Font Ubiquity - Gotham and Proxima Nova

What are your thoughts on the ubiquity of fonts? Specifically fonts like Gotham and Proxima Nova, especially in recent years with the advent of web fonts. Can anyone use Gotham as an identity anymore? Has overuse on the web ruined these fonts? Proxima Nova is everywhere. As someone who is very interested in branding and how big a role a typeface plays into an identity I can't help but feel like Gotham on Proxima Nova are almost unusable.

Thoughts?

JamesM's picture

Designers need to keep track of trends and steer clients away from overused fonts.

But people who deal with type every day are more aware of overuse than the general public, just as an interior designer may want to avoid certain colors or styles due to overuse but you or I would think they are fine.

> Gotham ...[is] almost unusable

Tell that to Nationwide Insurance. I did some work for them a few years ago and they used Gotham as their official font (with an alternate "i" in the logo) and I think they still do.

Don't get me wrong, it might not be the best choice today (especially for a client that's more trendy than an insurance company), but I doubt they are losing any business because of it.

hrant's picture

An over-used typeface shouldn't be shunned outright, but one does have to study what kinds of uses it's been put to. For example Archer has been used for so many disparate and very public things, it should generally be avoided.

hhp

Martin Silvertant's picture

I think Helvetica's track record has shown it may not necessarily be bad to join the trend. I disagree with that, but apparently the world doesn't. I suspect we're going to see Gotham for a while.

I don't actually see Proxima Nova that often though. Incidentally I'm working on a typeface for a company who wants to replace Proxima Nova with something different and custom. Proxima Nova works well for them but they want to differentiate themselves more.

hrant's picture

Read it and weep:
http://www.typewolf.com/blog/industry-leading-designers-share-their-favo...

I disagree with that, but apparently the world doesn't.

"Eat moose – 50,000 wolves can't be wrong."

Or more seriously:
"In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual." –Galileo

hhp

Martin Silvertant's picture

I guess I expected even worse, but it's still strange to see so many dull choices. These are the people who constantly work with typefaces. They should be familiar with all the choice around and yet they still tend to select the same typefaces as the others. Sometimes I feel graphic designers are so focused on function and usability they lose their own identity in the process.

I notice though how the graphic designers tend to select their favorites based on what they will probably use most often. As such you don't only get selections which are nothing more than practical, but they often tend to go for popular typefaces. The first motivation I can understand, but the second one is rather sad. A graphic designer shouldn't follow trends so prominently; he should study the trends and make his own, well-informed decisions. He should create new trends.

The type designers in the list I take a lot more seriously. They can actually explain why a certain typeface is their favorite; they will actually express their own taste and opinions and thus they will usually go for unique choices.

hrant's picture

Sometimes I feel graphic designers are so focused on function and usability they lose their own identity in the process.

I don't think that's it. Partly because I feel most graphic designers are actually focused on superficial things; it's not that they're not interested in function, it's that they're conservative in the realm of function, achieving basic functionality with safe approaches. I think their lack of imagination in selecting type comes from fear, since they mostly don't feel they have a strong enough grasp of how type speaks. Solution: education.

hhp

Martin Silvertant's picture

They do indeed seem to be conservative in their approach generally. I feel like functionality and communication is so important in graphic design though that they feel safer in an objective reality. They will focus on trends and psychology and play it rather safe. They will realize a certain typeface works well in many contexts and is easy to use and thus they will fall back on that often. I've been the same way, and in fact I still have a tendency to make safe choices. For example, depending on the time of the year I use a few different typefaces for all my essays and presentations for school and tend not to go far outside of my comfort zone. In this instance it may be more logical as it's not that relevant to consider what typeface will work best for a particular essay each time. It's not a brand which has to work for years on end, after all. During my teens though I would use Garamond very often. It wasn't until I really got into typography that I started making more daring choices and started experimenting more.

I guess a graphic designer also needs to consider what will work best for most, rather than what he personally likes best. This is what I mean when I say they will loose their identity in the process of focusing on functionality and communication. I think this is a graphic designer at its core. A better graphic designer will also focus on typography and perhaps have overlap with art. I feel these kind of graphic designers are a lot more daring. They're the bridge between desktop publishers and artists.

JamesM's picture

I'm not sure what criteria was used to pick these "industry-leading designers". Most of them are freelancers, and a few don't even describe themselves as designers (they say artist, illustrator, etc.).

I'd be more interested in font choices of large design firms that tend to do the more influential work.

quadibloc's picture

Or more seriously:
"In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual." –Galileo

Yes, but the reasons why this is true do not also apply to questions of æsthetics.

Science, after all, is about facts that can be verified, so one man can be seen to be right even though he contradicts the established authorities that went before him.

It may well also be the case that one man can be right about a subjective matter of taste in æsthetic matters while the authorities are wrong. But that depends on how you define "right" - in practice, we tend to consider that has happened when the more refined taste of a later era prefers the new idea to the old. One example of such a "one man" in the field of type design would be John Baskerville.

I clicked on the link, and I was not immediately able to see a reason to weep over the typeface choices of the top designers surveyed. I noticed one face I saw mentioned twice early on wasn't among the top 11 choices, so I looked it up.

FF Mark is clearly an alternative to Futura. Even I was able to notice that it somehow had that quality of being 'sexy' or whatever that would make it usable in, say, an expensive magazine about fashion, architecture, or art that wished to appear up-to-date.

If designers could make typefaces like that to order, more publications would commission custom typefaces than do already. But, as Frederic W. Goudy said, there is no "recognized quality" like more cowbell (pointier serifs? Worked for Caslon and Times) that you can just add to your typeface to cause it to take the world by storm.

You just have to design the best typeface you can, with awareness of and sensitivity to current tastes, and hope that your typeface becomes accepted. So with hits being a hit-or-miss process in typography as it is in popular music... when a typeface is a hit, of course as soon as it becomes generally available, it will be overused.

Since designers work to serve their customers, and their customers generally have mercantile goals, a counsel to be more adventurous or more original is not likely to be heeded - except by some who are driven by their own æsthetic imperatives to do so come what may, and then a few from within that group will have the talent to pull it off and ascend to the stratospheric heights of that profession.

Not every artist can be Michaelangelo. But they all have to put food on the table.

JamesM's picture

And keep in mind that many folks here think about fonts all the time, but a graphic designer has many other aspects to their job — photos, illustrations, layout, printing, web coding, client meetings, etc.

Choosing fonts is important but may represent only a tiny fraction of their time, so they may tend to use old favorites.

DrDoc's picture

I don't think ubiquity can kill a typeface (especially not one the skews as far towards the vernacular as Gotham), but it can certainly make it harder to wield effectively.

DrDoc's picture

I don't think ubiquity can kill a typeface (especially not one the skews as far towards the vernacular as Gotham), but it can certainly make it harder to wield effectively.

Martin Silvertant's picture

Yes, but the reasons why this is true do not also apply to questions of æsthetics.

That's very true, but I think it's a common misconception that design is entirely subjective. Art will be more subjective, but in design there are many principles at play which could be considered to be objectively true, even if only through the lens of human understanding and culture.

I don't disagree with you, but there is a bit of counterbalance.

Even I was able to notice that it somehow had that quality of being 'sexy' or whatever that would make it usable in

There are quite a few typefaces on that list I can definitely appreciate, but compared to all that is available, I find most choices to be quite dull.

So with hits being a hit-or-miss process in typography as it is in popular music... when a typeface is a hit, of course as soon as it becomes generally available, it will be overused.

That's understandable, but why some typefaces linger is perhaps less understandable. For example, Helvetica was a great success at the time, but if you're going to select Helvetica as the best typeface nowadays, I think you're just ill-informed. I guess I feel many designers aren't really going with the time when it comes to typefaces.

Since designers work to serve their customers, and their customers generally have mercantile goals, a counsel to be more adventurous or more original is not likely to be heeded - except by some who are driven by their own æsthetic imperatives to do so come what may, and then a few from within that group will have the talent to pull it off and ascend to the stratospheric heights of that profession.

I think you're implying the quality most designers will provide satisfy the needs of their clients and only few designers have the capacity to take it to the next level. I agree with that, but I don't think one should be satisfied with keeping clients satisfied. One should aspire to offer the best possible.

I see a really nasty side-effect of only satisfying clients when I look at design on the street. Clients usually aren't trained in design and so although one could argue their opinions are valid, I feel like the designer should know what works best — more so than the client does. By only satisfying the client, at times the quality will suffer a bit. I see a lot of really ugly posters on the streets and typographic mistakes like using hyphens where dashes should be used are really prevalent. As a result, people in general no longer understand what good design is. They see the designs around them and think it's the best one could offer, but clearly a lot of things are going wrong and barely anyone notices them.

I'm keeping a visual diary about typography by taking pictures every day because this is my way of dealing with my frustrations, and I can tell you that in 90% of the times hyphens are used where dashes are appropriate. This really angers me, because the correct typographical practice seems to be almost lost and I actually think of it as seriously as using dots where comma's are appropriate. There has been a loss of function in typography and only few people notice it. I'm actually surprised at the occasional moments I do spot it being done correctly, as I've learned not to expect it.

The standard of design is way too low. We designers should be the ones to guard quality, but quite obviously we can only protect what we're aware of. Most designers don't know what an en dash or em dash is, so they will do it wrong. The client won't notice everything that is going wrong because he's not trained to do so. As such, I think it's a dangerous practice not to aspire to more than what the client needs.

Martin Silvertant's picture

And keep in mind that many folks here think about fonts all the time, but a graphic designer has many other aspects to their job — photos, illustrations, layout, printing, web coding, client meetings, etc.

Yes, and yet it's their job to protect the quality on all these aspects. As such I don't consider it to be a good thing that the profession of a designer is getting broader and broader and as a result the quality inherently suffers. Design studios should consist of more specialists, rather than whole teams who do the exact same thing.

JamesM's picture

> the profession of a designer is getting broader and
> broader because as a result the quality inherently suffers.

I agree. But there are many professions where a broad range of tasks needs to be performed.

> Design studios should consist of more specialists

Some designers do have specialties. A famous example is Susan Kare who specializes in computer icon design. The problem with being too specific is that it limits job opportunities.

Martin Silvertant's picture

I agree. But there are many professions where a broad range of tasks needs to be performed.

I don't really see your point. Those other professions probably suffer as well. I don't think it's just design where the quality suffers due to the broad range of tasks required to be accomplished — in too little time. It's a big problem within the government as well.

Some designers do have specialties. A famous example is Susan Kare who specializes in computer icon design. The problem with being too specific is that it limits job opportunities.

I know some do, and in my opinion the studios who do have specialists often accomplish higher quality. I also know that it's not a viable option for many design studios. However, I think every design studio should at least have one person in their team who knows a lot about typography. They will usually have graphic designers, illustrators, web designers and programmers but no one with a particular knowledge of typography. I think that's really odd considering typography is a large part of graphic design.

Also, I understand a specialist who does just one thing is expensive and thus difficult to maintain. Rather, I think every designer should have a specialty, so they can do a broader range of things like you would expect from a designer, but also have a specialty in which they can compliment the team.

JamesM's picture

> I don't really see your point. Those other
> professions probably suffer as well.

True, but that's the way that many jobs are.

My doctor is a general practitioner who diagnoses and treats a broad range of problems. My lawyer handles everything from wills to lawsuits to defending folks charged with crimes. An architect may design everything from churches to houses to office buildings.

Will a specialist do better? Probably so. But there's also a place for the generalist who can handle a broad range of design projects.

> I think every design studio should at least have one person
> in their team who knows a lot about typography.

Yes, that's a good idea.

quadibloc's picture

@Martin Silvertant:
I see a really nasty side-effect of only satisfying clients when I look at design on the street.

I should note that when I wrote about satisfying clients, I was thinking of competent clients, i.e. magazines like Vogue or Vanity Fair, not, say, the average laundromat or convenience store looking for a sign to put up.

In this case, FontFont is not an option, and we're talking the Letraset catalog; I hope that people at a typical sign-making shop can advise customers about spelling or grammatical mistakes, and they may even have heard that Papyrus and Comic Sans should be used with caution, but in general I think a very different set of issues arises at that level compared to what was being discussed - the overuse of trendy typefaces by the world's top designers.

At the local sign shop level, what's getting overused are things like Pretoria and Serpentine - not currently "trendy" by any stretch of the imagination.

Martin Silvertant's picture

I was thinking of competent clients, i.e. magazines like Vogue or Vanity Fair, not, say, the average laundromat or convenience store looking for a sign to put up.

Hmm I don't know if I like the distinction between competent and incompetent clients. Isn't it the designer's job to guarantee quality? I know some clients can be difficult and ignorant so I understand what you're getting at, but I'm not sure it's competence necessarily what makes Vogue. Also, laundromats are the other end of the spectrum. What I was particularly getting at are posters for festivals and larger organisations. No Vogue, but still entities you would expect more of. Besides, mixing up hyphens and dashes doesn't have much to do with the client.

JamesM's picture

I probably wouldn't use the word "competent" as it's generally not the client's job to understand design. That's the designer's job.

But certainly there are clients who have no taste and refuse to listen to advice, and projects for them seldom end up in the portfolio.

quadibloc's picture

I'm not sure what term is appropriate; but it just seemed to me that major clients who can afford to hire highly qualified typographers - and who have enough in-house expertise to assess their work competently - are a completely different kettle of fish than small businesses having signage done, and so I felt using one to make a point in a discussion about the other would only confuse matters.

DrDoc's picture

Eh, the more money a client has, the less likely they are to have great work, because then you're dealing with corporate structures and chains of approval. A small business that is thoughtful enough to hire a graphic designer instead of just going to a sign shop is usually where the best work comes from.

Sye's picture

I think picking a font should be based on appropriateness for the intended function. Part of that equation is the question of how different or similar to others in that market do you/the client want to be. If you want to look trustworthy, established and permanent, then you might pick a font or style that is popular amongst other companies that share those values (or perceived values). Equally so if you want to appear cutting edge and trendy, you might intentionally reject all the fonts being used by competitors in that market and pick something completely different.

But, for me, this is always tempered with the reality that most people don't consciously look at the letterforms with way type designers and even graphic designers do. So taking a step back, and trying to look at the overall impact of the identity helps me decide is a specific font choice is working or not. Sometimes, using a ubiquitous font is appropriate.

quadibloc's picture

Usually, I would have thought, companies want to use a typeface that

a) is not used by any other company in the same market, but

b) which has the same qualities as the typefaces used by other companies in that market, but is better.

If the competition is using Times Roman, I'll use Life. If the competition is using Palatino, I'll use FF Maiola. If the competition is using Gill Sans, I'll use Hypatia Sans.

That sort of thing.

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