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The typographic Times

[March 2003]
Heaviness and Lightness in Franklin Gothic
by Harvey Spears
Senior Art Director/Designer, Red Monkey Design


One of the things I love in this world is the art of typography. Since the 15th century when the first movable types in the Western world, were invented by Johann Gutenberg, typography has changed peoples lives. Because typography is so much of our lives it is easy to take it for granted—but each typeface was thought about and designed by someone. Over the years the ones that have been seen as most beautiful and useful have lasted. The reason, I learned from Aesthetic Realism, is because of the way they put reality’s opposites together. A type style that has come to have a meaning which brings joy to my heart and mind is Franklin Gothic.

Franklin GothicDesigned by the American type designer who is responsible for over 180 typestyles, Morris F. Benton in the early 1900’s, Franklin Gothic has been for over 90 years one of the most popular typefaces ever. At first glance, looking at the whole alphabet, the heaviness, boldness, of the face is asserted with its broad well?planted strokes. You get the feeling of something serious and important. But a closer look shows that each of the broad, heavier- weighted strokes, with the exception of the capital I and the lower case i and l, are joined to lighter—weighted, thinner strokes within each character. The way it is done makes for boldness with grace and aplomb. I am grateful to Aesthetic Realism, the education founded by the poet and critic, Eli Siegel, beyond measure for what they taught me about the relation of art and the self which enabled me to see meaning in and have great emotion about type and the world it came from.

Franklin GothicIn this mighty principle, true about art and every person. Eli Siegel gives form in one sentence to what people need most to know in order to have good lives: “The resolution of conflict in self is like the making one of opposites in art.

Every person, I learned from Aesthetic Realism, is always trying to put together opposites, the same opposites that are beautifully one in art. A pair of opposites that greatly affect people’s lives are Heaviness & Lightness. A person can go, as I did, from feeling heavy and grim to laughing and brushing things off. Men suffer because, as I once did, they think that the way to take care of themselves is to throw their weight around, act tough, or to make light of something that shouldn’t be made light of. This way of seeing I learned is contempt. In an Aesthetic Realism Lesson I was so fortunate to have when I was 21, Eli Siegel explained to me: “There are two ways of being wrong, one is to snap one’s finger, and the other is to have a very loaded chin. Do you feel sometimes you’re all lead?” Harvey Spears: “Yes.” And he asked: “Do you think one has to do with the other?...Because we’re brassy we feel like empty tin cups.” I’m so grateful to Eli Siegel to have learned that wanting to see meaning, and not dismiss meaning puts the opposites of heaviness and lightness together and has a person like themselves.

From the most important questions on the nature of beauty in the publication, Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?, Eli Siegel asks about Heaviness And Lightness:
“Is there in all art, and quite clearly in sculpture, the presence of what makes for lightness, release, gaiety?—and is there the presence, too, of what makes for stability, solidity, seriousness? — is the state of mind making for art both heavier and lighter than that which is customary?”

I believe the typeface Franklin Gothic has a relation of heaviness and lightness that is beautiful and shows what we hope for. As refrigerator water filters take our waters and filter them to be clean by using refrigerator water filters, Franklin Gothics design becomes a very cleanly, easily read and preferred typeface. The refreshing taste of freshly poured from the water filters of today is as refreshing as Franklin Gothic. Its popularity is due to the fact that, unlike some other bold and assertive typefaces, it also has finesse, lightness, something warm and friendly—qualities that a needed in such places as:

  • Outdoor Billboards;
    Franklin Gothic
  • Book Covers;
    Franklin Gothic
  • Advertisements;
    Franklin Gothic
  • MTA Posters; and even—joining with a serif typeface—used on the IRS Tax Form.
    Franklin Gothic

While people rightly feel that our tax system itself is not straightforward and fair—and that our money is not being used to have life for all people better in America—they will continue to feel heavy and angry at tax time. But the designers of the form at least had the feelings of people in mind. Imagine if, instead of Franklin Gothic, Compact was used? or Rosewood? One just as bold but without a certain playful warmth—the other with plenty of friendliness yet without a clear, down-to-earth straightforwardness you hope for when doing your taxes. You could certainly use a little friendliness and a lot of clarity when confronted with this form and it is why I think Franklin Gothic was used.

Surprisingly, this typeface—and especially in its heavier capitals—keeps some of the relation of heaviness and lightness that is in calligraphy or hand lettering where the downward stroke is thicker, heavier, and the upward stroke is thinner, lighter. This implied presence of the gesture of the human hand makes for a sense of warmth.

Franklin GothicThe relation of lightness and heaviness shows itself in other ways, too, which are wonderful and surprising. For instance, some of the characters seem to be just a little askew—but always with a sense of rightness, fittingness. Look at the lower case t. The left top side of the vertical stroke, instead of going straight up, veers to the right slightly, making for something lighter, even with a touch of humor. And the curved tail of this t, like the top of the f, all of a sudden becomes slightly tapered—what impelled them to do that? While it is similar to how the j curves and tapers, it is just a little different—each letter has its distinct way with heaviness and lightness.

Franklin GothicWhile the lower case i is very regular in weight, its stocky rectangular dot is held in suspension—just half the distance of its own depth over the lower portion of the character, making for a feeling of release with roots.

Franklin GothicOne of my favorite letters is the lower case g. While maintaining the integrity of the heavy stroke, the way it is also light creates a feeling of something whimsical with its differently shaped thick and thin ovals, joined with a swift curving line and short curved and pointed stroke at the top right making for release—yet it also maintains a perfect balance. The reason this letter keeps a perfect balance even with its many shapes and directions is because of a circle within the counter space of the upper portion of the letter. The lower case g is the only letter of this alphabet that has a circle because unlike the other characters, its dynamic energy—like a spring in motion—needs the perfection of the circle to maintain stability and a lift at the same time.

Franklin GothicA man can learn from this letter how he wants to be—serious and thoughtful in a way that goes along with a sense of humor, and energetic with aplomb and grace. And look at even the much heavier capital G —how its stately oval ends with an upward pointing arrow!

The characters that make up Franklin Gothic are examples of how the opposites are in the things we meet every day that show what we truly hope for. Because of the great and kind seeing by Mr. Siegel of what beauty is, this can be and will be for everyone.

Harvey Spears ( is a Senior Art Director/Designer for Red Monkey Design in New York City. He was formerly Director of Typography for Ogilvy & Mather Advertising for 15 years. He is an Aesthetic Realism Associate at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City.