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Gotham: A Typeface That Changed A Presidential Campaign

When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, many credited him as having one of the most brilliant presidential campaigns in history. Some attribute the campaign’s success to its clever command of new media, while others argue that it was Barack’s ideas and goals for change that elected him President of the United States. The campaign was likely successful for a whole host of reasons, but as a designer, I was particularly interested in the typeface behind it all.

Originally, the Obama campaign used a relatively plain serif typeface called Perpetua. But in order for the campaign to truly take off, it had to stand out from the others by being evocative, memorable, and versatile. The typography had to work for every medium: television, social media, banners, websites, and more. So when designers Slabyk and Thomas were hired to work on the campaign, they switched the campaign typeface to Gotham, which was inspired by a form of twentieth century architectural signage found in New York City.

Though many recognize Gotham from its role in the Obama campaign, it was initially created for GQ Magazine. GQ commissioned American type designer Tobias Frere-Jones to design a typeface that would look fresh, new, and masculine, with a geometric structure. Inspired by the attractive and unassuming lettering scattered throughout New York City, Frere-Jones took to the streets with his camera, chronicling the various forms of signage he found. Interestingly, the facades of New York’s buildings are adorned with a distinctly American sans serif.

Fixated on preserving the historic lettering in New York’s ever-changing public spaces, Frere-Jones set out to design a modern typeface that would capture elements of the city’s heritage and endure for years to come. With this in mind, he developed Gotham, a typeface that felt contemporary yet distinctly familiar. It wasn’t long before the face gained traction, earning publicity from its appearance in Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and on the One World Trade Center.

In this hopelessly over-communicated world, something amazing happens when designers are willing to honor our rich typographic history while putting a modern spin on traditional design. When typefaces are reminiscent of historic lettering, our perception of them can be reassuring and trustworthy. We may not consciously realize it, but we perceive subtle visual cues because we know subliminally that we’ve seen them before. We’re more likely to remember them when we see something that is familiar, yet fresh.

When the designers for the Obama campaign elected to use Gotham as the primary typeface, something extraordinary happened: its visibility in the public eye skyrocketed. Obama’s campaign had clear messaging and a crisp, clean typeface that was subtly evocative of the past. It contrasted dramatically with the predictable, overused typefaces used by other candidates. Gotham spoke to people’s souls, contributing to the presidential campaign’s recognition as one of the most successful in history.

– Chris (Senior Graphic Designer)

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