American Grotesk design information

American Grotesk® is a reprisal of Franklin Gothic, which has staked its place as a key part of American graphic vernacular history, notably in persuasive communication. American Grotesk® appears in a time when truths, half-truths, lies, fiction, or entertainment seem interchangeable, resulting in a culture of personal truths.

4,278 words by Kris Sowersby
29 January 2024

Franklin Gothic was released as a single weight in 1902 by American Type Founders (ATF). Like many sans serifs of the era, it was added to piecemeal, eventually creating a de facto font family.¹ In 1906, it was expanded with a Condensed and Extra Condensed. In 1907, Monotone Gothic was released, essentially a wide version. Lighter companions called News Gothic and Lightline [Gothic] were released in 1908, and an italic was finally released in 1910. All of these styles are credited to Morris Fuller Benton, a prolific typeface designer. He headed ATF’s design department from 1900 to 1937, creating 221 originals and revivals like Clearface, Cheltenham, Hobo, Souvenir, and the Century series.

See Dan’s history of Akzidenz Grotesk for good example.

Franklin Gothic, ATF (1902)

Franklin Gothic Condensed, ATF (1906)

Franklin Gothic Extra Condensed, ATF (1906)

News Gothic, ATF (1912)

Lightline [Gothic], ATF (1912)

Writing about typefaces is a relatively modern act. We rarely know what long-dead typeface designers thought about their own work, or their rationale for making them. The “laconic” Benton was no exception.² We don’t exactly know his intentions in making the Franklin Gothic family, but the ATF type specimens suggest using it for publicity headlines and editorial use. Franklin Gothic’s narrow proportions make it perfect for these scenarios. Indeed, it was enormously successful for editorial headlines. Its legacy is still felt in journalistic use today in stalwart publications like the New York Times and Times magazine.

But editorial use alone doesn’t define Franklin Gothic. Like its designer, Franklin Gothic is a humble typeface. Franklin Gothic’s power lies across popular culture, well-documented on sites like Fonts In Use. It’s all over album covers, candy packaging, baseball cards, presidential campaigns, comics, and all the other wonderful vernacular detritus that makes up the aesthetic of our daily lives.

Juliet Shen, “Searching for Morris Fuller Benton”, (2006): 5.

Designer unknown

Possibly designed by Jeff Nelson, 1981

Possibly designed by Arturo Vega, 1976

Designed by Andrea Klein, 1982

Does vernacular use make Franklin Gothic vernacular? Perhaps so. As it is comfortable in the warmth of popular culture, it’s more than happy in hardcore mosh pits and drinking whisky with cowboys. I’d like to suggest a third pillar to Franklin Gothic’s power: pushing back on the front lines of protest and counter-culture.

In December 1969, Yoko Ono and John Lennon launched an international multimedia campaign. They rented billboards in 12 major cities around the world declaring, “WAR IS OVER! If You Want It – Happy Christmas from John & Yoko”. This was the height of the counter-culture movement and its protests against America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The campaign is ongoing, and has been translated into many languages. While the original WAR IS OVER billboards aren’t exactly Franklin Gothic, the rest of Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s campaign is. It’s hard to overestimate how important this singular use piece of typography is — it’s become truly iconic, which isn’t said lightly. The WAR IS OVER typography continues to resonate with graphic designers today.

In 1968, somehow anticipating the WAR IS OVER campaign, Billy Apple and Robert Coburn used Franklin Gothic for Avant Garde magazine’s anti-war poster campaign. Over the next decades, Billy Apple would continue his art practice and eventually become one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s best artists, notable for his prominent and meticulous use of typography — particularly hand-painted Futura. It’s therefore no coincidence he used exactly Franklin Gothic for their Fuck War poster: it’s loaded with meaning.

From my (admittedly limited) observations, Franklin Gothic had only modest use in Europe. There was extremely tough competition: Europe has whole dynasties of stellar sans serifs with accompanying graphic culture. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the continent was in the grips of modernism. Helvetica and Univers were doing very well indeed. But some designers were tired of the modernist spectre haunting Europe.

Like America, Europe had its own counter-culture movement and protests during the 1960s. The various movements included street protests and also smaller, but still significant, gestures across arts and publishing. Largely aligned with an anti-establishment ethos, there were large protests like May 68, which brought France’s economy to a halt, and smaller ones like Provo, the short-lived Dutch counter-culture movement.

Designed by Karel Martens

Designed by Karel Martens

Designed by Karel Martens

Designed by Karel Martens

Around the time modernism was dominating the Dutch scene, Karel Martens worked as a volunteer for the Filmhuis Nijmegen (an alternative theatre). Martens is a living typographic legend. He’s never been afraid to push back against prevailing trends and aesthetics. His work has a precise, material quality. Unconstrained by limitations, Martens brings an unconventional and thoughtful humanity to systemic projects. “He prefers to exploit plain, honest techniques and materials, a feature which is always evident in his choice of paper, letter type, colour, and format.”³ Over several years, he painstakingly created many posters for Filmhuis Nijmegen, choosing Franklin Gothic to “escape the popularity of the helvetica.”

Email with the author, March 2024.

Production artwork by Karel Martens

Production artwork by Karel Martens

Using Letraset Franklin Gothic and the IBM Selectric Composer for Univers, Martens artworked the posters at A4 (280 x 240mm) and enlarged them to 640 x 450mm during production. “A rather laborious method”, says Martens, “but in the end got a free ticket for the movies.”

Letraset Franklin Gothic Bold, 60pt. Courtesy Dan Rhatigan/Letraslut

Letraset Franklin Gothic Condensed, 96pt. Courtesy Dan Rhatigan/Letraslut

Letraset Franklin Gothic Extra Condensed, 192pt. Courtesy Dan Rhatigan/Letraslut

Letraset is a relatively cheap system of rubdown lettering launched in 1961. It was simple to use and enabled professional results for patient typographers. Up until then, the only way to set type professionally was letterpress, which was expensive and out of reach for smaller budget operations. Letraset was crucial for independent publishers and musicians.

Hardcore flyer, designer unknown (1984)

Adaptation of Winston Smith’s logo, designer unknown

Hardcore flyer, Designer Unknown (1984), designer unknown

Ad in Hardcore magazine, designer unknown

“From the very beginning, Punk’s visual art was deliberately simple, DIY. Anybody could make it if you had a demented enough brain. All it took was scissors or a razor blade and some glue…”

Jello Biafra, “The Art of Punk” interview.

“And it wasn’t just the designers who got inspired. Thanks to Letraset’s hyper availability, non-designers were given licence to function as professional designers. The fanzine world was quick to adopt Letraset as one of the typographical vehicles of choice, along with the typewriter, the IBM golf ball and hand lettering.”

So when Martens dryly quips that the process was “rather laborious”, he’s not exaggerating — making typography of this calibre and quantity with rubdown lettering is extraordinary. His meticulous typography combined with a DIY ethos resulted in better quality typography than bigger budgets using Helvetica.

Designed by Karel Martens

Designed by Karel Martens

Designed by Karel Martens

Designed by Karel Martens

The Filmhuis Nijmegen posters were printed by SSN (Stichting Studentenpers Nijmegen), an alternative printer of SUN Publishing House. They caught the attention of the SUN editor Hugues Boekraad, “from a distance it seemed to be a sublimated version of the messages in the wall-posters of May 1968. The poster came from the alternative sphere, but was given form by a designer: it evoked the spontaneous oppositional spirit of a social movement, while at the same time acknowledging the publicity values of an established institution, without letting those values damage its functionality.” Boekraad then gave Martens the assignment to design Recht en kritiek (Law and criticism). Again he reached for Franklin Gothic, producing a swathe of covers over the next several years. Each issue had a solid colour to gradually form a rainbow.

Designed by Karel Martens

Designed by Karel Martens

Designed by Karel Martens

Designed by Karel Martens

Their working relationship flourished into an ongoing programme of covers for SUN. These covers are amongst my favourite of Martens’s work. Using ranged-left Franklin Gothic for titles and authors, solid bars, and a restrained colour palette, Martens created a flexible system for hundreds of covers. His system allows the full spectrum of expression, from sober restraint to full-bleed maximalism.

“One could place the books that emerged from the SUN in the 1970s in the larger context of European left publishing”, writes Robin Kinross in the introduction of Printed matter \ drukwerk, the highly sought after book on Martens’s work. Like SUN, these publishers often used the systemic ideas of modernism to publish their serialised volumes. Later in his career, Martens would continue to use Franklin for the OASE series of critical architecture writing. His countryman, Jan van Toorn, also used it occasionally for book covers and successfully for his calendars as well.

Robin Kinross, “Printed matter \ drukwerk”, (2003): 21

Nº 0001 — Becker, Jurek: Jakob, der Lügner (1970)

Nº. 0003 — Heißenbüttel, Helmut: Das Textbuch (1970)

Nº 0006 — Kofler, Leo: Stalinismus und Bürokratie (1970)

Nº 0007 — Domin, Hilde: Nachkrieg und Unfrieden, Gedichte 1945-1970 (1970)

Nº 0010 — Pross, Harry: Publizistik (1970)

Nº 0016 — Hobsbawn, Eric J.: Sozialrebellen (1971)

Nº 0019 - Gallas, Helga: Marxistische Literaturtheorie (1971)

Nº 0053 — Vilmar, Fritz: Modelle und Strategien der Demokratisierung I (1972)

While Martens was making work for SUN, Hermann Luchterhand Verlag started publishing the Sammlung Luchterhand series over the border in Germany. I have long admired this series, designed Hannes Jähn. It’s a purely typographic approach, using the same size and colour Franklin Gothic for the author’s name and title, then running straight into the text. It’s such a fresh, honest approach that obviates arguments over what image or illustration to put on the cover. Franklin Gothic’s pragmatic proportions are very useful for languages with long words, like German.

Designer unknown (1973).

Designed by John Holmes (1971)

Designer unknown (1971).

Designer unknown (1967).

Over the next few decades, Franklin Gothic appears on covers for books with serious themes. Penguin’s non-fiction imprint, the Pelican series, is well-regarded in book design circles. The designer word-breaks Existentialism for good effect. John Holmes uses Franklin Gothic well to support the image on his iconic cover for Germain Greer’s radical polemic The Female Eunuch. The full title for Underside is The underside of American history; other readings — a fitting use for a repeated and distorted Franklin Gothic. The Police cover is minimal, authoritarian, and mildly threatening. Franklin Gothic’s hard-edged and serious aesthetic perfectly fits the tone for all these covers.

“Metropolis M contribution”. Experimental Jetset, 2011

“Zang! Tumb Tumb”. Experimental Jetset, 2003

“The No-Thing, TTQ 32”. Experimental Jetset, 2016

Experimental Jetset are one of the best design studios today. The small independent practice started in 1997 and they describe their work as “turning language into objects”. The breadth of their work is tied together with conceptual and typographic rigour. Experimental Jetset are well-known for their use of Helvetica, so much so that some people incorrectly assume that it’s the only typeface they use. Careful examination of their œuvre demonstrates otherwise, like the three examples of Franklin Gothic above. The direct references to Ono and Lennon’s WAR IS OVER campaign is obvious, but this time there’s subtle Dutch dry humour as well. ZANG! TUM BTUMB is in the fluxus spirit, the CUTLURE placard is hilarious, and the ¡NO! protest poncho is practical and powerful. These simple works have much more resonance knowing the counter-culture history of Franklin Gothic, and Experimetal Jetset’s longstanding interest and engagement with Provo.

“Pioneers of Change”. Experimental Jetset, 2009

In 2009, Experimental Jetset brought Franklin Gothic back home for the Pioneers of Change group exhibition on Governor’s Island in New York. Organised by Droog, it was a celebration of the 400-year relationship between Amsterdam and New York. 2009 marked 400 years since the Dutch alighted and named it “New Amsterdam”. As Experimental Jetset explain, “obviously, there’s a whole historical, geo-political (and also colonial) dimension to this story.” The massive, and unfortunately unrealised, LAND! billboard is humorous at first blush, but the realities of colonialism, land theft, and contemporary real estate problems quickly surface. Simultaneously presenting as a billboard and protest placard, Franklin Gothic once again quietly upholds a serious message.

Record Cover for Wet, “Theres a Reason”. Bráulio Amado

Record Cover for Wet, “Softens”. Bráulio Amado

Record Cover for Wet, “Lately”. Bráulio Amado

Poster, “Patagonia”. Bráulio Amado, 2018

Poster, “Little League Shows”. Bráulio Amado, 2018

Poster, “Amyl And The Sniffers”. Bráulio Amado, 2021

Poster, “The Baffler”. Bráulio Amado, 2019

In stark contrast to Experimental Jetset’s sober use of Franklin Gothic is the energetic chaos of Bráulio Amado, a Portuguese designer and illustrator currently living in New York City. His work is amazing, a colourful orgy of type and image. Amado’s work demonstrates how Franklin Gothic simultaneously takes a thrashing and supports wild imagery. Much like cheaply produced DIY zines, Franklin Gothic can be dragged through a bush backwards and come out smiling.

After viewing Amado’s prolific output, I was curious as to why he chose Franklin Gothic. He replied, “I’m honestly terrible at picking fonts and there was one year I thought that maybe I should just do like Experimental Jetset and only use Helvetica and/or Franklin whenever I’m not drawing my own letters, so… hmm… I sort of did that. haha. Normally I try to pick 2 or 3 fonts and just use those for a whole year.” Like Martens, another droll reply! Even if Amado thinks he’s terrible at picking fonts, he’s really bloody good at using them.

Years ago, inspired by Jetset, my good mate got drunk and declared he’d only use Helvetica for a year. We got him to sign a contract… which we promptly lost.

Franklin Gothic is a malleable, adaptable typeface that doesn’t dominate the final aesthetic. It handles everything from DIY Punk flyers and anti-war propaganda through to socialist book systems and illustrated madness. Benton’s letterforms are extremely robust, pleasantly unfussy, and plain. They’re obviously well-designed, his functional groundwork was never overrun by mannerism. He was clearly comfortable working with modern tools to achieve his vision. His output, however, was intended for metal type, a technology that was superseded in the 1970s by photo typesetting. One of the biggest photosetting companies was the International Typeface Corporation (ITC). In 1980, Franklin Gothic got the ITC treatment. It’s often talked about in type design circles, but it might be worth noting what exactly the “ITC Concept” actually was. According to their 1980 specimen,

I wrote this for Family, but it’s still applicable.

The New Legibility: It is a truism that if type can’t be read, there’s not much point in setting it. It is equally true that if typography does not attract and encourage readership it is not doing its job. The age-old battle between how much legibility to sacrifice in order to achieve distinction has taken a new turn with the development of photographic and digital typesetting machines. The ITC concept recognizes this and attempts to bring to its original designs and to its versions of classic metal faces a satisfying blend of distinction and legibility. No longer shackled by the mechanical restrictions of metal typesetting and type manufacturing, ITC typefaces take four routes in order to reach an optimum of individuality and readability: 1.) Feature a large lowercase x-height; 2.) Refine the strokes of the characters to facilitate a neat, flowing fit; 3.) Control the character spacing so as to stabilize the composition and reduce unnecessary and disturbing visual gaps between characters and words; 4.) Control internal white space so that letters can be reduced or enlarged from the master size on an image carrier and at the same time retain character and legibility.

This means Franklin Gothic’s hard lines were redrawn with malleable curves and a bigger x-height. Under license from American Type Founders, “ITC commissioned Victor Caruso to create four new weights in roman and italic — book, medium, demi and heavy – while preserving the characteristics of the original ATF design.”¹⁰ As with all typographic marketing claims, we can take it with a grain of salt. I’d argue that Caruso preserved some of the characteristics while replacing others. A typeface is a sum of its parts; all the details give it identity. At a certain point, if too many details are changed, the typeface’s whole identity changes.

Photo-Lettering, Inc. also made numerous phototype versions of Franklin Gothic.

ITC Franklin”, Linotype Font Magazine. Retrieved 8 May 2024.

News Gothic

Franklin Gothic

ITC Franklin Gothic Book

ITC Franklin Gothic Heavy

Caruso seems to have made three broad decisions with ITC Franklin Gothic. Firstly, he changed the proportions as per the dictate in The New Legibility. It’s not as extreme as other fonts like ITC Garamond, but it’s still noticeable. He then smoothed all joins and connections, trading Benton’s brisk energy for increased warmth. Finally, he made a consistent weight range, but the Book and Demi weights are derived from re-imagining a lighter Franklin Gothic, rather than adapting Benton’s Lightline and News Gothic. Caruso’s Franklin Gothic is an excellent design, but the comparison to Helvetica is inevitable. I don’t know if it was introduced in order to compete against or to capitalise on Helvetica’s success, or whether it’s purely coincidental. Whatever the reason, too much of Franklin Gothic’s identity was lost.

American Grotesk attempts to honour Franklin Gothic’s identity by turning the disparate Benton gothics into a coherent family.

The first move was assuming that News and Lightline Gothic were intended as lighter styles of Franklin Gothic, despite there being no direct evidence of Benton’s intention. The second was using three widths of Franklin Gothic to set the foundation for the rest of the styles. This was important, as the original cuts of News Gothic Extra Condensed are flat-sided, similar to Benton’s contemporaneous Alternate Gothic series. The wider styles were also ignored, namely 190X Monotone Gothic and 195X Franklin Gothic wide. Franklin Gothic’s vigour resides in the relatively narrow proportions. Making it wider, like Caruso’s ITC Franklin Gothic, diminishes its energy. American Grotesk uses Benton’s original 5 styles as the basis for its 42-style collection across three widths.

Low stroke contrast, Söhne.

Medium stroke contrast, American Grotesk

High stroke contrast, Domaine Sans Text

Extreme stroke contrast, Domaine Sans Fine

American Grotesk retains a subtle and fundamental aspect of Franklin Gothic: stroke contrast. Franklin Gothic has what I’d consider medium contrast. In comparison, Söhne has low contrast, Domaine Sans Text has high contrast, and Domaine Sans Fine has extreme contrast. In type design, stroke contrast is the weight difference between strokes, between the thick and thin parts of a letter. While it’s almost impossible and optically unsatisfactory to have zero contrast across a typeface, most sans serifs have very low contrast and aspire to be optically as monotone as possible.¹¹

See “Original geometry” in The Future design information for an in-depth discussion.

Söhne Fett, low stroke contrast

American Grotesk Heavy, medium stroke contrast

Franklin Gothic’s medium contrast was carefully worked into American Grotesk. Functionally, it obviates ink traps because thick/thin stroke joins balance naturally, and very little optical correction is necessary. It also opens up the interior of letterforms, allowing more white space. This gives the typeface breathing room at small sizes and prevents it feeling cramped at large sizes.

Aesthetically, the medium contrast gives American Grotesk a liveliness and energy compared to a more sober typeface like Söhne. Many of the classic examples of Franklin Gothic use all-caps, but they never feel shouty. I suspect it’s the quiet rhythm of the stroke contrast that lets it be bold without being brash.

American Grotesk maintains several key details of Franklin Gothic.

  1. Short extenders on capitals like E and F.
  2. Angled terminals with the lovely asymmetric bite on C. This normalises towards a horizontal terminal in the narrower styles.
  3. The x-height / ascender / cap-height relationship is very similar,
  4. including the overall width, unlike ITC Franklin Gothic.
  5. Sharp joins on all junctions,
  6. except for b, because every typeface needs a small amount of frisson to keep things interesting.

Certain details needed to change:

  1. Franklin Gothic’s a has a flat top, like it was dropped on its head. I’m a sucker for continuous curvature, so I smoothed out American Grotesk’s.
  2. The g tail is horizontal and the ear less shrill. The angled tail is fine in Franklin Gothic, but the construction of almost every other letterform is essentially rectilinear.
  3. Flat terminals in the Compressed s to match S.
  4. Despite all efforts, I just couldn’t make the y tail a continuous curve across all styles and weights. This is an unhappy compromise.

Wells & Webb wood type specimen, 1849.

American Grotesk, default 1

American Grotesk, alternate 1

American Grotesk, alternate wood type 1

During the development of American Grotesk, Bethany Heck provided insightful feedback for which I’m truly grateful. She also proposed a theory that Franklin Gothic’s DNA is essentially sans serif wood type. As it was designed towards the end of the wood type’s heyday, Benton surely would have been aware of all the amazing specimens, especially considering ATF’s vast catalogue and reach. It remains a tantalising research project, but for now is essentially unverifiable — Benton left no hard evidence of his inspiration for Franklin Gothic. Nevertheless, I included two alternate 1 glyphs, a serifless and “wood type” version to honour Heck’s theory.

↑ Franklin Gothic ↓ American Grotesk Heavy

↑ Lightline [Gothic] ↓ American Grotesk Light

↑ News Gothic ↓ American Grotesk Regular

There’s a certain industrial machined feel to Franklin Gothic: the extremely robust shapes are practical and enduring. You can sense the mechanical means of production — printing machines cranking lead and ink at a million miles an hour. Franklin Gothic’s tensile strength takes a beating. On the spectrum of sans serif letterform construction, Franklin Gothic sits between the humanist and neo-grotesk. They’re neither as wide open as Frutiger, nor as closed as Helvetica. The functional middle ground is where the grotesk lies.

…Morris Fuller Benton, even in his early efforts as a type designer, possessed the skill to create a printing type that could withstand obsolescence.

Alexander Lawson, “Anatomy of a Typeface”, (2005): 300.

Even though Caruso drew ITC Franklin Gothic closer to Helvetica, it didn’t dent Helvetica’s dominance in the upper echelons of corporate America. Neither was it widely adopted for haute couture like Futura or sci-fi tech like Eurostile. It also didn’t have the equivalent Swiss modernist backing like Univers and Akzidenz Grotesk. Despite all this, Franklin Gothic has resisted falling in and out of fashion, instead maintaining a steady solid presence within the American vernacular and avant-garde.

Because Benton was so reticent, we have no concrete idea of what he was thinking when he made Franklin Gothic. Other titans of the sans serif canon are leaden with concept: Futura, Helvetica, Gill Sans, Univers, and Frutiger. We know exactly what their designers wanted, their own values and the values they tried to imbue into their typefaces. Franklin has none of that. It’s found its own path over the last century.

Designed by Cornel Windlin (1994), photograph © Nadja Athanasiou

Writing about the linguistic lesson portrayed in the temporary Museum für Gestaltung sign, Hans Rudolf Bosshard says, “The typeface, which is Franklin Gothic, goes back to the early Grotesk letters of the nineteenth century. These faces have something robust about them that, given the many slick typeface designs we have today, strikes us as a great blessing.”¹²

Franklin Gothic was created without clear meaning, and so has accrued meaning through use. Its humble origins denied it elite corporate work, aloof academia, and access to fashion runways. The lack of ideological baggage coupled with functional construction allowed Franklin Gothic to adapt to all sorts of everyday environments like picket lines, mosh pits, bubblegum, and socialist literature. Franklin Gothic’s un-slick materiality is a bastion against the glossy façade of our digital present.

Hans Rudolf Bosshard, “The lettering of city buildings: observation and readability”, The Triumph of Typography, (2015): 270.

It is fantasy to hope that a typeface can undo the damage of an era that introduced the concept of fake news. One can only hope that truth centres itself over time, and isn’t destroyed in the maelstrom of the present. American Grotesk can’t turn back the post-truth tsunami, but can at least stand for the same honest values as Franklin Gothic.

Notes & references

See Dan’s history of Akzidenz Grotesk for good example.

Juliet Shen, “Searching for Morris Fuller Benton”, (2006): 5.

Email with the author, March 2024.

Robin Kinross, “Printed matter \ drukwerk”, (2003): 21

Years ago, inspired by Jetset, my good mate got drunk and declared he’d only use Helvetica for a year. We got him to sign a contract… which we promptly lost.

I wrote this for Family, but it’s still applicable.

Photo-Lettering, Inc. also made numerous phototype versions of Franklin Gothic.

ITC Franklin”, Linotype Font Magazine. Retrieved 8 May 2024.

See “Original geometry” in The Future design information for an in-depth discussion.

Hans Rudolf Bosshard, “The lettering of city buildings: observation and readability”, The Triumph of Typography, (2015): 270.

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Domaine design information

Domaine is a sharp, elegant serif that blends traditional French and British genres into a contemporary aesthetic. Curvaceous Latin detailing complements its distinctive hooked terminals.

Signifier design information

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