Gotham is a san-serif typeface designed by Tobias Frere-Jones under the influential type foundry Hoefler & Frere-Jones. The foundry was commisioned by GQ in 2000 to design a typeface for the magazine - something “masculine, new, and fresh”.
In his research, Frere-Jones was inspired by the disappearing vernacular letterings of the American urban landscape.
One in particular stood out and became the starting point of Gotham: the Port Authority Bus Terminal sign. Frere-Jones thought the lettering “is not the type of letter that a type designer would make. It’s the kind of letter an engineer would make.”
Gotham’s commercial success came in 2002, when GQ’s exclusive license for the font expired and it was released publicly. It has since been used in numerous publications, campaigns, posters, and packaging. Here’s a tumblr page that compiles logos that uses Gotham. The most famous use of Gotham is arguably for the 2008 Barack Obama USA presidential campaign.
You can see how Gotham draws from its inspirations. Looking at them, I’m surprised that no one made this font earlier - or at least that this style didn’t get this popular before Gotham. Age-wise, it is young compared to your classic Helveticas and Baskervilles, but it has a timeless yet modern quality to it.
This quote from Newsweek is very interesting: “Unlike other sans serif typefaces, it's not German, it's not French, it's not Swiss. It's very American.” Maybe that’s also a reason for Gotham’s popularity. I made the image below to compare the most famous san serifs from each country mentioned.
Frere-Jones mentioned that Gotham’s main inspiration - the Port Authority Bus Terminal sign - was “this very plain geometric letter”. I guess that makes Gotham somewhat geometric as well. “Geometric” isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when I see Gotham, but it is definitely there. It just does not display that in a vulgar or obvious way. You can see that the "O" uses a perfect circle. The letters look fuller and rounder than other san-serifs. With the design nature of the font, Frere-Jones said “I didn't think anything new could have been found there, but luckily for me (and the client), I was mistaken.” Lucky for all of us, I’ll say. I really like this because it’s great to know that even a great designer also struggles sometimes.
Here are examples of Gotham in action - some as the main font and others as a complementary font.
I often find myself using Gotham when I want something fuss-free. You can pair it with something intricate to balance things out, or with something as simple and minimalistic as Gotham itself for that clean, sophisticated look. It makes things look more sophisticated. Gotham looks plain enough not to distract from your design, but different enough to be interesting on its own. USA Today called Gotham “arguably the font of the decade”, and I think it might well be.
- The Origin of Gotham. (n.d.). Retrieved March 7, 2013, from http://www.typography.com/fonts/font_history.php?historyItemID=1&productLineID=100008
- Challand, S. (2009). Know Your Type: Gotham. Retrieved March 7, 2013, from http://idsgn.org/posts/know-your-type-gotham/
- Romano, A. (2008). Expertinent: Why the Obama "Brand" Is Working. Retrieved March 8, 2013, from http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/blogs/stumper/2008/02/27/expertinent-why-the-obama-quot-brand-quot-is-working.html
- Mcclam, E. (2007). Typeface designers mix art, engineering. Retrieved March 7, 2013, from http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2007-09-15-1438578486_x.htm