These Aren’t The Fifty States You’re Looking For

Photo: Michael Moran. Typeface: Gotham Bold

In Fast Company, Ellen Lupton writes:

The graphic designer Michael Bierut, a partner working in the New York office of the firm Pentagram, designed a 21-foot sign for the new U.S.-Canada border crossing at Massena, New York. The sign, as well as the building, which was designed by architects Smith-Miller & Hawkinson, has received substantial praise as a bold and daring piece of federal design. Too daring, perhaps. The sign is being dismantled by the Customs and Border Protection Agency for fear that it will be a target for terrorists.

I share Michael Bierut’s hesitation in second-guessing the seasoned professionals at the Department of Homeland Security, who surely know more about armed extremists than I would ever want to. Still, I think there’s a compromise to be struck: if the goal is to create a typographic fig leaf that disguises one’s arrival at our 9,161,923 square kilometer nation, why not change the inscription to “Bienvenidos a México?” —JH

H&FJ Crime-Fighting Division

It was not a dark, stormy night at the H&FJ offices, and she was not a dame in a red dress who spelled trouble with a capital T. It was last Friday afternoon, and the caller was Bill Bastone, founder and editor of The Smoking Gun, with a question about forensic typography.

The story begins with last week’s report by the Los Angeles Times that murdered rapper Tupac Shakur was assassinated by associates of Sean “Diddy” Combs. The Times appears to have relied heavily on a set of FBI reports — 302s, in the argot — which cannot be found in the FBI’s own files. This morning, The Smoking Gun suggests that these may be the work of an accomplished document forger named James Sabatino, who conducted his hoax from within the walls of the Allenwood Federal Correctional Complex in Pennsylvania.

We’re not experts in forensic typography or document authentication, but were able to point TSG’s specialists toward one subtle typographic clue. To untrained eyes including ours, the three 302s look like genuine bureaucratic dross: form elements are typeset in a proportionally-spaced font that appears to be Times Roman, and the body of each document is filled in with a typewriter. (The occasional overstruck letter, as well as some very erratic line endings, suggest a typewriter rather than a word processor; never mind that the Bureau stopped using typewriters “about 30 years ago,” according to an FBI supervisor.)

But a telltale gaffe appears at the top of one document, in which the date is rendered in the proportionally-spaced font. The “advance width” of the periods are demonstrably narrower than that of the numbers around them (typewriter periods are famously aloof from their neighbors), suggesting that at least this part of the document was prepared digitally — but only this part of the document, and only this one document from the set of three. The Smoking Gun has all three documents online: compare them here, here, and here. You owe me, Diddy. —JH

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