Franklin Gothic ‘g’: Choosing Friendly Typefaces
Certain letterforms make me happy. Especially lowercase letters. Helvetica’s ‘e’ and ‘r’ build beautiful connections between letters, submitting their own form to the form of the whole word. The two-story ‘a’ in Garamond looks so mournful I want to take it in and care for it. I think it would get along with my dog.
But the ‘g’ in Franklin Gothic is my favorite. In the midst of this hard, blocky sans serif typeface sits this curvy two-story letter hopping slightly above the baseline and looking around trying to figure out why everyone else being so stiff. I use Franklin Gothic a lot, especially in its book form. It’s older than Helvetica and lacks many of its refinements. They share that modern ethic of simplicity through the banishment of ornament. But Franklin Gothic is used less often, and it has that ‘g’.
Like most architects I was trained in this modern ethic of “ornament as crime”. Even though I began studying architecture during the heyday of postmodern historicism, I knew very few architects who took it seriously. Though a few architects did some interesting things with it (like Aldo Rossi and James Stirling), most of it looked silly and pandering. Like buildings written in Comic Sans. I think it had the net effect of reinforcing modern design, if not in its simplicity at least in its rejection of historical references.
So as an architect that dabbles in graphic design I lean towards typefaces that look like modern buildings. Those little serifs on the ends of letters do often make them easier to read in print, but they still feel like ornament to me. Because of this my work with type has often been accused of being too stiff, too corporate, too dry. I secretly hope that the funny little Franklin Gothic ‘g’ will fix this problem without my having to abandon my taste for these stuffy typefaces.
If I want to connect with others better through my design work, though, do I need to make my peace with typefaces that have more character, more play? Do I really have to find a friendlier font?
When I introduce the design and use of typefaces to my high school students they have already been choosing fonts in Word and PowerPoint documents for years. They have some stake in the ones they like and don’t like. So when I suggest that some are better than others I usually get some pushback. A few students come to me as pre-formed design nerds. They already have a pretty good idea which fonts to avoid and know how to complain about the latest company to make an ill-advised logo change. Most, however, do not. So I have to calmly and respectfully answer the questions, “Why shouldn’t I use Comic Sans?” Or, “What’s wrong with Papyrus?”
I can easily make the formal case and the cultural case for avoiding these. They are sloppily designed and they are overused. But I think the bigger problem with them is relational.
Every image we create is caught up in relationships between people. If I create a sign, for instance, for an organization then both the organization and I stand “behind” the sign, representing one half of the relationship. The fluid and diverse set of people that read and experience design stand “in front” of it, forming the other half of the relationship. This is, I think, why we can legitimately use language for design that sounds like we’re talking about people. When my work is described as stiff or dry people could be using language to describe a drink, in which case maybe it’s compliment. But I don’t think so. I think they’re imagining an unfriendly dude in a suit looking down on others. And I don’t really want to be him.
I wonder if the problem with the use of Comic Sans or Papyrus lies in this relational dynamic. If I use Comic Sans with my high school students, is the primary problem my condescension toward them? Or if I’m a restaurateur that uses Papyrus on my menu to make it look vaguely foreign and old, am I treating both my customers and the country from whom the food is derived disrespectfully?