The face of things to come

From the Nazis to the US presidential campaign of 2008, choosing which font to use has been anything

"I am not bound to win," Barack Obama said on the eve of the vote on his historic health-care reform bill in March this year, "but I am bound to be true." It was a spoken address but it came out of his mouth as if it had been written in a typeface called Gotham. Gotham was Obama's font: the one that he used for his presidential campaign, the font of hope and change. Now, with midterm disillusionment setting in, the one thing he was not going to change was the heavy, bold, authoritative letters that once convinced a nation he was to be trusted.

There are some types that read as if everything written in them should be honest or, at least, fair. We have been conditioned to look at Times New Roman that way, and the same goes for Gotham, which was made in 2000 by Tobias Frere-Jones for Hoefler & Frere-Jones, one of New York's leading type designers. The font bumbled along for several years, gaining popularity as a type that managed to look both establishment and fresh, and then, at the beginning of 2008, it got the boost that no type designer would dare dream of: a presidential candidate's seal of approval. But how important can a font be to a campaign? What can it say that hustings tub-thumping cannot?

The main thing for Obama was not to waver; the font had to be as consistent as the message. Previously, campaigns would have one logo and then choose a number of typefaces to go on the advertisements, the banners and the website. But the Obama campaign applied the same discipline to planning its graphic vision as would go into a big corporate identity. Gotham was chosen to suggest forward thinking without frightening the horses. "Great choice," said Alice Rawsthorn in the New York Times. "No typeface could seem better suited to a dynamic, yet conscientious, American public servant." And it was a relatively new font, less than a decade old. The same could not be said for the presentation decisions of Obama's competitors, whose choices carried bruised baggage.

Hillary Clinton's principal campaign poster had her name in New Baskerville bold, a font that often confers a legal endorsement. John McCain used the 1950s sans serif type Optima, perhaps in an attempt to remind voters of his war record (Optima is the type on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC).

And what did Britain's main political parties learn from Obama? Not enough. In the run-up to the general election this year, there was little typographic boldness to be seen: the campaign materials were staid and nervous. Labour went for the forward-looking Neo Sans Pro on the cover of its manifesto but chose a more predictable serif font inside, while the Tories again went back to basics with a range of old-style, heavier fonts that could have been composed in hot metal before David Cameron was born. (For a full-page graphic suggesting "We're all in this together", they went for a distressed type that would not have been out of place during the Blitz.) Now, we read it all with a cynical air, aware that we have seen their type before.

The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, played it straight down the middle with their manifesto, posters, website and iPhone app in the cool sans serif type Helvetica, from the height of 1950s modernism. Consciously or not, all three parties had arrived at a universal font truth: we treat the traditional and familiar as trustworthy. We are doubtful about fonts that alert us to their difference or those that seem to be trying too hard. We don't like being sold things or paying for fancy design we don't need.

But I suspect that, as a nation, we do like being typographically challenged or, at least, entertained. We have come up with not only some of the most timeless typefaces (Caslon, Basker­ville, Gill Sans) but also some of the most widely used digital fonts, including Georgia and Verdana. Our art schools and universities produce some of the most exciting type designers, not least the graduates from Reading's department of typography and graphic communication. Politically, however, we seem wary of typographic change, at least in the mainstream. We have long forgotten the liberating power of Soviet constructivist type from the 1920s and even the raging emotional clout of hand-made punk graphics from the 1970s.

Yet there is one lesson from the history of type we should never emulate, and it comes from the Third Reich. Long after the Gothic-looking script known as black letter had died out in most of Europe (replaced by the far more legible roman text), it continued to be used in Germany. In 1928, more than half of all books were still printed in a black-letter style known as Fraktur. Its use was advocated most vehemently at times of economic uncertainty or when Germany was struggling to define itself on the international stage. One Third Reich slogan read: "German script. It is an indispensable protective weapon for Germans abroad against menacing de-Germanisation." Another exhorted Germans to "Feel German, think German, speak German, be German - even in your script".

This type, which has its cultural roots in Martin Luther's Bible of 1534, became a talisman as strong as any flag or figurehead. Dissenting voices were drowned out, including the Brothers Grimm, who feared for their literary reputation abroad and called Fraktur "barbaric".

At the beginning of the 20th century, the move against Gothic type gathered momentum, spurred on both by the demands of international trade and by the creative and political concerns of artists who had been influenced by Edward Johnston and Eric Gill in England, as well as the broader sweep of the Italian fut­urists and Bolsheviks. The type designer Paul Renner, whose dynamic sans serif Futura of 1927 defined the modernist movement, was at the centre of it. He renounced Gothic text most vocally when the Nazi party embraced it (the Nazis judged roman text
degenerate, believing that only traditional Gothic text could express fully the purity of the nation). Renner was arrested in 1933, directly after giving a lecture on the history of letterforms which the Nazis judged too sympathetic towards roman types. His arrest was not a surprise. When a magazine asked for his thoughts on graphic design, he observed: "Political idiocy, growing more violent and malicious every day, may eventually sweep the whole of western culture to the ground with its muddy sleeve."

Renner made several attempts to combine Gothic with roman type, while the Nazis evolved their own more brutish, angular and heroic Fraktur before the war. Nicknamed "the jackboot Gothic", it went well typographically with the swastika. In January 1941, however, everything suddenly changed. Gothic script was outlawed by decree, newly labelled Judenlettern ("Jew letters"). Centuries of tradition were cast aside; the old type was newly associated with the documents of Jewish bankers and the Jewish owners of printing presses. But the true reason, naturally, was pragmatism and panic.

As the German type designer Erik Spiekermann explained: "In the occupied territories, you just couldn't read it. If you were French and saw a sign saying Verboten in Gothic, it could be very confusing. But the main reason was that the Germans just couldn't make enough of the stuff - there was a shortage of type." When it came to printing outside Germany, the Nazis found few Gothic fonts in French or Dutch foundries.

The switch to roman type outlived the ideology. After the war, Renner declared: "The motives that led to this step may have been loathsome but this decree itself was an undeserved gift from the heavens of the kind which occasionally delivers goodness from those whose intentions are bad."

These days, we see black letter mostly on heavy metal T-shirts, olde English pub signs and Pilsner labels. It is widely associated with dunderheads. Perhaps the far-right Tea Party will adopt it as its defining, unifying face to take on Obama in the coming years.

Simon Garfield's latest book is "Just My Type: a Book About Fonts" (Profile Books, £14.99)