Gotham-Light Ain’t a Web Font

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 13 seconds

Here’s something peculiar I came across recently:

On the left is what I saw in Chrome and on the right is what I saw in Chrome after I’d deleted ‘Gotham-Light’ from the beginning of that page’s <body> font stack within the Chrome Web Inspector. Actually, there were a couple of linked CSS files on this page competing for control over which font the browser should use to display text. Here’s what I saw:

body {
     color: #999999;
     font-family: 'Gotham-Light', Helvetica, Verdana, sans-serif;
     font-size: 10pt;
}

followed by:

body {
     font: 13px/1.231 arial,helvetica,clean,sans-serif;
}

Now, I won’t even comment on what’s wrong with that second body style—just don’t meditate on it too long or your brain will come pouring out your nose.

The first one, however, I will go off on. First, who would think that a good fall-back font for Helvetica is Verdana but someone who couldn’t tell the two apart? I submit that such a person should not be specifying typefaces—anywhere. Second, if you’re going to use standard OS fonts (meaning you’re not using a webfont technology like TypeKit, FontDeck or the Google Font API), why not ensure that everyone is seeing the same one by specifying a good ol’ Core Font for the Web first such as Verdana, Arial, Georgia, etc? These come installed on both Mac and Win PCs by default, right? Well, I’ll tell you which font doesn’t come installed by default on any PC running any OS: Gotham-Light.

I happen to be one of the random individuals this web developer was fishing for when he/she specified Gotham-Light as the primary font-family for this website. The particular version I have installed on my Win 7 PC is an old postscript font I purchased eons ago from Hoefler Frere-Jones (along with a few other of their exquisitely designed typefaces) back when I was an active print designer.  The Gotham family is permanently activated as I often find use for it when no other sans-serif font seems to do the trick.

In any case, the font’s postscript code used to create the character shapes and spacing was never intended for entirely accurate (much less beautiful) representation on computer displays and the screenshot on the left shows why. Actually, on my Win 7 PC, only Chrome and Safari displayed the text in Gotham-Light, albeit poorly. IE 9 and Firefox 4 simply ignored it.

Mind you, this is no amature amateur website. It is for a major consumer brand with an extensive online presence. We’ve all got dirty laundry, I guess. But, I come across font-failures like this one fairly often and I just have to question the initial logic that created them.

And there I went.

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  • Jörg

    What’s wrong with the second line is that you should just use the best looking sans-serif font available.
    So as a smart guy I would go for
    body {
    font: 13px/1.231 sans-serif;
    }
    and leave the rest up to the individual system.

    But wait; that needs some knowledge of how to do things right. ;-)

  • Art Thompson, Jr.

    I’m with you, Jörg. If someone’s system really doesn’t have Arial or Helvetica installed, then why bother specifying “clean” at all? Seems to me that “sans-serif” should be able to deliver precisely what such a person wants to their stripped down system! Thanks for the comment, Art

  • Erik

    Yeah, just use sans-serif. Let your sites and applications appear in whatever sloppy old font Windows decides to use that day – or better yet, let your Mac choose Helvetica (which is generally unsuitable as a display font below certain sizes). Design is about control, and if you’re not controlling the user experience you aren’t a designer. I agree that the first screenshot does not look great, but that’s because Gotham Light is too fine to appear correctly on low-resolution displays. Gotham Book or heavier work just fine and the technology now exists to use such fonts without reservation. And there I went!

    • Art Thompson, Jr.

      Thanks for the comment, Erik. Fortunately or unfortunately, most average users don’t know their Verdanas from their Arials, much less go uninstalling the system fonts that come with their OSs. Perhaps my sarcasm didn’t come through as clearly (who wouldn’t at least have Arial or Helvetica installed anyway?), but “clean” is probably the worst descriptor of a typeface that I can think of. The person who defined these font stacks needs to crack a book!

  • Me

    “In any case, the font’s postscript code used to create the character shapes and spacing was never intended for entirely accurate (much less beautiful) representation on computer displays and the screenshot on the left shows why. ”

    No fonts were intended for entirely accurate (much less beautiful) representation on Windows OS.