Avoiding Gotham: selecting a new typeface

Gotham's most famous use: 2008 Obama campaign rally (Image: TonyTheTiger at en.wikipedia)

Earlier this year I handed myself the poisoned chalice of selecting a new typeface for my little enterprise, Lucent Web Design. Perhaps not 'poisoned', but certainly potentially unhealthy, because, font obsessive that I am, I knew this could prove a damagingly long process. Typography, I think, is the most important element in designing an identity, and the potential for debilitating indecision extends exponentially when choosing something for one's own business.

I tried to circumscribe the agony by giving myself a single working day to make a choice. Strictly no longer than that. The criteria: a robust, versatile, unfussy sans-serif to reinforce the Lucent message: 'clear, simple, accessible web design'. Nothing too 'elegant', too 'ornate', too 'contemporary', too 'vintage', too 'retro', too 'edgy' (how I hate that word). Preferably something for which a webfont was also available to allow me to use it here as well as in print, but that wasn't absolutely necessary.

The main problem I had was that I knew what font I wanted, but had ruled it out from the outset: the modern classic Gotham by the great New York font house Hoefler & Frere-Jones. The description of Gotham on their site expresses exactly what I was looking for:

Gotham celebrates the attractive and unassuming lettering of the city. Public spaces are teeming with handmade sans serifs that share the same underlying structure, an engineer's idea of 'basic lettering' that transcends both the characteristics of their materials and the mannerisms of their craftsmen. These are the cast bronze numbers outside office buildings that speak with authority, and the engravings on cornerstones whose neutral and equable style defies the passage of time. They're the matter-of-fact neon signs that announce liquor stores and pharmacies, and the proprietors' names painted majestically on the sides of trucks. These letters are straightforward and non-negotiable, yet possessed of great personality, and always expertly made.

It is an incredible design. Unpretentious, pleasing to the eye, highly readable as body text, sublime when set in uppercase. It has a direct, 'democratic' quality that conveys honesty and quiet competence.

But

But it has been used too much. I think I could have got away with it had I been engaged in this exercise prior to 2008. But that was the year Gotham became globally known as the typeface of the Obama Presidential campaign (he's using it again for the 2012 race). And since then its use has exploded. I've been seeing it everywhere for a few years now: movie posters, book covers, coffee shops, adverts, packaging, political campaigns - and of course, on hundreds of websites. For example:

Inception film poster

Gran Torino film poster

Sarah Palin home page

It's even been adopted by Obama's political rivals:

The final choice: Proxima Nova

When I was in a local bookshop the other week my impression was that at least a quarter of the book covers used Gotham. It's now the most commonly used movie font, finally replacing Trajan Pro. Much as I love it, I had to look elsewhere: Gotham has become today's Helvetica: a perfect typeface, but too obvious a choice, at least for me.

Considering alternatives

It didn't prove terribly easy to find an alternative. I considered other classic sans-serifs. I actually considered Helvetica, but although it isn't as dominant as it was during the 60s, 70s and 80s it is still used very widely, and too closely associated with too many well established brands. The same is true of the British workhorse Gill Sans. Both are classic faces that convey the same messages as Gotham, but I think too bound up with the identity of well known large organisations: in Helvetica's case big brands like Gap, Lufthansa, and American Apparel, and US subway stations; in the case of Gill Sans, the BBC, and rail travel.

I thought carefully about Futura which - remarkably - nearly 100 years after it was designed in the 1920s is still a striking, bold typographic choice. But for my purposes I felt it just a little too 'retro', too 'European'. I gave careful consideration to the fonts discussed in the fine article by designer Graham Smith, Bored with Gotham Typeface?. All of the alternatives Graham suggests are superb typefaces, but none seemed quite right for me: just a little too contemporary (and sadly the gorgeous Museo Sans is now approaching saturation point).

Lucent Web Design home page detail

Arise, Sir Proxima Nova

As the light was fading I settled on something I had looked at the beginning of the day: Proxima Nova by Mark Simonson Studio. It is very similar to Gotham, maybe a little more European. It has the solid, unpretentious quality I was looking for, is available in many weights, is crystal clear, and - a real bonus - is available as a quality webfont through Typekit: you're reading it now. This has allowed me to use just one typeface on all of my branding, online and offline, and I can use it as a logotype without having to embed a graphic. And, very important, it isn't used - yet - anywhere near as much as Gotham and the others I've discussed. Perfect for small concerns like mine, trying to establish an identity without reminding everyone of somebody else's…

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