Does Gotham Bark?

10 August 2009

I often protest the ubiquity of Gotham, the beautiful typeface from the foundry Hoefler & Frere-Jones. Gotham's attained tremendous success--and rightly so. Since it became the principle typeface of Barack Obama's presidential campaign, however, it's use has really exploded, from Media Matters to the National Rifle Association, in the ads of Pepsi and the packaging of Coke. Starbucks even picked it up.

I think this is a terrible development.

I was discussing this with a friend the other day, and she didn't quite see what I was complaining about:

—"I object to the overuse of particular fonts," I said, "mostly because I think fonts carry real meaning, and if you start just using one for everything then I'm not sure it means much of anything anymore."

—"What you're saying," she countered, "is that, if something says 'dog,' the font has bark. The typeface has to conform to the mood. I don't think that's necessary."

—"No, I'd say it's more I think the font should be capable of barking (or not barking) at all."

—"I can make Gotham bark for you."

And she submitted this snarling example of Gotham's barkability:
Dog in Gotham

Much gnashing of teeth there.

But what's going on here? Is Gotham really barking? Or is it just the dog?

I think it's a great deal trickier. Gotham is a refined, clean, stripped down font; a warmer geometric with subtle concessions to humanist forms, along the lines of Avenir. It's orderly, restrained, not quite corporate but never unruly. It's just not the barking sort. The dog here, straining its lead and snapping, is barking through Gotham. It's caged by the restraint of the letterforms. That the font does not bark itself makes a statement. It changes the photograph completely.

This is what I mean about wanting typefaces to be capable of barking. A font has to have its own identity for its use to have any effect--as it undoubtedly does in her example. And, indeed, this is obvious. If we could mold every face to any purpose, make it say anything we wanted, then there would be little purpose in choosing one over another. A designer might as well choose at random and then mold the font to their needs. But that's not what we do--and with good reason.

I mentioned, a bit later in our conversation, Times New Roman, a font which through years of abuse has come to symbolize one thing above all else: Microsoft Word. Since it became the default text face in Windows, its statement about the typographer (or, rather, lack thereof) has come virtually to drown out any voice it might have of its own.

Much the same fate has befallen Trajan, which has found use in such a mind-bogglingly wide variety of movie posters and book covers that it now recalls those more than it does the Roman inscriptions from which it is derived, and in movie posters signifies nothing beyond another bland, establishment-endorsed film.

So I'd say Gotham is a font to avoid--not only to help rescue it from such a fate, but you risk having your own message suppressed as the font descends into incoherence. At this moment, the font is in such heavy use as to be a default for any brand wanting a refresh, without regard to the subject at hand. It risks looking more careless than elegant--unless it's used with extraordinary care. And for heaven's sakes, don't bother with it in branding or advertising. Even when it's done very well, it still looks a bit generic.

Above all, I hope Gotham can go on not barking.