When Fonts Fail: DC’s Sad Attempt To Be Hip

City officialdom here in the Nation’s Capital recently decided that there needs to be greater uniformity in the graphic design elements of its public communications. To that end, the Mayor’s office has published a set of guidelines for the various municipal departments and offices, with respect to the look of documents which will be released to the public. These guidelines include such matters as color choice, the placement of official seals, and font selection. While the body of external communications will have the possibility of at least some variety in typeface, when it comes to the titling – such as in posters or cover pages – there is now only one unbreakable commandment: “Thou Shalt Only Use Neutra.” 

The work of Richard Neutra, the midcentury architect of the California “those who live in glass houses” international style, for whom the font is named, is perfectly acceptable in certain settings. A Neutra-designed building is well-suited, for example, as the home of a retired pit boss who used to get plastered with the Rat Pack back in the day, and his third wife, who was once little more than a stripper but still calls herself an “actress”, despite never having picked up a work of Molière or Pirandello in her life. Neutra’s work is similarly appropriate for a church designed for suburban Angelenos who aren’t particularly interested in God, but do want plenty of parking when they get together to socialize and feel better about themselves on Sunday mornings while drinking Starbucks.

Despite his long career designing the kinds of buildings which look like sets for 1970’s sexploitation films in places like Palm Springs or Orange County, Neutra never – thank goodness – built anything in Washington, D.C. Thus it is particularly curious that a font honoring his style would be selected as the official typeface for a city which features absolutely none of his work. It is a bit like Boston deciding that its official communications would feature a typeface evoking the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

As The Washingtonian points out, Neutra is the same font used by Shake Shack, the Nationals, Wendy’s, and the regrettable television series, ‘Girls”. Presumably then, we are to understand that the average Washingtonian is a morbidly obese, frequent fast food consumer, who loves baseball but is lacking in any concept of sexual morality or good taste. Perhaps this is indeed an accurate assessment of the average citizen of #thistown, but that is certainly not something to be proud of.

Now, I am not of the school that says all sans-serif fonts are bad. In fact, as you may note herein, the fonts employed on this site are sans-serif. This was a deliberate decision on my part, the idea being that my occasionally irascible (and often quite pretentious) tone might be somewhat softened by my not employing a typeface more obviously attuned to the subject matter and tone of this blog. Otherwise, you would likely be trying to decipher this post in something like Bernhard Modern or Kunstler Script. Nor, as it happens, do I have a problem with the Neutral font per se, although I find it unremarkable as a design.

Yet I do take exception to government adopting a public face which displays false informality, by attempting to seem “hip”. This is what the use of a sans-serif such as Neutra implies, when rolled out in official communications. I want my government to provide the public services I pay for, such as traffic cops and street cleaning and rat catchers. I do not want it to be my buddy, let alone invite me to a key swap party in the Valley. Sadly, this increasingly tacky city appears to be reflecting an increasingly tacky society all too well.

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3 thoughts on “When Fonts Fail: DC’s Sad Attempt To Be Hip

  1. It is a strange font choice for government work, but I’m almost certain that no one considered the history of the font in their decision-making. I imagine someone told a designer to come up with a few suitable options. Neutra was deemed simple enough without being Helvetica or Arial.

    Our local police department started using Kabel a few year back. It was so awful that they repainted all the cars about 9 months later.

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    • Thanks for reading and for sharing that. Given that most if not all of the official buildings in this town are classical to some degree, it is hard to understand why this hipster font was chosen.

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  2. I don’t like their choice of fonts, but Comic Sans would have been a real slap in the face! I think that with all of the political works in D.C., they should have used Courier.

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