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Dr. Copperplate and Mr. Gothic

Over the years I have learned to master a few typefaces, knowing at what size, with which letterspacing and with how much leading they will look its best. Some are inherently easy to use: Gotham looks great in uppercase, generously letterspaced and slightly big, and then I avoid using it at 9pt. for long stretches of text; Caslon, on the other hand, at 9 over 12pts. with tracking at +10, mamma mia, you could read the whole Bible in one seating; or something quirky like my favored Cooper Black, that somehow manages to look great under any typographic circumstance. But just as well, there are typefaces that I will never be able to make look good, or even convincing: There is Abadi, an odd sans serif that I have had to use that is impossible to equalize as a pleasant viewing experience at any size; unlike thousands, I can’t get a grasp on Helvetica, I set it too tight, too loose, too big, too small, too blah; and something like Bodoni or Didot, proves too fragile for my sometimes blunt approach. Through it all, I have always made time to explore typefaces and see if I can tame them. Dead History, Mrs. Eaves, Serifa, Avance, Akzidenz Grotesk, Matrix Script… I have given all of these, and more, a go with mixed, but always fulfilling, results. Yet there is one typeface — perhaps my typographic Moby Dick — that has taunted me for a long time, unwilling to submit to my will, teasing me with the possibility of greatness: Copperplate Gothic.

Correct. Copperplate Gothic. A typeface now bundled in most Macs and PCs, readily available for PowerPoint presentations, Word documents and, for the more daring and less considerate, as live text for HTML. Equally, it’s not surprising to find it listed — under business, elegant, serious, traditional, etc. — as an option for off-the-rack, template designs for business cards, wedding invitations or restaurant menus that one could order from Kinko’s or makemeaboringdesign.com. It looks its (sarcastically) best when cheaply engraved on creamy linen stock or on gold-colored vinyl on the door of a private dick’s office. Copperplate Gothic’s default ubiquity and, by consequence, broad misuse, has procured it a place among The Designers’ Holy Hatred Font pantheon reigned by Papyrus and Comic Sans — and while there is still no campaign to ban Copperplate Gothic, it does have its detractors. Yet, to this more prevalent Mr. Hyde side of Copperplate Gothic, there is a valiant Dr. Jekyll ready to shine from its own evil cast.

Designed by Frederic Goudy in either 1901 or 1905, depending on which source you choose, Copperplate Gothic occupies a strange niche in the typographic world: It’s wide, it has no proper lowercase (only small caps) and, despite its Gothic (= sans) classification, it features the smallest, peskiest serifs known to humankind. Characteristics that on their own, and in other typefaces, render pleasant forms become an odd Frankenstein in Copperplate Gothic. And when you break down the character set to its individual forms it’s like picking ripe from rotten cherries — some are delicious, others are rather offensive.


Copperplate Gothic, 5 Characters that I love and 5 that I hate


Despite the unflattering words so far, there is a certain point, as seldom as a lunar eclipse, when the characteristics that make Copperplate Gothic such a nuisance can turn it into a strong, sophisticated and enigmatic typographic statement. Set in the right size, with the proper letterspacing, and in the serendipitously fitting context, this typeface can become surprisingly fulfilling, providing a dual sense of gravitas and freshness. For your consideration — and for my personal inspiration in my continued, but still elusive, attempts to master it — I have gathered some instances where Copperplate Gothic’s Dr. Jekyll manages to suppress its icky alter ego.


Rembrandt Toothpaste Logo

Rembrandt Packaging

Rembrandt logo and packaging

The revamped Rembrandt identity pretty much fueled this post and rekindled my hope that Copperplate Gothic could look simply amazing. (To appreciate how remarkable this change is, here is a sample of what the old one looked like). Upon closer inspection you will notice that this is an altered and customized version of Copperplate Gothic, which could lead to arguing about whether this counts as a valid example. I argue yes. The logo takes advantage of the established relationship of the Copperplate Gothic’s upper and lowercase characters and the nicely spaced, wide letters can’t say “whitening” any louder. Much credit has been given to the internal design team at Johnson & Johnson for the design of this packaging project, so let me sway the credit towards the unsung heroines at Little Fury.


Panic Room Opening Titles

Panic Room opening titles

The Picture Mill’s opening titles for Panic Room presented us with an ominous interpretation of Copperplate Gothic against the still New York landscape. With its ironcast execution, perfectly aligned with the city’s buildings, it’s not hard (nor sad) to imagine a day where we could live in a city flanked by 20-feet-high Copperplate Gothic letters. These titles later spawned some imitators (two car TV commercials I can’t specifically recall at the moment), including the Picture Mill’s own titles for A Night at the Museum.


Ratatouille Trailer

Ratatouille trailer (capture)

Copperplate Gothic has long been the signifier of a French culinary experience in a number of Bistros around the world, excluding France. Ratatouille exploits this connection with a nicely outlined shadow and considered kerning. The addition of the plump, pink nose, whiskers and chef hat give Copperplate Gothic a nice, playful feeling.


Seabiscuit Poster

Seabiscuit poster

When I close my eyes the only typeface that comes to mind when I hear “seabiscuit” is Cooper Black, but that’s just me. Luckily, someone else thought Copperplate Gothic would look terrific against a black background and next to the frail couple. What I like about this example is what happens when Copperplate Gothic’s serifs fill in with ink so they disappear ever so slightly leaving only a soft sharpness to the letters’ edges. The names at the top of the poster, small and airy look lovely.


White Stripes Icky Thump Album

White Stripes’ Icky Thump

This is the only example where I have to claim ignorance. I don’t listen to the White Stripes so I don’t know what’s going on here, other than the faux-regal execution of Copperplate Gothic in this faux-crest looks like rock ‘n’ roll. Bonus points for its implementation of the K, one of my top five.


Jean-Georges Vongerichten California Grape Seed Oil logo

Jean-Georges Vongerichten’ California Grape Seed Oil logo

If Copperplate Gothic is good enough for the typographically gifted Louise Fili then, by golly, it should be good enough for anyone. Small, airy, purple and set on a curve — what else could you ask for?


American Psycho, Business Card Scene

Paul Allen’s business card close-up, American Psycho

“OH MY GOD, it even has a watermark,” American Psycho

In its execution, this is perhaps the worst example of all. It’s too tight and all over the place with its use of upper and lowercase. But as the epitome of what a business card — in the business world of manly men in suits and slicked-back hair — should be, is simply laudable.


The LaSalle Bank Theatre Logo

Logo for The LaSalle Bank Theatre in Chicago

To finish, a bucketfull-of-freezing-cold-water-in-your-face reminder of how devastating Copperplate Gothic can be in the wrong context, use and execution.

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Sep.04.2007 BY Armin
john foust’s comment is:

The most beautiful implementations of Copperplate Gothic that i have seen are letterpress. Somehow the glyphic serifs make an optically crisper presentation, especially in smaller point sizes. Anyone out there have any JPGs of this?

On Sep.04.2007 at 10:18 AM
Aaron’s comment is:

I went to an Angels game (MLB) on Saturday and their stadium typeface of choice is Copperplate Gothic. It's rather nice looking at 2,000pt.

On Sep.04.2007 at 10:53 AM
Sean Flanagan’s comment is:

You touched on it briefly on the Jean-Georges Vongerichten logo, but one of the main usages I find for Copperplate Gothic (and other wide-character typefaces) is setting along a curve. This is where many typefaces simply fall apart or require more tweaking than desired.

On Sep.04.2007 at 11:27 AM
marian bantjes’s comment is:

Sean said it first, and Louise Fili executed it. This is what I use Copperplate Gothic for, and what I tell my students is one typeface that actually does set well on a curve, given generous letterspacing.

I wouldn't be one of those to cast aspersions on Copperplate Gothic. Overused perhaps, and badly used at times, but in all I consider it a useful little typeface. I'm usually relieved to see it in student work, over many of their other readily available, godawful choices. However, I prefer the heavier weights to the spindly ones.

For myself, the typeface that I have never mastered is Futura.

On Sep.04.2007 at 01:04 PM
Randy J. Hunt’s comment is:

When I had class with Ed Benguiat (another post altogether), he would rave about Copperplate. I have to say, I could never really get into it prior, but after realizing the genius that ended up surfacing from behind is super-wonky obsessions, it grew on me.

He kept repeating that someone could make a fortune designing a proper italics for Copperplate. Sounds like more than I'd want to bite off.

On Sep.04.2007 at 01:21 PM
Jon Dascola’s comment is:

Copperplate is never a font that has appealed to me. It always seems too expected. But props to Armin for finding some more palatable solutions though. I am actually quite fond of the Seabiscuit and Ratatouille work.

I believe Louise Fili could use papyrus and make it look wonderful, so that gives unfair points to the Dr. Jekyll side of the arguement.

As for me, I always like Gil Sans caps, but im humbled by copy set tastefully in the lower case. Just like socks with sandals, I cant pull it off.

On Sep.05.2007 at 09:48 AM
David E.’s comment is:

I'm not a fan of Copperplate. My thoughts are, if Milton Glaser couldn't make it look good, what am I going to do with it?


On Sep.05.2007 at 12:33 PM
danny’s comment is:

that last example is just criminal from start to finish. but all in all, a great look at some of the old girl's better uses.

love the panic room credits, hated the film.

On Sep.05.2007 at 01:21 PM
Thorri’s comment is:

If you can squeeze something good out of Akzidenz Grotesk, then Helvetica shouldn't be too hard to grasp.

I've never had the dislike for Copperplate, but I can only remember one occation I used it.

On Sep.05.2007 at 07:32 PM
Michael Bierut’s comment is:

"Is there something wrong, Patrick? You're sweating."

On Sep.05.2007 at 11:53 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> if Milton Glaser couldn't make it look good, what am I going to do with it?

David, wow, I hadn't actually realized that Brooklyn beer used Copperplate. My guess is that setting type on a curve back in the late 80s was anything but fun. But nonetheless, the type on that logo is painful.

On Sep.06.2007 at 02:16 PM
John Coulthart’s comment is:

Jonathan Barnbrook's Exocet has always seemed to owe a lot to Copperplate, even though he says it's based on older letterforms.

On Sep.06.2007 at 02:34 PM
TY’s comment is:

Ralph Lauren's new store concept, RUGBY, uses Copperplate.

It looks like the designer of the RUGBY logo took Copperplate Bold and added a black stroke, which thickens up the Bold to a Black and subdues the spiked serifs.

Here's a look at the signage on the RUGBY storefront.

On Sep.06.2007 at 07:21 PM
Linda M. Cunningham’s comment is:

I'll echo John Foust's initial comment about this looking fabulous in letterpress, but sadly can't provide any images.

Remember seeing it on a lawyer's business card back in the sixties, when Copperplate Gothic practically screamed "establishment" -- and not just for P.I.s either.

Although I haven't used it much over the years, it's certainly an arrow I keep in my quiver, as you never know when the "right" project will come along....

On Sep.06.2007 at 09:00 PM
Tselentis’s comment is:

Further evidence of Copperplate's power: the American Psycho business card scene. "Let's see Paul Allen's card... [it even has a watermark.]" Awesome. I will always remember that scene, and I will always be stunned at how Copperplate out played every other typeface.

On Sep.06.2007 at 09:08 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Um... Jason... Did you skip the last set of images in the original post?

On Sep.07.2007 at 08:31 AM
Tselentis’s comment is:

Ah, Armin, did not skip, but only championing those images as the best example of Copperplate power. Yes, it is poor type execution, but a powerful example.

On Sep.07.2007 at 10:39 AM
diane witman’s comment is:

An example of Copperplate used with the letterpess technique

Some times I love Copperplate Gothic and some times I hate it.

When I worked at the Philadelphia Museum of Art we used it on everything when it came to internal documents.

On Sep.07.2007 at 01:53 PM
John Foust’s comment is:

Oh snap! Copperplate nesting in some pulp fiber. delicious!
Thanks for the pic post witman!

On Sep.07.2007 at 02:53 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Ty's RUGBY example above perfectly illustrates the good/bad nature of Copperplate Gothic. RUGBY, on the storefront looks amazing, while on the web site it looks rather pathetic.

On Sep.07.2007 at 02:57 PM
thorri’s comment is:

While RUGBY nameplate on the website is certainly less than perfect, the use of Onyx there is appalling.

On Sep.08.2007 at 12:30 PM
diane witman’s comment is:

My cup runneth over.

A Flickr gallery of many Copperplate images.

Pages 47 and 48 have the most images of it.

On Sep.09.2007 at 11:33 AM
T.D.’s comment is:

Turns out that presidential candidate Fred Thompson is also on the Copperplate Gothic bandwagon, using it for the campaign slogan on the side of his campaign tour bus. I'm glad that I hadn't really caught Thompsonmania anyway and thus don't have to feel conflicted about his use thereof. Here's a Washington Post pic of his bus.

On Sep.10.2007 at 08:00 PM
Wingman’s comment is:

A similar typeface, ITC Blair, features a similar cast of characters.

The two seem to be companions, with their squatted, elongated letter forms and chiseled strokes.

I've used both with some success, and I've found that ITC Blair makes a reliable substitute, without all the typographic wrestling I've encountered with Copperplate Gothic.

The Louise Fili example above is my personal favorite out of the bunch. This hand-tooled example has never bothered me, either.

On Sep.13.2007 at 04:45 PM
Wingman’s comment is:

A similar sans serif typeface, ITC Blair, features a similar cast of characters.

The two seem to be companions, with their squatted, elongated letter forms and chiseled strokes.

I've used both with some success, and I've found that ITC Blair makes a reliable substitute, without all the typographic wrestling I've encountered with Copperplate Gothic.

The Louise Fili example above is my personal favorite out of the bunch. This hand-tooled example has never bothered me, either.

On Sep.13.2007 at 04:49 PM
Typeted’s comment is:

I've always loved Copperplate (and being "gothic" doesn't always mean sans serif) it was always Copperplate 33BC and such - but I'd have to say you lost me when you said "my favored Cooper Black, that somehow manages to look great under any typographic circumstance." Is there a more dated typeface (perhaps Hobo)? I absolutely put it with Papyrus and Comic Sans as abused and unattractive. It just screams '70s. Anything can be poorly set and look horrific. Copperplate needs to be used properly (as does any typeface) and it can be beautiful, strong, and solid. It is a classic in my opinion - though should be used sparingly.

And does anyone else think it's funny Cooper Tires logo is (was) set in Cooper Black?

On Sep.13.2007 at 05:33 PM
Aaron Landry’s comment is:

Then there's Copperplated which exposes the obnoxious proliferation of Copperplate Gothic.

On Sep.20.2007 at 09:37 PM
Chris Coyier’s comment is:

The font I feel mastery over is Avenir. It's a really beautiful and versatile face.

On Sep.20.2007 at 11:32 PM
nom’s comment is:

Elite law firm DPW uses it too. With drop shadows!

On Sep.21.2007 at 01:11 AM
Joe Pemberton’s comment is:

You've articulated my own love/hate with Copperplate very nicely. Couldn't have have said it better. The (refreshed) Rembrandt example is really great (which is sort of cheating, but I'll let it slide.) The Brooklyn Brew example sums up everything I hate about it.

Now I have to go figure out if that Rugby site is a hoax. Queer Eye successfully got men to dare showing up in a pink dress shirt. Can Rugby successfully get them show their ankles? To wear shorts with a trench and scarf? To mix stripes and plaids? To wear tweed (eww).

I'm not sure what's worse, a) preppy style, b) preppy style masquerading as a worthwhile heritage to aspire to or, c) preppy tutorial videos explaining how to create a sloppy cuff and how to tuck only one side of your shirt in.

On Sep.21.2007 at 02:31 AM
Joe Pemberton’s comment is:

Sorry for the revisit...

I had to just confirm John Foust's comment. Copperplate was designed for letterpress (as all the type of it's time was, obviously). But, it was specifically designed to feel like a sans serif, yet hold it's crispness at small sizes. This is the reason there was no lowercase... The metal simply would not have held the small shapes. This explains it's very wide with very fine serifs.

It does what it was designed to do very well. It was never intended to be a display face. (Same with Bank Gothic and Bell Gothic!) Fred Goudy must roll over in his pantheonic grave when Copperplate ships on hard drives everywhere.

With this context I actually think it's a bit of genius. Makes me want to take a second look at the Goudy stuff I usually pass over.

[Oh, and Rugby is Ralph Lauren, that explains everything. It's about time he did something fresh... I guess.]

On Sep.21.2007 at 02:51 AM
jmck’s comment is:

Tell us more about the naming scheme for the various weights of Copperplate. The system seems recherché.

On Sep.21.2007 at 03:17 PM
ManxStef’s comment is:

If you’re a fan of Cooper Black but want something a little different, take a look at Goudy Heavyface.

On Sep.22.2007 at 02:39 PM
Kris’s comment is:

You think cooperplate gothic is hard to get a hold of, try Silian Rail.

On Sep.23.2007 at 09:33 PM
Daren Guillory’s comment is:

Let us not forget, that Copperplate shows itself on several iterations of the ubiquitous MONOPOLY property cards: monopolyhistory.com/deeds.
It's everywhere! It's everywhere!

On Sep.24.2007 at 12:20 PM
Copperplate Love’s comment is:

Thank you for such a comprehensive view of Copperplate Gothic Bold. A lot of folks hate it, I'm glad you at least showed it in all of it's glory. I absolutely love it and hope that others will too!

On Sep.24.2007 at 03:36 PM
Phrostbyte ’s comment is:

If you like Copperplate Gothic, then you are going to love Copper Penny. There are four fonts in the family, two versions with standard small caps and two versions with a full lower case set.


On Oct.08.2008 at 11:24 PM
Simon Robertson’s comment is:

Armin, any updates on this? Have you mastered it yet?

On Feb.10.2009 at 01:13 AM
joe’s comment is:

Two years later, I find this. Nevertheless my two cents: you can't win with the 'plate! that's a fact.

On Mar.16.2009 at 12:00 PM