ATF Alternate Gothic is a masterful revision in more than forty styles (ten weights and four widths, plus italics coming soon) of a century-old typeface that has been interpreted many times. This 2015 edition not only revives a fabulous classic American typestyle, but a classic American foundry as well: American Type Founders, or “ATF”. *
Alternate Gothic was first released in 1903, the work of ATF’s prolific in-house designer, Morris Fuller Benton. Van Bronkhorst and others suggest it likely got its name from the then-innovative idea of a typeface with the same style and weight in coordinated varying widths, which could be used together or alternated.
The original was one of several classic American grotesques designed by Benton, along with the noticeably similar designs Franklin Gothic (1903–10) and News Gothic (1908). All three share some design characteristics, enough that previous designers adding condensed styles to the other typefaces have relied on the letterforms of Alternate Gothic for guidance — but without keeping its most distinctive feature: straight-sided “pillbox” rounds for letters such as ‘b, c, d, e, g, o, p’. Van Bronkhorst has gone in the opposite direction, extending the Alternate Gothic look to ten weights, and four widths so far. When the italics are added, it will be a family of eighty — even perhaps one hundred if a threatened semi-extended materializes.
These classic American grotesques have long been workhorse staples, and have had quite a resurgence in recent years. We see this not only in commercial type (e.g., Benton Sans, by Cyrus Highsmith and Tobias Frere-Jones for Font Bureau), but also in open-source fonts; a revival of the single headline font style Alternate Gothic No. 2 as League Gothic (2009, from League of Movable Type), and of the News Gothic family in the form of Source Sans (2012, by Paul Hunt for Adobe) have both been very popular.
* The original American Type Founders was formed in 1892 by the merger of twenty-three cold-metal type foundries, in response to a recession and the rise of hot metal typesetting. It enjoyed great success, and was one of the world’s dominant type foundries for forty years. The 1912 and 1923 ATF specimen books — over 1000 pages apiece — remain sought-after (but not unaffordable) classics. But the Great Depression drove the company into receivership in 1934, shortly after its key designers and founders retired. It made a modest comeback for the next couple of decades, but did not do well in future technological transitions — to phototype in the 1960s–70s, and digital in the 1980s–90s. It closed its doors and its assets were sold off, mostly as scrap metal, in an infamous auction in 1993.⤴
Thomas Phinney is President of FontLab, makers of font creation tools, as well as an independent consultant on fonts. Thomas is also secretary of ATypI, the international typographic association. He previously worked for Adobe (1997–2008) and Extensis (2009–2014).