Grotesque can be elegant

Font names can be very misleading. Say the word ‘gothic’ to most people, and they think of large, imposing old houses with lots of gables, or people dressed all in black with lots of skulls and other symbols of death and horror on their jewelry. And if you search on Gothic Fonts you will be pointed to a lot of fonts that look like this:

What most people think a gothic font looks like.
What most people think a gothic font looks like.
But a typographer or design person will look at that font and say, “That isn’t gothic at all! That’a a blackletter font!” To be fair, Blackletter fonts were originally designed to match the handwritten script of medieval scribes, and that style of handwriting was called “gothic script” to distinguish it from other medieval writing styles, such as Carolingian miniscule, but that style of font is known as blackletter. If you are going to call those sorts of letters gothic, you should say “gothic script.”

News Gothic is a classic gothic font.
News Gothic is a classic gothic font.
In typography, gothic is used to describe certain classes of sans serif fonts. As a descriptor for type, the term is believed to have been introduced by type foundries in Boston in the early 19th Century. There are two theories for why these Boston foundries used the term gothic. One, gothic was being used at the time to describe style of architecture that was neither Greek or Roman and involved lots of straight lines without ornamentation. The other is that because around the same time several German type foundries had begun producing sans serif fonts, and gothic is originally a synonym for germanic.

Regardless, gothic fonts are either realist or geometric sans serif fonts.

My day job often involves designing books and user interfaces. For technical documentation, one font that I often incorporate into my designs is Franklin Gothic, which is a classic American sans serif. It was designed by Morris Fuller Benton in 1902 while working for American Type Founders (also known simply as ATF; it was a conglomeration formed when several foundries merged in the 1890s, and then it continued buying other type companies). Fuller named his font after Benjamin Franklin. Franklin Gothic is a very successful font, being used for everything from headlines in trade newsletters to highway signs. Certain designers at Microsoft Press were very fond of the font, and in the early 1990s Franklin Gothic Medium became the official headline font in Microsoft manuals. Because of that latter fact, some form of Franklin Gothic Medium is included in pretty much every computer’s operating software.

Screen Shot 2014-09-21 at 8.57.31 PMMy particular fondness for Franklin Gothic is down to one specific character. Because I do technical documentation, I’m always having to include step-by-step instructions for tasks that the reader will need to follow in order. And the number 1 in Franklin Gothic is a very iconic shape. You will never confuse it with a lower case L or an upper case i, as is easy to do in a lot of fonts.

When I was recently explaining this on a podcast I was invited to be on, the host made the comment, “As if a procedure would begin with a step L.” I failed to explain fully. When people read technical documentation, whether it be a manual, online help, or a support forum posting, most people don’t actually sit down and read it in order. They don’t even read a specific help topic that they reached via search from the top to the bottom. They skim, looking for the “important stuff.” They are usually hoping that the topic will contain the solution to their problem, and they know that usually the solution involves a step-by-step procedure. So in the initial skimming, if the topic doesn’t obviously contain such a procedure, they will click the back button or flip the page and look for something else.

But, if midway down the page they see a very obvious number one, followed by a short bit of text, with a line below it that begins with a number two, followed by another short period of text, they will slow down long enough to read some of the topic to see if this thing has their answer. So that very iconic Franklin Gothic number one with its thick slab serif foundation and that sharp angled top serif leaps out during even the most rapid scan as a big, fat “step one/start here!” that can’t be missed.

And the rest of the font is cool. The lower case G has a rather playful ear, for instance. I know, only typographic freaks like me notice these things, but what can I say?

Akzidenz-Grotesk, Theinhardt Type Foundry, 1896
Akzidenz-Grotesk, Theinhardt Type Foundry, 1896
Some say that when Fuller designed Franklin Gothic that he used the term “gothic” because he was inspired by the various grotesque font put out by the Ferdinand Theinhardt Schriftgiesserei foundry of Berlin. And the most famous of those fonts is: Akzidenz-Grotesk.

Akzidenz-Grotesk is a very distinctive geometric sans serif, often distinguishable because of the perfect square dot on its lower case i and lower case j characters. The tail on the capital Q is very short and doesn’t cross into the interior of the letter. There are several other nice little nuances to the font. It’s very pretty and elegant and looks very good in lots of different sizes. The only problem is the expense. A licensed, single user copy of Akzidenz-Grotesk® will run you more than a thousand dollars. A single weight, such as Extended Book, might be found as cheap as 350 bucks.

The Berthold Type Foundry, which holds the licensing rights to the font, has always been very strict and aggressive in protecting its intellectual property rights. So, for instance, they’ve been very reluctant to license its use as a web font. I became even more of an expert on Akzidenz-Grotesk a few years ago when a customer of my employer (the customer was a corporation that’s much, much bigger than us), insisted that the documentation we provided for the product they were paying us to produce under their name use this font. The Director who was responsible for the account was flabbergasted when I told him how much the font license fee was.

There is a cheaper option (other than buying Linotype’s knockoff, Commercial Standard; or making the mistake of downloading a free version somewhere, only to discover that the capital R is missing {yes, I’m serious}), because of a licensing deal struck in the 70s when no one believed that these newfangled computer things were ever going to be smaller than a freight car and cost less than millions of dollars apiece, you can buy bundles of Akzidenz-Grotesk® BE for only a few hundred dollars for 5-machine licenses for 10 weights—which was much more palatable to my corporate overlords.

I have no problem with the notion of paying for fonts. A well-designed font represents a lot of work, skill, experience, and at least a bit of artistic talent. I buy fonts when I find good ones I want to use. But Ferdinand Theinhardt, who designed the original Akzidenz-Grotesk back in the year 1880 has been dead for a long time, and it’s hard to make the argument that the corporation that purchased the corporation that merged with the corporation that purchased the corporation that purchased the corporation that had absorbed (due to the collapse of the German economy after World War I) the company that had taken over Theinhardt’s original foundry hasn’t managed to make back the cost of the original development of the font design by now.

But his font is really nice!

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