A vanishing style inspires a font in the ascendant.
Long before the emergence of a profession called “graphic design,” there was signage. Up until the mid-twentieth century, the job of providing architectural lettering often fell to engineers or draftsmen, most of whom worked outside of the typographic tradition. The shape of facade lettering was often determined by the practical business of legibility, rather than any sort of stylistic agenda — although inevitably, even the draftsman’s vision of “basic building lettering” was influenced by the prevailing style of the time.
An American Vernacular
Like most American cities, New York is host to a number of mundane buildings whose facades exhibit a distinctively American form of sans serif. This kind of lettering occurs in many media: the same office buildings whose numbers are rendered in this style, in steel or cast bronze, often use this form of lettering for their engraved cornerstones as well. Cast iron plaques regularly feature this kind of lettering, as do countless painted signs and lithographed posters, many dating back as far as the Work Projects Administration of the 1930s. (And judging by how often it appears in signs for car parks and liquor stores, this might well be the natural form once followed by neon-lit aluminum channel letters.) Although there is nothing to suggest that the makers of these different kinds of signs ever consciously followed the same models, the consistency with which this style of letter appears in the American urban landscape suggests that these forms were once considered in some way elemental. But with the arrival of mechanical signmaking in the 1960s, these letters died out, completely vanishing from production.
During the first months of their collaboration, Hoefler and Frere-Jones discovered their mutual affection for this disappearing species of lettering. In 2000, a commission to design a signature sans serif for GQ afforded them the chance to explore the style, for which Frere-Jones undertook a massive study of building lettering in New York, starting with a charming but rarely examined sign for the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Though Frere-Jones wanted his drawings to exhibit the "mathematical reasoning of a draftsman" rather than the instincts of a type designer, he allowed Gotham to escape the grid wherever necessary, giving the design an affability usually missing from 'geometric' faces. Unlike the signage upon which it was based, Gotham includes a lowercase, an italic, a full range of weights, and an extended range of widths: a Narrow, an Extra Narrow, and a Condensed.