[2020 REPOST: Yesterday I took a long walk through the Loop, figuring that there might be election-result celebrations in front of the Daley Center, or in the Federal Center Plaza…but, in fact, Chicagoans picked a more obvious site to let their opinions be known–the section of Wacker Drive that faces…let’s call it 401 N. Wabash. In honor of the Malort-toasting American voters picking that locale to make their views known, ArchitectureFarm is happy to repost it’s most-read entry ever, originally from 2014 but apparently still appropriate. Without giving any political leanings away, I will say that I hope–sincerely–that this is one of the last times this will be so relevant…]
[2016 REPOST: While architecturefarm maintains a policy of strict political neutrality, we are unstinting in our belief that proper kerning should be a baseline qualification for just about any public office. In honor of this week’s historic election, we are pleased to repost the following from 2014.]
So, this has been the cause celebre in Chicago’s architectural blogosphere the last couple of months. I’ve enjoyed the snark–in particular Blair Kamin’s takedown of the “five-letter ego trip,” and the random Curbed commenter who referred to it as the “Trump Stamp.” That, I think, is now its official name.
Trump has a long history of getting the graphics utterly wrong–witness the bronze Rockwell Bold on New York’s Trump Tower, a font somewhere just above Copperplate in its subtlety. And this one is no exception. Critics and even Mayor Emanuel have complained about just how tacky the thing looks. The position of the sign, at the lower mechanical floor, makes the building look like its pants have fallen down a bit, drawing your eyes to the lower third when what you really want to do is to follow the building’s vertical lines and massing to the (very elegant) top.
But why, exactly, is the sign itself so bad? I think it’s not just the size of the letters, which even at something around 20′ seem tiny compared to the overall mass of the tower. (For the record, the largest building sign in history was Citroen’s electric signage that ran the full height of the Eiffel Tower, which must have been incredible). Kamin points out that the font is all wrong for the tower–it’s a serif font on a sleek curtain wall that’s the architectonic essence of sans serif modern (For the record, the SOM-designed interior signage is in Futura Light). That’s undoubtedly true, and I think it’s worsened by the fact that the font–god knows what it actually is, but it looks like a bastardized version of, yes, Trump Medieval, which is what his company’s website uses–is both pumped up on boldness steroids and outlined. The effect is like wearing a shirt that’s tailored a size too large and then wearing an overly padded suit jacket. Bigness upon bigness, set against one of the most elegant, pinstriped curtain walls in the city. It’s the sort of graphic mistake that would get one of my design students sent back to the drawing board (OK, back to the Illustrator file) to re-do the final boards.
But there’s another issue here. Even if the signage designers can claim that the font choice and the pumped-up boldness of the letters came down to them from Trump himself (my guess), couldn’t they have at least taken ten minutes to explain kerning to him? Font nerds will recognize this immediately, but for laypersons unencumbered by graphic obsession, let me ruin the rest of your life for you: take this quiz (I’ll wait the two or three hours you’ll spend adjusting letters…)
The human eye is exquisitely sensitive to visual balance and proportion, and what typeface designers spend a huge amount of their time doing is designing not just the shapes of letters themselves, but the spaces between those letters. Nearly all fonts have a wide range of spacing between their letters depending on stroke width, serifs, solid/void percentage, etc. You can adjust the kerning in most word processing software, and what’s immediately apparent is that small changes in letter spacing make huge differences in readability–too wide or too tight and our eyes get strained quickly.
In the case of the Trump sign, it’s like the designer didn’t even try to kern the letters properly. There’s about half again as much space between them as there would be in a properly kerned line of type, and the spacing isn’t visually even–it looks like “TR U M P” to my eyes, anyway.
In fairness, it may be that the signage fabricators had to work to the cladding grid–in other words, since the sign wasn’t part of the original SOM design, they may have been left with trying to fix the letters to existing mullions. Typeface never works on an even grid, though, and this might explain why the letters seem so unevenly placed–because, in fact, they are evenly placed, and with the combination of serifs and letter widths, the ‘U” ends up looking lonely.
It’s a free country, of course, and as some supporters have pointed out (in tweets that are invariably retweeted on The Donald’s legendary Twitter feed), the sign is well within Chicago’s regulations for the area. You can’t legislate taste, of course, or even graphic literacy. It may be that only font snobs have had their Wabash Ave. vista truly wrecked while the rest of the world seems perfectly capable of getting on with their lives. But if just one architect starts paying attention to kerning, then the human tragedy that is the Trump sign may well end up having a silver lining. And maybe the anti-Trump signage movement will gain momentum, and a tasteful Futura Light version of the sign will replace this one On the upper mechanical levels, where your eyes want it to be…