The Origin of Gotham
Ours is the first century in which most mass-produced letters can correctly be called “typography.” Technically speaking, typography is the product of type, the individual, recombinable characters in a typeface that are designed for printing words on paper. A century ago, a book’s pages contained typography, but its cover, spine, and illustrations featured lettering, each of the product of an artist working by hand in a different medium. Because letters made by hand had no obligation to resemble the look of printing types, different media evolved their own aesthetics: lithographed posters, engraved banknotes, and neon signs once enjoyed unique alphabetic styles.
An American Vernacular
Between the two World Wars, a style of sans serif lettering emerged from outside of the typographic tradition. These straightforward, highly legible, no-nonsense letters were especially popular in architecture (perhaps because they satisfied the engineer’s idea of “basic building lettering.”) Nowhere were these letters more popular than in New York, which was undergoing a period of explosive growth, and giving rise to the modern skyscraper. The style of bronze numbers on New York office buildings was echoed in engraved cornerstones, cast iron plaques, and painted signs — and equally popular among less monumental architecture: judging by how often it appears in signs for pharmacies and liquor stores, this might well be the natural form once followed by neon-lit channel letters. Nothing suggests that the makers of these different kinds of letters ever consciously followed the same model, but the consistency with which the style appears in the American urban landscape suggests that these forms were once considered in some way elemental. The arrival of mechanical signmaking in the 1960s contributed to their disappearance, and with the ascendance of digital fonts that could drive both vinyl cutters and CNC routers, they completely vanished from production.
In 2000, a commission to design a signature sans serif for GQ afforded us the chance to explore this style. We began with a long-bookmarked piece of public lettering on one of the city’s most mundane buildings: the Port Authority Bus Terminal on New York’s Eighth Avenue. With the goal of allowing our typeface to exhibit the mathematical reasoning of a draftsman, rather than the instincts of a typeface designer, we 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.