Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Politics of Gotham

While researching examples for my last post, Postmodern Presidential Branding, I stumbled across some typesetting blogs discussing the Obama campaign's font, or typeset; Gotham.

So I was naturally interested in the typography as a visual political narrative. What does Obama's choice of Gotham say about his campaign, about his political philosophy? I imagine that Obama had nothing personally to do with choosing the font but his design team saw Gotham perhaps as a reflection of the candidate. Here's what Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones, the designers of Gotham have to say;

A journalist recently asked what it is about Gotham that we think suits the Obama campaign. We'll defer to designers John Slabyk and Scott Thomas to make that call — they selected the font for Obama for America, we merely provided it — but one thing we can say as type designers is that Gotham isn't pretending to be anything it's not, which makes it an unusual and refreshing choice for a campaign. Political typefaces have a way of being chosen because they underscore (or imagine) some specific aspect of a candidate, working hard to convey "traditional values" or "strength and vigilance," or any number of graspable populist notions. The only thing Gotham works hard at is being Gotham.

Gotham then in some ways represents an American Helvetica, a typeface that, "shouldn’t have a meaning in itself" because "meaning is in the content of the text and not in the typeface." In Obama's case, does Gotham convey the message that the meaning is in the candidate? It does feel fresh, clean, and neutral. Like Obama. Perhaps the candidate, like the text, has no meaning in itself which has allowed his following to project their own meaning into the race.

Gotham, as it turns out, is quintessentially American Modernism. I find this terribly fascinating as Hoefler and Frere-Jones research to create Gotham suggests a contemporary Myth and Symbol American Studies project through the lens of typography.

An American Vernacular

Like most American cities, New York is host to a number of mundane buildings whose facades exhibit a distinctively American form of sans serif... And judging by how often it appears in signs for car parks and liquor stores, this might well be the natural form once followed by neon-lit aluminum channel letters. Although there is nothing to suggest that the makers of these different kinds of signs ever consciously followed the same models, the consistency with which this style of letter appears in the American urban landscape suggests that these forms were once considered in some way elemental... Read more...

Long before the emergence of a profession called “graphic design,” there was signage. Up until the mid-twentieth century, the job of providing architectural lettering often fell to engineers or draftsmen, most of whom worked outside of the typographic tradition. The shape of facade lettering was often determined by the practical business of legibility, rather than any sort of stylistic agenda — although inevitably, even the draftsman’s vision of “basic building lettering” was influenced by the prevailing style of the time.

Here is a short Youtube clip of the two type designers discussing the creation of Gotham, the font "born outside of type design."

The Youtube clip is actually a bonus feature from the DVD release of the documentary, Helvetica. Yes, an entire movie about a typeface. I'll never quite be able to look at typeface the same.

Here is the trailer for the New York release.