One of 25 installments in a series of posts analyzing and celebrating a few of our favorite (and least favorite) typefaces.
GOTHAM | TOBIAS FRERE-JONES | 2000
Sans-serif type generates a lot of passion among graphic designers. While serif faces are defined by ornamentation, sans-serifs are specifically defined by what they are not. They aren’t serifed. They aren’t rooted in traditional ideas of lettering and calligraphic flourish. They are exercises in minimalism with nuanced turns and terminals. At its most histrionic, a sans face might have a lone bar (or “ear”) protruding from the lowercase “g” or a particularly unconventional question mark.
The sans as we know it has been around since the very late 18th centrury and the first forms were dubbed “grotesk” or “grotesque,” an appellation which reveals what people popularly thought of this homely new idea in letterforms. But with time many sans-serifs have become associated with major modernist movements in graphic design — most importantly, the 1920s Bauhaus aligning with the Geometric typeface Futura and the 1950s Swiss school with the Neo-Grotesque typeface Helvetica. There have been many hundreds of sans-serif families created, all revolving around this simplified framework and some dozen tend to be the same ones favorited by any given typesetter.
Very few faces become so ubiquitous as to define an era. Gotham is defining ours now. The most remarkable, flexible sans-serif family to be released in at least a generation, it has never aimed to align with lofty ideas. Although nostalgic, it is a sans-serif free of historical baggage. First appearing on newsstands as a commissioned font for Esquire magazine, it was introduced with A-list celebrity. It was later influential to the election of Barack Obama as the official typeface in his 2008 run (most notably set in blue at the bottom of Shepard Fairey’s “HOPE” poster), then reborn in a slab-serif for the 2012 election. And currently it feeds your Twitter page. You see it every time you watch a movie trailer.
With its variety of weights and families Gotham is practically peerless. Notably, it has narrower widths that allow for better legibility when set as text, taking it out of the realm of headline-only typefaces. (See Paul Rand’s “dogshit” comment about Helvetica care of Kyle Cooper.) It has a powerful presence yet it is approachable and even friendly, sharing similar roots to Futura. It manages the Futurists’ love of assertiveness and yet, too, the humanity of faces like Gill Sans without the bogus compromise of Humanism. (A typeset sans is not the domain of the calligraphic, for god’s sake.)
Certainly Gotham is overused and now inescapable but that only speaks to the rarity and strength of its character. Gotham’s creator, Tobias Frere-Jones, is an avatar of the creative type who blindly follows his muse; he will forever be tied to this accomplishment. His sad story of falling out with his longtime business partner only underscores the contemporary resonance of Gotham: These are grotesque times.
2014: KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (typefaces): Matthew Battles on ALDINE ITALIC | Adam McGovern on DATA 70 | Sherri Wasserman on TORONTO SUBWAY | Sarah Werner on JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | Douglas Wolk on TODD KLONE | Mark Kingwell on GILL SANS | Joe Alterio on AKZIDENZ-GROTESK | Suzanne Fischer on CALIFORNIA BRAILLE | Gary Panter on SHE’S NOT THERE | Deb Chachra on FAUX DEVANAGARI | Peggy Nelson on FUTURA | Tom Nealon on JENSON’S ROMAN | Rob Walker on SAVANNAH SIGN | Tony Leone on TRADE GOTHIC BOLD CONDENSED NO. 20 | Chika Azuma on KUMON WORKSHEET | Chris Spurgeon on ELECTRONIC DISPLAY | Amanda French on DIPLOMA REGULAR | Steve Price on SCREAM QUEEN | Alissa Walker on CHICAGO | Helene Silverman on CHINESE SHIPPING BOX | Tim Spencer on SHATTER | Jessamyn West on COMIC SANS | Whitney Trettien on WILKINS’S REAL CHARACTER | Cintra Wilson on HERMÈS vs. HOTDOG | Jacob Covey on GOTHAM.
2013: HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (old-school hip hop tracks): Luc Sante on “Spoonin’ Rap” | Dallas Penn on “Rapper’s Delight” | Werner Von Wallenrod on “Rappin’ Blow” | DJ Frane on “The Incredible Fulk” | Paul Devlin on “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | Phil Dyess-Nugent on “That’s the Joint” | Adam McGovern on “Freedom” | David Abrams on “Rapture” | Andrew Hultkrans on “The New Rap Language” | Tim Carmody on “Jazzy Sensation (Bronx Version)” | Drew Huge on “Can I Get a Soul Clap” | Oliver Wang on “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” | Douglas Wolk on “Making Cash Money” | Adrienne Crew on “The Message” | Dart Adams on “Pak Jam” | Alex Belth on “Buffalo Gals” | Joshua Glenn on “Ya Mama” | Phil Freeman on “No Sell Out” | Nate Patrin on “Death Mix Live, Pt. 2” | Brian Berger on “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” | Cosmo Baker on “Here We Go (Live at the Funhouse)” | Colleen Werthmann on “Rockit” | Roy Christopher on “The Coldest Rap” | Dan Reines on “The Dream Team is in the House” | Franklin Bruno on The Lockers.
2012: KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Captain Kirk scenes): Dafna Pleban: Justice or vengeance? | Mark Kingwell : Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | Nick Abadzis: “KHAAAAAN!” | Stephen Burt: “No kill I” | Greg Rowland: Kirk browbeats NOMAD | Zack Handlen: Kirk’s eulogy for Spock| Peggy Nelson: The joke is on Kirk | Kevin Church: Kirk vs. Decker | Enrique Ramirez: Good Kirk vs. Evil Kirk | Adam McGovern: Captain Camelot | Flourish Klink: Koon-ut-kal-if-fee | David Smay: Federation exceptionalism | Amanda LaPergola: Wizard fight | Steve Schneider: A million things you can’t have | Joshua Glenn: Debating in a vacuum | Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons: Klingon diplomacy | Trav S.D.: “We… the PEOPLE” | Matthew Battles: Brinksmanship on the brink | Annie Nocenti: Captain Smirk | Ian W. Hill: Sisko meets Kirk | Gabby Nicasio: Noninterference policy | Peter Bebergal: Kirk’s countdown | Matt Glaser: Kirk’s ghost | Joe Alterio: Watching Kirk vs. Gorn | Annalee Newitz: How Spock wins
2011: KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Jack Kirby panels): Douglas Rushkoff on THE ETERNALS | John Hilgart on BLACK MAGIC | Gary Panter on DEMON | Dan Nadel on OMAC | Deb Chachra on CAPTAIN AMERICA | Mark Frauenfelder on KAMANDI | Jason Grote on MACHINE MAN | Ben Greenman on SANDMAN | Annie Nocenti on THE X-MEN | Greg Rowland on THE FANTASTIC FOUR | Joshua Glenn on TALES TO ASTONISH | Lynn Peril on YOUNG LOVE | Jim Shepard on STRANGE TALES | David Smay on MISTER MIRACLE | Joe Alterio on BLACK PANTHER | Sean Howe on THOR | Mark Newgarden on JIMMY OLSEN | Dean Haspiel on DEVIL DINOSAUR | Matthew Specktor on THE AVENGERS | Terese Svoboda on TALES OF SUSPENSE | Matthew Wells on THE NEW GODS | Toni Schlesinger on REAL CLUE | Josh Kramer on THE FOREVER PEOPLE | Glen David Gold on JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY | Douglas Wolk on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY | MORE EXEGETICAL COMMENTARIES: Joshua Glenn on Kirby’s Radium Age Sci-Fi Influences | Chris Lanier on Kirby vs. Kubrick | Scott Edelman recalls when the FF walked among us | Adam McGovern is haunted by a panel from THE NEW GODS | Matt Seneca studies the sensuality of Kirby’s women | Btoom! Rob Steibel settles the Jack Kirby vs. Stan Lee question | Galactus Lives! Rob Steibel analyzes a single Kirby panel in six posts | Danny Fingeroth figgers out The Thing | Adam McGovern on four decades (so far) of Kirby’s “Fourth World” mythos | Jack Kirby: Anti-Fascist Pipe Smoker