Jessica Helfand | Essays

Ask Not What Your Typeface Can Do For You: Ask What You Can Do For Your Typeface

Photo: James Estrin / The New York Times

An article in today's New York Times celebrates the suitably-named Gotham for its presence, etched into a 20-ton slab of Adirondack granite, in the Freedom Tower cornerstone. The choice of a typeface inscribed in stone offers the closest brush with immortality that any of us might dream of: it is a tribute to Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones that their millenial font (initially designed for GQ) was thus selected.

But before we chalk one up for the idea that good design has been publicly recognized, let us acknowledge that over the river in New Jersey. Manhattan-based architect Frederic Schwarz's memorial "Empty Sky" will use Times New Roman as the font of choice for its inscriptions.

Should we care? Or more importantly: should we worry?

Readers eager to understand the difference between Times Roman and Times New Roman would be well-advised to read Charles Bigelow's detailed essay, which clarifies the differences between the font(s) as well as their respective postwar licensing agreements. (The fact that Schwartz chose Monotype's Times New Roman over Linotype's Times Old Roman is a subtle reminder of the ever-ubiquitous reach of Microsoft, one of its licensees.) In his defense, the architect's explanation reinforces familiarity and readability above all: "Individuals' names are within easy reach and engraved deep enough for hand rubbing," notes a spokesperson for Schwartz's office. "The lettering size is three and three-quarter inches high, in Times New Roman, a familiar and easy-to-read typeface."

Today's New York Times article on the virtues of Gotham waxes poetic on the romance of the metropolis and delves into typographic arcana, citing the provenance of the typeface (neon signs, blocky signage) as well as the progenitors of the letterforms themselves. DO's own Michael Bierut is quoted, along with the other Pentagram Michael (Gericke, that is) as are Hoefler and Frere-Jones. Sadly for the New Jersey-bound Mr. Schwarz, Stanley Morison wasn't available for comment. The British designer and former co-editor of The Fleuron died in 1967.

Morison's robust family of newspaper fonts designed in the 1930's for the Times of London reflects the era in which they were produced. Elegant and utilitarian, they were and are particularly suited for reading great quantities of text. That the spirit of Morison's Times would become, over time, dulled by its over-exposure by desktop publishers the world over is unfortunate, its revival across the ocean in a New Jersey-based memorial perhaps even more so. Wasn't there something more appropriate, more distinctive, more — dare I say — American?

In the end, of course, the choice of a typeface — like so many design choices connected to the emotional complexity of a memorial — is a near-impossible task. On this score, both Gotham and New Times Roman will suitably render the names of the victims of 9/11, and will do so with clarity and consistency. Like Maya Lin's Vietnam memorial with which any memorialized list of names is likely to be compared, these metropolitan-area memorials must resolve their approach not only to form but also to typographic identity. And to the degree that design is capable of evocation as much as communication, my vote goes to Gotham.

Posted in: Graphic Design, Social Good, Typography

Comments [27]

I find it difficult to believe that the "choice" of Times New Roman for the New Jersey memorial is a choice at all, but rather a default decision by someone who didn't have the knowledge to consider the matter properly--or actually, at all.

My experience of the Times family predates desktop publishing. We used to use it in typesetting books and I always thought it had a remarkable ability to make the text look boring. My prejudice against it is therefor different from that of most.

It's a pity that those hands will trace what is, imho, such a mundane letterform.

Hooray for Gotham, though--a perfect choice by someone who knew what they were doing.
marian bantjes

The use of Gotham on the Freedom Tower is hardly an accident. In this interview from 2002, Frere-Jones cites the destruction of the World Trade Center as one of the motivations for the design of Gotham, and goes on to predict that the typeface would work its way back into the bedrock of the City. The boldness and accuracy of his claim calls to mind another great New York monument — Joe Namath.

Gotham is an excellent choice and reflects the history of New York in a way that other faces would not. And even better to have been designed by two natives of the city.

Just a minor correction for Dmitri, Gotham was orginally designed in 2000 by request from GQ Magazine. In 2002, it was released for distribution/sale to the general public.

And I have to agree about the choice of New Times Roman. It almost appears that the decisions wasn't based on any kind of design sensibility but because it's 'popular' and people are 'used' to it. Not quite the standards I would use for choosing of font on a memorial of such magnitude. But then again, I'm not an architect. I'll leave it at that.

Rob Bennett

Dmitri, funny you should mention Joe Namath, since Jonathan and Tobias also designed "Jets Bold," a typeface extrapolated from the team's logo that's used widely in print materials and on game day in Giants stadium.
Michael Bierut

I'm happy to see Gotham getting its props in the mainstream press. It's also great to highlight the contrast between its (purposeful, meaningful) use downtown and the (irrelevant, inappropriate) use of Times across the river.

Meanwhile, let's give credit to the elegant and intelligent typography on Lin's Vietnam Memorial. John Benson and John Hegnauer combined hand-carved monumental numerals with the best-looking setting of Optima ever.

The system also denotes the veterans' status: crosses indicate the missing and are expanded to a diamond when they're confirmed dead or encircled with a ring when they're recovered alive. Sadly, this last option was never needed.

I've read discussions about the planned organization of the names in the memorial at Ground Zero. Various groups have been lobbying for differences in how the names are displayed (1993 vs. 2001, police/fire vs. victims, etc).

It's refreshing to remember that on the Vietnam memorial there are no differences. Everyone is equal, subject only to the chronological organization that adds a layer of understanding of the war's escalation and consequences.

Let's hope that the designers of the memorial in New York end up with a similarly inspired system, free of the results of petty bickering and committee-based decision-making. And in any case, it's got to be set in Gotham.
Scott Stowell

Of course, as horrible is Times Roman is, it may unwittingly be an appropriate choice for this New Jersey waterfront monument. Mortality and The Garden State intersect neatly in the person of W. Starling Burgess, a progressive American yacht designer who died in Hoboken in 1947. Burgess is best known for advancing the craft of yacht design -- so sufficiently that he won the America's Cup three times (before its design rules were rewritten to specifically proscribe his improvements.) But Burgess may someday be better known as the inventor of Times Roman.

In 1994, type historian Mike Parker unearthed some compelling (if circumstantial) evidence that Monotype's "Times Roman" owes much to a typeface designed by Burgess, long before Roman Stanley's legendary consultation with The Times of London. The story goes that Burgess created a typeface which the Lanston (American) Monotype Company was contracted to produce, a design which was ultimately dangled before Time Magazine as a possible custom typeface, one to be called, naturally, Time's Roman.

How the Lanston design found its way into British hands remains one of the great mysteries of the Monotype Corporation, an institution which guards its secrets with a zeal befitting the pharaohs. Tobias knows the story far better than I do, so perhaps I can get him to post something about it after he finishes reading his Gotham-related e-mail.
Jonathan Hoefler

Scott's comment above expresses the conventional wisdom about the Vietnam Memorial names, a view I'd always assumed was universal. Then last year, at a WTC Memorial forum, I heard vociferous and angry protests against this "equal treatment" from family and colleagues of dead firefighters. I was shocked that there could be any other view than the prevailing one, than the one that was "intended."

But the aura of intent burns away quickly, leaving only the object or design. Meanwhile, mutable interpretation and reaction will always be there.

While I'm a fan of the Gotham choice, I'm more impressed by the rare restraint--which is more likely an attempt to avoid charges of political opportunism--evinced by leaving Pataki et al's names off the cornerstone.

And hundred years from now, when Times New Roman is a banal relic of our wordprocessing era, it's use for the NJ Memorial could very well be interpreted as a sympathetic nod to the workaday commuter routines that were disrupted.

But what do people - not designers - think about Gotham? Find out here.
[You can either click on the link and see the .mov (1.7Mb) in a new window or save to your desktop and watch as many times as you want]
[That's me in the white shirt, lovely wife in the red cap]
[And there is more where that came from, in case you want to know what animals people think of when they see Gotham]

Whoa, great movie Armin! Very Michael Moore (and I mean that as a compliment, naturally).

So did anybody have anything nice to say about the Gotham typeface (other than it's reminiscent of "old advertisements")?

On a provincial note, it looks like that was shot on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. So maybe passing-by Chicagoans -- or, more likely, Wisconsin toursits shopping on Michigan Avenue -- just don't have the typographic savvy of New Yorkers.

Since I work across the street from where you were surveying people, I wish I would've walked by when you were filming, just so I could've said:

"Why, that nice typeface evokes a sort of mid-century modernist optimism in a definably contemporary sense -- distinctly American in its style, while structurally sound and highly usable in its functionality. It really reminds of something very... well, very New York!"

I'd like to think that I'd then leave you with a big smile and a renewed hope in the graphic intelligence of the American public.

But, more likely, I bet you'd knowingly shake your head and think: "Crap -- I just stopped another designer."

Anyway... the Times vs. Times piece was both enlightening and confusing at the same time. Cool post.
Jon Resh

Familiarity is an unabashedly lame excuse for not having looked enough! I doubt that the average person would recognize the font on the Jersey Memorial as Times New Roman. The size alone would make recognition difficult and besides, who REALLY pays attention to their fonts? "should we worry"? Absolutely! As a resident of The Garden State, I'm disappointed that we've missed an opportunity to leave a definite mark on what is meant to be a landmark. What makes Times New Roman easier to read than Zuzana Licko's Fairplex? The latter is endemic to the region, less generic, and comes in two widths and four weights! If the intent is to leave a visual and tactile impression then why not do so? If Fairplex is a bit much, try Gerard Unger's Hollander or Coranto. Not really "American" but both are more attractive choices. I'm sure many of you can recommend more fitting types.

Kudos to H&FJ for yet again leaving a mark.
Anthony Inciong

In the Times article covering the announcement of the New Jersey memorial, a representative from the "Families of September 11" took pains to note that "the families of the victims chose the design." It probably isn't an unfair assumption that this choosing covered details as precise as the typeface (especially considering it would be the most personal aspect of the memorial for the families), and therefore the tendency to drift towards the median when you open matters of taste to the largest auidence likely affected the process.

Aside from the choices of font, what of the execution? 3.75 inches? A quick test in MS Word indicates my name (which isn't that long) would require approximated 48 inches horizontally, making a comfortable viewing point several feet from the wall. It's hard to determine from the renderings the distance between the walls, but this may create some uncomfortable circulation issues. At the Vietnam Memorial, the size of the type creates a powerful initmacy as one has stand close enough to read that the wall and welter of names overwhelms.
miss representation

Ditto the Gotham bravisimo.

also note more props in todays NY Times - Metro section about street art/ Swoon. I hope this is the first news of more to come in the march to the convention...
f p sockwell, jr

Thanks Jon (and yes, it was shot in the four-year-late Millenium Park). You know, it's funny, nobody had anything outrageously good or bad to say about Gotham. It was mostly indifference. What we find attractive and strong about Gotham is that it has no quirks (as stated in the NYT article) so it let's the message show through - or what is known as the crystal goblet effect, which for some reason has resurfaced in many places lately. But people - again, not designers - just seem to see a plain looking typeface.

There are two sure things that people - once more, not designers - like: Times and glossy paper. You give a client a brochure set in Times and printed on some glossy paper, they will pay you millions - OK, maybe thousands. Point being that positive attributes we see in design elements like Gotham and uncoated paper zoom obliviously past people's heads. Point of that being, that the selection of Times for "Empty Sky" would seem glorious to the common passersby. Just the same with Gotham, it doesn't "interrupt" anything, it blends in, it just looks plain.

But where we deem Gotham a "good" design decision, we deem Times a "bad" design decision and they both end up being perceived almost equally.

Perhaps this and the undesignification of the YWCA logo is indication that we should just give up on our fancy typefaces and fancy papers.

No, of course I don't believe that. Just some Friday musings.

My admiration of Gotham is limitless, but I have no delusions about what "normal" people see -- or don't see -- in typefaces, or in most of the subtleties of graphic design for that matter. So Armin's man-on-the-street interviews are not surprising: a lot of those people would think that the kinds of conversations that happen on blogs like these are just plain nuts.

I would say, though, that the newsworthiness of the choice of Gotham for the Freedom Tower cornerstone has as much to do with what it is not as with what it is. As David Dunlap suggests in his NY Times piece, what most people expect to see on a cornerstone is something like Trajan, all centered, lots of names, infilled with gold leaf.

Although most people couldn't tell Gotham from Helvetica from Gill, I suspect many were struck by the unexpected sense of modernity that Gotham projects. All the other subtleties that we all enjoy may work as well, but on the most unconscious of levels.
Michael Bierut

As much as I love Times, I would have loved one of the Bensons to do the inscription. Even if it's long.

Michael, of course you are right. I didn't mean to undermine what we do, but sometimes it's sobering that people don't react as strongly as we do to awesome things like Gotham.

Having a reaction is not the same as having the ability to articulate one's reaction.

My non-designer wife is good at pointing out pages that she finds comfortable to read, but lacks the training to recognize that it's because the correct optical size of a typeface has been paired with a suitable measure, or that someone has labored over the H&J. Conversely, I'm pretty good at identifying which dress shirts fit me well, but I can't always corrolate my feelings with their tailoring or materials. The question of whether I like something is subjective, and the question of how it makes me feel is ineffable, and arguably irrelevant. But the question of whether it's suitable is interesting, measurable, and worth discussing. Capitalism gives us ample opportunity to decide whether we think design is appropriate or not, whether it's choosing a toothpaste or a luxury car.

I wonder what I might have said if someone like Armin had approached me to ask what I thought of a disembodied scent, or a sound, or a color. The same ochre that looks great on a Jean Prouve bookshelf or a Joseph Beuys painting isn't especially appealing on a sportjacket, unless you are a Century 21 realtor. And a good Caesar salad shouldn't smell like a good perfume, any more than a bicycle horn should sound like a purring guinea pig. Unless you're Marcel Duchamp.

Since a typeface is one of the ultimate disembodied raw materials, I'm curious what sorts of reactions you were hoping for, Armin. Like Michael, I'm not surprised by people's comments; I wonder if I could have been any more articulate if asked what I thought about something with which I'm neither familiar nor directly invested -- say, port timings on a V8 engine, or anything to do with sports. Talking to non-designers about graphic design can be a very revealing exercise, if you provide a useful framework and offer some criteria for analysis -- anyone who has ever worked with a client can tell you this. But presented in a guerilla fashion, decontextualized and without explanation, I'm not sure what it's meant to reveal.
Jonathan Hoefler

Though the absence of specific criteria is questionable, I believe Armin's intent was to garner immediate responses in a manner that eliminates any attempt by onlookers to overly rationalize their feelings about the typeface. Most were ambivalent while projecting a degree of disbelief, "You really asking me about this?" In the end, it confirms what we already know: Our perception of typefaces is enhanced by an understanding of its historical context which leads to our appreciation of its form. Ironically, Gotham's uniqueness is its stark simplicity. That its large waistline and width makes it supremely legible; that its 20 styles amounts to near unprecedented flexibility WILL and DOES leave most non-designers scratching their heads.

A fair amount of this discussion revolves around taste (both personal and public) that I believe Armin and Michael addressed eloquently. I've noticed that the appropriateness of a typeface for a project is, at first, always superseded by an innate distrust of the unique forms the alphabet can assume - it's a stretch to believe a typeface capable of making a statement on its own. (That it's worth the attention is even less likely.) "It all looks the same." is something whispered in the Typography courses I teach. Experienced designers smartly eschew loud and self-conscious types whereas the public overshoots the mark in an effort to find something novel. (Brush Script, Snell, and Shelley are among the most popular for text in my classes.)

While Times New Roman might be perceived as a smart choice due to its familiarity, it IS irrevocably mundane. But, given what other choices might have been made by Schwarz, I suppose Times is a step in some direction.
Anthony Inciong

I think what I'm getting at is that most typefaces are right for something, with the corollary that they're also wrong for other things. Evaluating the success of a typeface is perhaps easier when its connotations are less ambiguous -- letters made of logs or icicles or candy canes are less open to interpretation, and no doubt they provoke simpler visceral reactions without the need for any context. I'm hopeful that Armin's experiments might bear this out.

But for fonts like Gotham, where the cultural associations are less evident by design, it's really up to the designer to select and apply the typeface in a way that brings it meaning. Whether these faces "look good" is less a matter of how they present as specimen copy, and more a matter of where they appear -- and, if they find places to appear at all. We always hope that graphic designers who select our fonts are mindful of the designs' cultural, historical, and technical backstories, and will employ our typefaces intelligently. But it's up to them to align the virtues of the fonts with the needs of the project at hand.

I think what I find puzzling about Armin's experiment is that it doesn't look at a typeface as a choice at all, but rather as a solution unto itself. I can't tell you whether Gotham is any more successful than Helvetica or Brush Script or Calypso for stating "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog," but I believe I could argue why it's a better choice for airport signage than for setting Chaucer. This is what David Dunlap was getting at when he was kind enough to write about Gotham: not that it's a cool font, but rather that Michael Gericke made an informed choice in selecting it for this New York monument.
Jonathan Hoefler

A typeface generally start his life when in hands of a user, whatsoever he do with it. Generally type designers appreciate to discover non expected use of their fonts, and can be more charmed to see expected use of them.

Well, I'm certainly not trying to uncover any typographic mysteries with this nor trying to prove any complicathed theory I might have on audience perception and typeface design. Certainly, a guerrilla style typographic inquisition on unsuspecting tourists is no way to find out what emotions and deep desires typefaces trigger. Nonetheless, any opinion they have - as misinformed as my opinion on port timings on a V8 engine - is relevant in getting a notion, albeit brief, of what people see in alphabetic shapes that they can certainly relate to. And I purposely did treat the typefaces as solution unto themselves, because they are solutions. Continuing with allegories: if I'm making a soup I can take a bite out of a pepper and see if it's any good, if it's rotten, etc., once in the soup, the pepper becomes just one more ingredient of the bigger picture of the soup but I can judge a pepper on its own. Same with a typeface.

As misinformed as my "subjects" were, when showed Mrs. Eaves, many acknowledged it as a "traditional looking, yet modern" typeface. I wasn't hoping for any particular response nor any groundbreaking research, I simply wanted to get people's reactions to a typeface - devoid of context and explanation. I mean, that's what focus groups are, no? (More or less).

And like you, Jonathan, I take this experiment with a rather large grain of salt, it is what it is: husband and wife with a camcorder on Chicago's Michigan Avenue asking onlookers to give their reactions on pangrams set in specific typefaces on an 11" x 17" board.

As stated by Michael B. and Jonathan H. above I'm sure all non-designers have the saavy enough to pick between two different designs or typesetting if asked which one might be for a high-end boutique or a tire shop, etc. More specifically, if asked to pick the classier book page, I'm sure most will pick as we would, but lack the words for their choice. These subtleties are perceived by the general public. If they weren't, what would that say about our work, our clients' messages, or the mediums in which our work appears? I'm sure that by now, our audiences have started to catch up with us.

Times New Roman? Mrs Eaves? Hmmm. Maybe Garamond BE? Centaur? Does it have to be a serif? ;)

I can fully appreciate what Armin was trying to do with the "person on the street" video, and I agree 110% with Jonathan's input about the difference between having a reaction and being able to articulate ones reaction.

But it wouldn't really make a difference if they could. Like Anthony said, "Our perception of typefaces is enhanced by an understanding of its historical context which leads to our appreciation of its form."

The average street person won't appreciate a font that displays meaningless text on a white poster board. They will, however, greatly admire the etched text displaying hundreds of victim's names that their fingers trace over on the 20-ton slab of Adirondack granite in the Freedom Tower Cornerstone.

Presentation is everything.

Now they will have an appreciation of Gotham. And ironically, Times New Roman may also gain a new respect among the designers of future generations for the very same reason.

It's worth keeping in mind that different contexts can radically alter the connotations of a typeface. The same workmanlike letterforms in Gotham, which come from liquor stores and car parks, can in the right context be used to evoke an aristocratic air. Is there anything inherently luxurious about the typography of the Chanel logo?

I think this follows on your analogy, Armin: different recipes can dramatically alter the taste of the same bell pepper. But I wonder how many people foreign to the kitchen really know how to evaluate raw ingredients in the first place. I certainly don't know what good sunflower oil tastes like, and I wouldn't especially want to taste the baking powder, let alone or the PAM. Maybe the average diner can correctly identify a mushy banana or a stale bread crust, but even these can be invaluable in the kitchen.
Jonathan Hoefler

Here's a question about the text on the stone... how is a date supposed to be written?

On the tower cornerstone there are two dates in the text. But they're written differently. One notes the day as a number ("September 11, 2001") while the other spells out the day ("July Fourth, 2004").

Is this correct? And if so why? It seems like a mistake to me.
David Young

What's in a name?

When we look for an appropriate choice of fonts, we are much more influenced and even swayed by the name than we designers would care to admit. Who would ever order "Neue Haas'sche Grotesk"? Call it Helvetica (as they did back in 1958), and by using it you immediately convey all that's good about Swiss design to your modest project.

Would you pick Chicago for such a New York project? Or Berliner Grotesk? No, go for Gotham! I think it is great face, as is everything that Tobias and Jonathan have touched (yes, i am old enough to be their dad, but i am also a groupie) and it is the right choice from an esthetic and physical point of view. But i suggest that it might have been overlooked if it had been called Swiss 567 or Jones Grotesque (you should use that one before i do).

And Times New Roman? Doesn't New York -- nay: the US -- have a Times? How is your average architect/artist supposed to know that this one was made for The Times London and not The Times New York? Times New York Roman?

If you design typefaces and sell fonts -- as Tobias and Jonathan do very successfully -- you need to pull all the stops. Interstate is a great face with a great name. We buy brands, in type as in everything else. Branding NY Vernacular Sans as Gotham was a brilliant move, befitting this great face.
erik spiekermann

Real quick:
I think Armin's "field research" was brilliant - the most interesting part of TypeCon04 for me. The way it both challenged and confirmed some of our "insular" assumptions was a well-meaning slap in the face, I think.

Yes, context is critical, etc. but when it comes to unraveling certain aspects of this black craft of type design, Armin's approach might in fact be the only decent way to extract anything meaningful from the thoughts of laymen - even if one wouldn't bet the house on any of it.


Gotham for the memorial:
Great choice. Should've been hand carved.


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