Tuesday, February 19th, 2008

A Font We Can Believe In

Barack Obama and his favorite font, Gotham

Unless you’ve been avoiding television, newspapers, and all other forms of mass media for the past few months, you’ve probably seen Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s “Change We Can Believe In” and “Stand for Change” banners. The typophiles among you have realized that the “change” font Obama’s campaign uses is Gotham, designed by Hoefler & Frere-Jones, originally as a commission for GQ Magazine.

Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones spoke about the creation of Gotham during our interview for Helvetica, and looking back at their description of what GQ wanted from the font, it sounds surprisingly Obama-esque. “GQ had a dual agenda of wanting something that would look very fresh, yet very established, to have a credible voice to it,” says Hoefler. It also needed to look very masculine and “of-the-moment.” Mission accomplished.

The conversation about the origins of Gotham didn’t make it into the film, but was included among the 41 bonus features on the Helvetica DVD. I’ve posted part of the interview above. Watching this clip, I think it’s interesting that the design of Gotham was influenced by early Modernism, another movement that was about change and social idealism. And I like that the design aesthetic that may help move Obama into the White House was inspired by the humble NY Port Authority Bus Terminal sign.

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  1. Even in little ole NZ Obamas use of Gotham has caught the eye of designers… see the post in the news section of our website..http://www.endemicworld.com/Information/14

    by the way, we ALL (our studio of 12) went to your film when it viewed here last year. It was inspiring and so cool to see a film about aesthetics that can be enjoyed not just by designers but by everyone. You probably get approached all the time, but I want to ask anyway, if you would like another online outlet for the sale of your Helvetica shop items we would LOVE to stock them on our website http://www.endemicworld.com


    Comment by kate alexander — Tuesday, February 19, 2008 @ 2:46 pm

  2. Yes! More, more, and more Helvetica!

    To be honest, I don’t know that much about fonts, but I’m trying to learn.

    Comment by bugsy — Thursday, February 21, 2008 @ 10:12 pm

  3. Yeah! If Obama’s taste in type is any indication of his judgement (and I think it’s as indicative as someone’s handwriting), I’m impressed. I mean, Gotham is a solid, clear choice, but what really knocked my socks off was his choice of Perpetua as a brilliant running mate!

    Comment by Irwin Chen — Thursday, February 21, 2008 @ 10:20 pm

  4. I wonder about the origins of that Port Authority type. Tobias says in the clip that it feels like something an engineer would make, rather than a type designer. Since the building is not ancient, has anyone tried to identify and track down the creator of this signage?

    Comment by Hudson — Friday, February 22, 2008 @ 12:21 am

  5. My girlfriend noted that with Obama standing in front of the “G”, it could be mistaken for a Chanel ad.
    Slightly different logos, but Chanel’s is similar to Gotham!

    Awesome article, btw.

    Comment by Alex Fajkowski — Friday, February 22, 2008 @ 2:07 am

  6. This is funny to read, just the other day I made this parody of Obama’s use of Gotham. The fact that Obama has the best branding (which has been spoken about elsewhere) makes me like him even more. He has a smart campaign and visual identity and Gotham was a great font choice.

    Check out the illustration I made here:


    Comment by Paul Bloch — Friday, February 22, 2008 @ 4:00 am

  7. isn’t that the same font yahoo! uses in its ads?

    go obama!

    Comment by kiasuchick — Friday, February 22, 2008 @ 4:11 am

  8. Comic Sans would be a better match for Obama.

    Comment by Joe Copperplate — Friday, February 22, 2008 @ 9:02 am

  9. This is not true. The only font worthy of his campaign is Copperplate Gothic Bold, THE choice for political campaign fonts and for really any other purpose. I did a quick comparison of the two fonts and really it’s easy to see Copperplate Gothic Bold wins by a landslide.

    Comment by I Love Copperplate — Friday, February 22, 2008 @ 9:44 am

  10. John McCain’s “logo” is quite nice as well. Makes me wonder who the heck designed Hillary’s… a disgruntled campaign contributor, maybe?

    Comment by macgirl — Friday, February 22, 2008 @ 12:13 pm

  11. Its called a typeface not font. I figured this would be know by someone who is posting a blog on the helvetica website.

    Comment by Radam — Friday, February 22, 2008 @ 12:18 pm

  12. At this point in typographic history, I think the terms font/typeface are interchangeable. Most general users know them only as “fonts”.

    Comment by Gary — Friday, February 22, 2008 @ 12:46 pm

  13. Gary points out that “At this point in typographic history, I think the terms font/typeface are interchangeable. Most general users know them only as ‘fonts’.”

    For whatever reason it’s become fashionable to let stuff like that slide. North Americans don’t learn much about the English language in school, and one need only listen to people from the U.K. for a few minutes to see how proper vocabulary and grammar are still respected and appreciated there.

    In fact, nine times out of 10 North Americans are highly critical of anyone who dares to mention examples in published word of what amounts to illiteracy. Maybe one in 10 appreciate the fact that a respect for language standards helps people understand each other.

    Comment by Ted Stocking — Friday, February 22, 2008 @ 2:10 pm

  14. Matthew Carter, British born and educated, who knows more about typography than all of us combined, told me he’s alright with people (especially those not in the trade) referring to typefaces as fonts. We’re using digital fonts when we’re typing here, so font now equals typeface. It’s an evolution of the term through popular usage, not illiteracy.

    Comment by Gary — Friday, February 22, 2008 @ 2:29 pm

  15. Ted likes to state things as “fact” (In FACT), but he then provides an ipse dixit (he makes up a statistic). Let’s get REALLY REALLY A.R. and go back to Latin if we are going to start talking about language and ignore the fact that language evolves THROUGH USAGE. Correctness is last on this list of important characteristics of quality communication. That, sir, is what any learned people (from whatever continent and country…and even among some elitist donkeys) understand very well.

    Comment by Dave — Friday, February 22, 2008 @ 3:06 pm

  16. Here here. But what do I know, I’m not an academic, I just made a film about a font… er… typeface.

    Comment by Gary — Friday, February 22, 2008 @ 3:10 pm

  17. Ted’s just sad that while the British may have wonderful grammar, they are a second rate world power. In comparison, the seemingly illiterate Americans seem to be holding the other end of the leash for the United Kingdom. I suppose that grammar does not define a people…

    Comment by Al — Friday, February 22, 2008 @ 5:13 pm

  18. I loved the film, BTW. I would love to see you post all those DVD extras, and any other floor cuttings, online as well.

    Comment by Michael Bryan — Friday, February 22, 2008 @ 5:44 pm

  19. great post! i just saw another blog giving kudos to obama for his campaigns look, here: http://www.cmdshiftdesign.com/blog, did you know that even obama’s websites been posted to web creme? Thats so cool.

    Comment by Jessie — Friday, February 22, 2008 @ 8:13 pm

  20. I fell in love with Gotham a few weeks ago, and now I’m seeing him everywhere. I thought we had something special!

    Comment by Tony Webster — Friday, February 22, 2008 @ 11:49 pm

  21. Are you kidding me? Is this what American politics has been reduced to? Picking a candidate by the font of his propaganda. Wow. That’s really deep … You’ve convinced me. Forget the issues, he has a cool font from GQ magazine.

    Comment by DJFelix — Saturday, February 23, 2008 @ 1:41 am

  22. Actually Felix, the point here is to realize that font choice *is* propaganda. We’re influenced as much by the medium as by the message.

    Comment by Gary — Saturday, February 23, 2008 @ 2:36 am

  23. How about the Designer of the banners saw Helvetica?

    Comment by Leon — Sunday, February 24, 2008 @ 4:31 am

  24. Why not Gill Sans? The origins are in Edward Johnston, the designer of the London Underground sans serif typeface … for a candidate who appeals to the undergound a pretty standard font these days

    Comment by Domingos Magalhaes — Monday, February 25, 2008 @ 6:35 am

  25. Actually, I think I prefer Palatino.

    Comment by Rogerr — Monday, February 25, 2008 @ 2:48 pm

  26. A friend used to have an office next door to H&FJ. Curious, I went to their website and fell in love with Gotham and have been using it for years. I especially like the condensed faces, which I use for all my architectural drawings. It looks especially good for dimensions!

    The ONLY downside, which I contacted H&FJ about?
    There’s NO plus/minus character (± … option-shift-+), which is a big negative when doing construction drawings.

    Glad to see that Obama’s got a good eye, too!

    Comment by Mr. Reeee — Wednesday, February 27, 2008 @ 9:51 am

  27. I actually write about this very concept on today’s Weekly Rader post, though I argue that font is only part of the equation when taking into account the semiotics of his logos and banners. I do think there are important distinctions between his font and Clinton’s, which gets reflected in the larger design of the logos. Does one font evoke “change” or “hope” while another suggests “tradition?” Clearly, the answer is yes.

    You can check out my reading of their logos here:

    Comment by Dean Rader — Wednesday, February 27, 2008 @ 6:43 pm

  28. Gary,
    re typeface vs. font:
    perhaps Matthew Carter has been “tainted’ by all the time he’s spent in the USA? I bet if you asked Wim Crowell or Erik Spiekermann which term they preferred to use and where, you’d get a different answer.
    They’d probably also tell you “all right” is two words and not one!

    Comment by Shirley Clarke — Wednesday, February 27, 2008 @ 10:08 pm

  29. p.s. I have always been amazed that nobody seemed to think it worth mentioning how closely GOTHAM resembles FUTURA. It is a lovely face, but most of the heavy lifting had already been done!

    Comment by Shirley Clarke — Wednesday, February 27, 2008 @ 10:13 pm

  30. Thats leaves me to a surprise!
    goodchoice, for signage.because The gotham is a less complex font and comes out with a clear, confident visual personality. As its beleive to inspired from the architectural blocks from a birds eye view.

    Comment by Deepak Harichandan — Thursday, February 28, 2008 @ 10:02 am

  31. The original use of “font” on the personal computer was accurate, because scalable typefaces had not been implemented on the Mac and Windows OSs. Later, with scalable typefaces, the term “typeface” was used, correctly, but it never really stuck. People called them fonts.

    Knuth’s Metafont made the same mistake, though it could be excused because Metafont is a way to generate font files, which are (still) bitmaps.

    Comment by jk — Monday, March 3, 2008 @ 1:19 am

  32. Being picky about language is pathetic. It’s the mentally challenged sibling of judging people for what they wear. Grow up.

    Comment by Greg Formager — Monday, March 3, 2008 @ 8:31 pm

  33. HF&J rules :) I just wanted to point to their newest typeface: Archer - just great. See it on http://typography.com/fonts/font_overview.php?productLineID=100033

    Comment by Robert — Thursday, March 6, 2008 @ 8:59 am

  34. Hmm, I hope this is not the state of political thinking in the design community.
    I entirely agree with this quote:

    “Are you kidding me? Is this what American politics has been reduced to? Picking a candidate by the font of his propaganda. Wow. That’s really deep … You’ve convinced me. Forget the issues, he has a cool font from GQ magazine.Are you kidding me? Is this what American politics has been reduced to? Picking a candidate by the font of his propaganda. Wow. That’s really deep … You’ve convinced me. Forget the issues, he has a cool font from GQ magazine.”

    The bulk of the twaddle regarding design/politics makes me feel queasy.

    Comment by olivia — Thursday, March 13, 2008 @ 4:44 pm

  35. Argh… you’re missing the point, Olivia. My point was that if you look at what H&FJ were trying to accomplish with the “voice” of Gotham seven years ago for GQ, it’s interesting to watch a politician use that typographic voice to try to position himself. The qualities H&FJ were trying to embody in their design are the same ones the Obama campaign seems to be trying to imprint on us subconsciously through Gotham. We’re all manipulated by typefaces, I’m just pointing it out.

    Comment by Gary — Thursday, March 13, 2008 @ 5:06 pm

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