A Contemporary Interpretation of Copperplate Gothic
Honesty in form is one of the major tenets of modernism. In other words, a design should accomplish a narrowly defined function in the simplest manner possible. This belief is extolled in many design disciplines, including typography. In 1931, Eric Gill wrote:
“The world is not yet clothed in garments which befit it; in architecture, furniture, clothes, we are still wearing things which have no relation to the spirit which moves our life…. The majority still think Gothic architecture to be appropriate to churches, tho’ Gothic architecture is simply a method of building appropriate to stone and is not really more Christian than Hindu. We still make tables and chairs, even when we make them by machinery, with the same ornamental turnings & cornices & so forth as when furniture-making was the job of a responsible handicraftsman.” — An Essay on Typography, p. 6.
This attitude was influential. Designs such as Univers and Helvetica became, in the field of typography, a paragon of modernism — letterforms for a mechanized and commercialized society. It makes sense: Designers love the notion of a fixed form for a fixed purpose. There’s an honesty and simplicity to it that we find appealing and comforting. But this is an aspiration, not reality. Often, old forms that dealt with an old purpose are reused for a new and unintended purpose. For me, this is the story of Copperplate Gothic.
During the late Industrial Revolution, engraving for commercial printing became very popular. Out of this emerged the engraver’s sans serif. The letters carry small spur-like serifs, added to ‘sharpen’ the text. These small spurs are practically invisible at small sizes, but when the letterforms are scaled up, then, if the engraver’s intent is to be honored, the small spurs should be removed. But Fredric Goudy, the designer of Copperplate Gothic, went in a different direction. It could be said that he behaved in a manner similar to that of graphic designers in the 90s. Those designers would take an Agate typeface and blow it up for the novelty of the resulting forms. They took forms designed and intended for one context and used them in another. Essentially, this is the story of Copperplate Gothic, the engraver’s sans serif used in an unintended context.
For whatever reason, Copperplate Gothic survived into digital, and has become shorthand for sophistication, elegance, and culture. Indebted to being pre-installed on most computers, Copperplate Gothic has become something of a go-to or default typeface in much the same way as Times New Roman and Arial have. But it is a lackluster solution. No lowercase, problematic letterform construction, limited language support, and paucity of weights are, in my opinion, major drawbacks in the Copperplate Gothic design. While attending CooperType, I asked myself, how should a contemporary Copperplate Gothic look?
Ever look closely at the spurs on Copperplate? Quite awkward, aren’t they? In all the digital versions, the spurs are bracketed. Attaching spurs to these low contrast sans serif letterforms results in a dissonant hiss. Scaling these letters to large sizes turns that hiss into a screech. The first problem to solve was how to make these spurs work. After some time, I came to the conclusion that the best solution was to treat the spurs like regular serifs and construct them as unbracketed wedge or slab serifs. This recreates all the sharpness of the original, but with a much more satisfactory performance at larger sizes.
Another troublesome aspect is how the terminals are handled. For a design that has become a shorthand for elegance, the angle terminals of the capitals are anything but. This made sense for Goudy’s original intent for Copperplate to be a work of pastiche, but in today’s context, a better solution is required. Not unlike how a tailor hems his cuts, finishing Garçon’s terminals vertically or horizontally helps give it a clean and orderly appearance.
Then there’s the question of where to place the spurs. Adding spurs in every single instance would be overwhelming, so my priority was to add them while maintaining the overall typographic color and rhythm. If adding the spur improved the color, I kept it in; if not, it was omitted.
All these decisions were made before I approached the lowercase. From the outset I understood the difficulty of designing a lowercase for this model. So, several strategies were used to make the spurs feel as natural as possible. The transitions in curved letters, such as a, e, and c were made with a high shoulder; that is, the curves moved relevantly abruptly from horizontal to vertical points.
Even as the final deadline for CooperType drew closer, I was determined to include multiple weights and small caps, which I felt were essential to showcase Garçon. I had drawn the bold weight in the second semester of CooperType and spent the third semester drawing the lightest weight possible. An extremely thin weight was not practical, as there needs to be some contrast between the main strokes of the letterform and the spurs. I rested on a weight ratio of 8 units for the spurs and 32 units for the vertical strokes in the Thin weight. Thanks to interpolation with Python, it was possible to build out the intermediate weights of Garçon in an reasonable amount of time, allowing me to focus my last remaining energy on the small caps.
At the time of the TDC exhibition, Garçon had five weights all with small caps. But I wanted much more for the retail release. Foremost, was to expand the character set. Some foundries publish these accented characters as a “pro” release at an additional fee. I disagree with this model. Just because you speak Croatian or Turkish, shouldn’t mean you have to pay more than a designer who speaks English.
The name Garçon comes from the French word for boy, but it is also used for young male waiters. In that respect, it’s an appropriate name for this typeface, not only for the obvious reason of its intended market, but also in how I see this project in the context of my professional career. I finished my apprenticeship with Joshua Darden back in 2008. Since then, I’ve worked as a freelance graphic designer, spending my spare time cultivating my own typographic voice. But for the longest time, I felt like I was merely a shadow of Joshua and, for years, I hesitated to even show people my work. This was true until I learned of CooperType and decided to apply. While in the program, a personal goal was to produce something I wanted the world to see, something that would crystalize all my training. It might sound grandiose, but I think I succeeded because of how simple Garçon turned out. It doesn’t try to grandstand or impress with exuberance. It is simply an honest answer to the question: How to make something that I see everyday better?
Designers like the idea of complete control over their work, and we naturally strive to impress our peers. But it is easy for us to forget that to design is to make something that people will actually use. No matter how well we plan, where and how that design will end up is out of our hands. Moreover, we should not be asking solely whether it is novel or not but rather what problems the design solves, and how successfully it solves them. Garçon Grotesque was designed with this in mind. Even something that has descended into the vernacular, such as Copperplate Gothic, can be improved upon. — Thomas Jockin.