15 June, 2010
The Murderer Wore Serifs
Typeface designers live with the permanent possibility of encountering their work at unexpected moments. Your old college now uses a font that you designed; in a movie, whose story takes place before you were born, your typefaces are used for prop newspapers and storefronts; the intimidating signs that scold you in public places now address you in your own handwriting. These odd social dislocations have lately been compounded by an additional weirdness, the phenomenon of the literate non-specialist. There are now celebrities and politicians who know fonts by name, so off-duty type designers run an increasing risk of hearing their typefaces mentioned by talk-show hosts or newscasters — to say nothing of seatmates on long airline flights, or anyone desperate for conversation at a family funeral.
None of these strangenesses prepared me for learning this morning that in The Scarpetta Factor, a crime novel by Patricia Cornwell, there is a plot point that revolves around our Gotham typeface. The font first makes an appearance on page 400, when it’s name-checked by an FBI document specialist during the delivery of an expert opinion, but it returns on page 415 for a two-page discussion about the typography of a suspicious package. “Gotham is popular,” says the computer-whiz niece of our sleuth, Dr. Kay Scarpetta. “It’s supposed to suggest all the right things if you want to influence someone into taking you or your product or a political candidate or maybe some type of research seriously.” Our clients have always known as much; we can only assume that one of them is the murderer. —JH