It was one building in particular that directly inspired Gotham: The Port Authority Bus Terminal signage. Co-designer, Tobias Frere-Jones, has said: "I suppose there's a hidden personal agenda in the design… to preserve those old pieces of New York that could be wiped out before they're appreciated. Having grown up here, I was always fond of the 'old' New York and its lettering." In fact, type geeks call New York City ‘Gotham City’ because of its strong roots and connection with what it represents and where it was designed, with no connection to Batman. The typeface is even featured at MoMA (The Museum of Modern Art)


Streaming giant, Netflix, used the typeface up until 2018, when in an effort to reduce its font licensing costs, they created their own custom typeface: Netflix Sans. According to thenextweb.com, Netflix was paying literally millions of dollars each year to license the typeface at such a scale. So they created their own using the talents of an in-house design team at Netflix, in collaboration with Dalton Maag font foundry. Netflix’s brand design lead, Noah Nathan, explained that creating their own typeface provided an opportunity to add an ownable piece that contributes positively to their brand aesthetic. He also noted that many foundries are moving towards an impression-based licensing model for their typefaces in digital spaces. This is similar to pay-per-click advertising that the giants Google and Facebook have pioneered. For example, one of the world’s largest font foundries, Linotype, offers digital font licencing packages for 1, 4, or 10 million ad impressions. In the world of big data and trackable click counts this allows foundries to make extra money when the companies licencing their fonts are (presumably) making more money, while saving companies money whose impressions aren’t as high.


Perhaps you already know that typefaces have personality, but did you know that typefaces have political leanings?


In a 2020 article for The Conversation entitled Typefaces have personality - and can be political, describes the ways in which research demonstrates that typefaces do, in fact, influence the way we think about politics and political candidates. Assistant Professors of Communication from Virginia Tech, Daniel Tamul and Katherine Haenschen, conducted a study where they showed a person’s name written in a variety of different typefaces. Participants were then asked to rate how conservative or liberal the typeface or the person was. They found that serif faces were rated as more conservative and sans serif more liberal. While these findings aren’t revolutionary (it makes sense that typefaces that look more traditional align with more traditional viewpoints), what I think is more interesting is that the study found that people rated the typefaces they liked as being more aligned with their own political ideologies. Typefaces, in conjunction with other design decisions, can be used to help politicians shape how people will perceive an individual and their message.


Gotham Bold was the typeface of choice for Obama’s presidential campaign. Typography and branding was a major part of Obama’s campaign. Frere-Jones had this to say about presidential election campaign branding and design: “In the past, campaigns would have one logo, and then choose a number of typefaces to go with the advertisements and the banners and the website. But the Obama campaign put the same discipline into planning its look that would go into a big corporate identity. The campaign looked the same on election day as it did eighteen months before at the caucuses.”


The International Herald Tribune, felt that the adoption of the Gotham typeface was smart for its "potent, if unspoken, combination of contemporary sophistication (a nod to his suits) with nostalgia for America's past and a sense of duty."


Who knew a typeface could say so much?! A sense of trustworthiness and getting to the point pours out from each letter of Gotham. Imagine if Obama’s campaign materials were in Comic Sans or Papyrus. How would the message have changed? A poorly chosen typeface is a double whammy of a hit: 1) when the style of the letterforms don’t match the message it distracts from the message, and 2) certain typefaces (especially popular faces that are communally seen as poor choices, like Comic Sans or Papyrus) see viewers questioning the thoughts, actions and choices of what the text represents. In other words, there are individual stylistic opinions judging a typeface choice, as well as what a typeface represents at the societal level. There are subtle and unconscious biases that play into our judgements. The typographical layer underneath everything we see and touch all day long, that’s always around us, communicates subtle, subliminal messages that inform our overall thoughts and judgements.


After Obama took office, so did Gotham. It worked its way into a variety of projects in the White House, most notably the 2010 United States Census. Gotham is also featured on and used in a variety of other branding projects. Jonathan Hoefler, of Hoefler&Co., the New York type foundry that owns the face, said that when Gotham was chosen as the typeface used on the Freedom Tower’s cornerstone of One World Trade Center, he felt like the typeface had really made it.


What’s really special is that Joe Binden & Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign is rooted in two typefaces also designed by Hoefler & Co.: sans serif Decimal (watch the process of designing that typeface unfold in the Netflix Abstract Season 2 documentary) and serif Mercury Text. Here is an incredible PDF document you can check out that details the Biden Harris brand guidelines, including usage of the typefaces, brand colours and logos. The brand colours are particularly interesting, including ‘Joe Navy’, ‘Biden Blue’ and ‘Climate Green’, among others, as well as Jill Biden’s palette that includes ‘Jill Navy’, ‘Lavender’ and ‘Glow Gold’. Kamala Harris’ palette includes ‘True Red’ and ‘Union Blue’, among others. There is a final ‘Truth Over Lies’ palette that has the most creatively named colours of all: ‘Unity Over Division’ (bright red, PMS Warm Red C), ‘Truth Over Lies’ (dark green, PMS 7735 C), ‘Hope Over Fear’ (gold, PMS 124 C) and ‘Science Over Fiction’ (muted mid-range blue, PMS 549 C).


The Decimal typeface is less than a year old but the visual communications managers for the Biden Harris campaign felt that it was able to communicate the core message of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. Words of action in the campaign were set in Decimal’s small caps. Longer explanations of words of action are set in Mercury Text.


While not to give Trump too much additional airtime, a fitting contrast to democratic campaign typography is explained in an article entitled The (unkerned) typeface of Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ campaign slogan for Medium. Author Martin Silvertant brings light to a perfectly fitting (albeit, not actually a perfect fit) campaign slogan that was the backbone of Trumps presidential campaigns: Make America Great Again! Perhaps Trump’s lack of proper kerning (focus on the relatively enormous gaps between the I and C + C and A in AMERICA, as well as between the A and T in Great) pay homage to his huge gaps in logic, in morals, in decency. For this reason, I think Trump and his bad typography deserve one another.


To finish up this exploration of Gotham, an incredible typographic perfect storm happened in September 2007: soon-to-be president Obama appeared on the cover of GQ Magazine. It was the perfect unity: the typeface, the magazine it was designed for and the soon-to-be 44th President of the United States who would go on to win the presidency, in part because of great typography. Barack and his team have got great taste.


Finally, In a news release on Hoefler&Co.’s website from January 20, 2017, Jonathan Hoefler revealed that Hoefler&Co.’s long-held relationship with the former first family would continue: “We at Hoefler&Co have had the extraordinary privilege of seeing our typefaces accompany the Obamas on every step of their journey. A typographic chronology appears below, beginning with the moment in 2007 that Congressman Barack Obama announced his campaign for the presidency, with the call for change that resonated so powerfully with the American people… It is therefore especially meaningful to me that our typefaces will continue with the Obamas. The Office of Barack and Michelle Obama, its website designed by Blue State Digital and premiering this morning, will be the first organization to use a new H&Co typeface named Ringside, which will launch later this week. Ringside is our most ambitious typeface to date, our largest and most inclusive family ever, reflecting the handiwork of the entire type design team at Hoefler&Co. I could not be more proud to see it debut here.”


And if you’re really feeling like channeling the 44th President of the United States, you can now buy the Barack Obama Hand Lettering typeface. The font’s creator promises a 70% match to Barack Obama handwriting.


Thank you, Mr. Frere-Jones, for your important contributions to an incomplete history of type. From the middle ages to the Middle East, from Futura to Freight, thanks for joining us on a journey across the type universe and going where no designer has gone before… next up: feel the weight of FREIGHT.


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