The new Helvetica

Gotham sample

During the 2008 presidential campaign Barack Obama and his supporters spoke of “hope” and “change,” slogans so inspiring at the time that they necessitated a typeface just as honest as the message. There was only one clear choice. A typeface that, like the Obama campaign, represented change we could believe in.

Of all the typefaces released in the last 50 years, few have made the impact that Gotham has, especially in the short time since its release. Gotham is a versatile, geometric sans-serif designed by Tobias Frere-Jones and released by type foundry Hoefler & Frere-Jones in 2000. Inspired by New York architectural mid-twentieth century signage—which also led to naming the typeface after New York’s Batman-inspired nickname—Gotham was initially commissioned by GQ magazine, whose editors were looking for a fresh, masculine look for their publication. And while the magazine almost settled on Futura, they instead turned to Hoefler & Frere-Jones looking for a typeface that, according to Jonathan Hoefler, the other half of H&FJ, “was going to be very fresh and very established to have a credible voice to it.”

In the past, aside from Futura, designers would have also considered favorites Gill Sans or Univers to accomplish GQ‘s goal, and more commonly the world’s most famous typeface, Helvetica. Developed in 1957 by Swiss designer Max Meidinger, Helvetica was designed to adapt to a large variety of uses. So much so that it was subsequently adapted for a number of foreign alphabets, including Chinese and Latin. Since the 1960s Helvetica has been the go-to typeface for corporate logos and especially signage, making it the world’s most widely recognizable font.

It is nearly impossible to escape Helvetica’s domination, and at least one man has tried. In December 2010 New York type designer Cyrus Highsmith attempted to go Helvetica-less for 24 hours. Highsmith set self-prohibitions from buying anything branded with Helvetica or using any type of transportation that uses Helvetica in its signage, the latter of which proved difficult as New York uses Helvetica for the majority of their public transportation branding. He later found that he couldn’t purchase goods of any kind, as all of his credit cards and even the new U.S. currency uses the typeface. He avoided the internet and deleted the typeface from his computer, and after all this still found avoiding Helvetica nearly impossible.

More than 50 years after its release, Helvetica’s widespread use has proved to be too much of a good thing for the design community, and at the beginning of the twenty-first century we began looking for something fresh to fill Helvetica’s run-down shoes.

Luckily, GQ‘s exclusive license expired in 2002 and Gotham was released to the public. It was quickly adopted by many newspapers and advertising campaigns, including Coca-Cola and Netflix. New York institutions Saturday Night Live and the Tribeca Film Festival set their logotypes in Gotham. Even type non-conformist Neville Brody used Gotham in his 2006 redesign of The Times for compressed headlines. Gotham-fever began to spread as rapidly as Obama’s message.

In fact, it was the 2008 presidential elections that solidified Gotham’s title as King Font, being embraced by both the Obama and John Edwards campaign. During the campaign Newsweek’s Andrew Romano commented, “Unlike other sans serif typefaces, it’s not German, it’s not French, it’s not Swiss,” he said. “It’s very American.” And after Edwards bowed out, the persuasive, uncharacteristically American Gotham proved a formidable rival to Hillary Clinton’s New Baskerville and John McCain’s Optima. The Obama campaign identity brought Gotham into the corporate spotlight, and when they later teamed with street artist Shepard Fairey for his initial Hope poster, Gotham instantly became recognizable to the public world-wide. So much so that even those uneducated in design can spot a knock-off version of Fairey’s famous print on sight. The phrases Hope and Change just don’t have the same impact set in Gill Sans.

Romano would go on to note that it was more than just the candidate’s message that swayed voters and launched Obamamania. “It’s the way the campaign has folded the man and the message and the speeches into a systemic branding effort. Reinforced with a coherent, comprehensive program of fonts, logos, slogans and web design, Obama is the first presidential candidate to be marketed like a high-end consumer brand.” And that’s what makes Gotham so versatile. It’s the perfect typeface for creating honesty around a product, and not only in the case of corporate branding campaigns. In the last few years Gotham has replaced Trajan and Gill Sans as the choice font for marketing movies, including three of the last four Clint Eastwood films (Gran Torino, Hereafter, and Invictus) and a number of Academy Award winners. During the 2010 Tonight Show conflict Conan O’Brien fans turned to Fairey’s poster campaign as inspiration, adopting Gotham for their Team Coco branding. Good marketers know a winner when they see it, and the font was eventually adopted for the logo of his new TBS show Conan.

A few of Gotham's popular uses

The many faces of Gotham

Gotham was initially available in more than forty sizes and weights, ranging from Thin to Ultra, and also including a Condensed version. In 2005 Print magazine commissioned a rounded variant. Narrow and Extra Narrow variants were later introduced, bringing Gotham’s total number of styles to 66. In comparison, Futura, Gill Sans, Helvetica, and Univers all have less than 20. Gotham’s clean lines and abundance of variations make it practical for a number of applications, which is well suited for branding. It also pairs well with a number of traditional serif fonts, like Garamond and Caslon, adding to its versatility. On its own, Gotham can be clean and modern, particularly corporate, but when paired with the right serif one can produce some especially beautiful type combinations. My personal favorite, all caps Gotham Medium with ample tracking next to Adobe Garamond Semibold Italic.

Frere-Jones was primarily inspired by signage over the entrance to the New York Port Authority Bus Terminal, originating from the style of 1920s era sans-serifs like Futura. “When we were developing it we realized it could be very contemporary, but also classic and almost severe. In this respect it is at least comparable with Helvetica,” says Frere-Jones. “We wanted to seize the chance to give it that range of voices, so it wasn’t going to be a performer that could only really sing one song.” But H&FJ not only succeeded in developing a typeface that is as versatile and contemporary as Helvetica, the sans-serif that has dominated the printed word since the 1960s, they unleashed a typeface that has thus far defined the first half of the twenty-first century. A distinction that was sealed in 2010 when USA Today named Gotham “font of the decade.” Additionally, Gotham can be viewed on the cornerstone of the Freedom Tower at the World Trade Center site and is currently on display, along with the Obama corporate identity, at the Art Institute of Chicago—two distinctions that few typefaces as young as Gotham can claim.

Designers take notice. Helvetica is out! And in the words of type-author Simon Garfield, “Gotham is go.”

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