Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Gotham, Mon Amour

I don’t know about you, but everywhere I look nowadays I see Gotham. I mean everywhere. Then again, you might not be quite the front nerd I shamelessly am. People who can’t tell Gotham from Helvetica from Futura from (ick) Arial probably have no physical reaction to the name Hoefler & Frere-Jones, the foundry which produced and owns it. It gives people like me what J-Lo calls “goosies.”

You can, however, conjure Gotham up in your mind’s eye if you cast it back to 2008, where it made its cheeky mass-audience debut as the font of Obama’s presidential campaign, through which it suggested a no-nonsense straight-forward New-Yorkish kind of brash confidence. It won the race out of the gate as far as campaign graphics went — and probably had a hand in leveraging votes subconsciously too. Yeah — I’m one of those people who credit typefaces with delivering as much of the message as the words themselves.

Taking its inspiration from New York public building signage and its name from the city too, suggesting a place ruled by a cast of characters — cartoon ones, rather than letter ones. Batman lives in Gotham City, a nickname for New York that long preceded him.

Gotham also draws attention to its most charmingly distinctive feature: the uppercase G. It is a thing of beauty and balance, resting on the baseline snugly yet comfortably on the apex of its bowl. The impression it gives is that it descends every so slightly beyond the baseline, as if it pulled down by its own weight, and appears ready to rock gently back and forth if pushed. The body — the bit that pokes up and around that the C does not have — juts out a little, and is cut square, making a collection of 90 degree angles; the G is all business and city grid in the east and all curves and Pacific Coast Highway in the west. It takes us from the top on in New York, around to Los Angeles via the rust belt, then swings back down through the deep south until it buts up against the Carolinas, rising north to once again point west, right on through the Mason-Dixon line. The Gotham G is as American as apple pie.

The J, too, is lovely to behold, the end of its tail lowered slightly so that meets the 45-degree angle squarely, as if one launch a snowboard off the tip without coming a-cropper. The S is a neat spool of spaghetti on a plate, waiting to be swirled around a fork, and shows off the typeface’s even weight. Subtlety is what font nerds live for, and Gotham has it in all the right places. The lower bowl of the S overshoots the plane of the top one just a fraction, something that is almost invisible to the eye yet allows it to sit on the baseline without tipping over. The same is true of the medial bars in the capital E and F, which at first glance look to be equal to their counterparts above, yet are just a tad shorter. 

I love that Gotham was a commissioned typeface — GQ wanted something new and masculine — but am not so happy with the special face they have designed especially for Obama’s 2012 campaign, which has serifs — chunky, slabby ones. The serif seems to go against everything Gotham is about, making it cluttered and old-fashioned. The headline, “Can We Add Serifs To Gotham? — For The President Of The United States? Yes We Can” begs the retort, you shouldn’t always do a thing just because you can. One thing the Obama paraphernalia highlights, however, is just how well Gotham can be kerned; the logogram “BARACKOBAMA.COM” looks stunning in any weight. Perhaps he lucked out with that particular arrangement of letters.

What are the tell-tale signs you’ve spotted the brash new kid on the block? I always look for the uppercase M, whose inner stems reach a sharp point somewhat above the baseline (whereas the uppercase W is squared off all the way at the top), and the uppercase G, with its squared tongue. And I ask myself, would it look out of place in GQ? And then I ask myself, do I love it? And if the answer’s yes, I know I <3 NY. 

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