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Typeface Review

Balto

Reviewed by Colin M. Ford on March 11, 2014

Balto is designer Tal Leming’s reinterpret­ation of an American Gothic, a style of sans serif made popular by Morris Fuller Benton and the American Type Foundry. Just as Benton set out, with his “Gothics” (Alternate Gothic, Franklin Gothic, News Gothic, and others), to cull the herd of discontinuous sans serifs that filled ATF’s catalog, Leming set out to make an American Gothic that emphasizes “the base ideas of the style rather than particular visual attributes, quirks or artifacts of bygone type tech­nologies” that were added to previous interpretations.

Leming carries his American Gothic references right through to Balto’s website; its whirligig arrows and clever in situ examples liven up an otherwise serious typeface, placing it in a context reminiscent of the typeface samples found in “Big Red”, the 1300-page 1912 ATF catalog.

Balto’s origins can be traced back to 1997, when Leming found himself stuck trying to make a classic Gothic work as a text typeface for an annual report. He couldn’t find a single font up to the task, but the seed was planted. Ten years later he finally put pen tool to bezier and began drawing Balto, and on-and-off over the next six years the face began to take shape … or many shapes. To accompany its release, Leming wrote a fantastic blog post in which he thoroughly recounts the transformations Balto went through over the six years it was in development. (Note to self: this will be very useful to link to the next time someone asks me: “So, why do typefaces take so long to make?!”)

Ultimately, I think Leming and Balto succeed in getting to the root of the American Gothic style and updating it for the 21st century. The benefit of an American Gothic with eight weights and matching italics becomes immediately apparent when one tries to use Benton’s “Gothic” types in a modern context. Need an italic for Alternate Gothic or a light weight of Franklin Gothic? Well, that’s just too bad. Benton’s Gothic types were never designed as systems the way fonts are today — thankfully, Balto was.

Balto is a great, utilitarian family suited for the everyday uses other sans serifs would turn up their noses at. Next time I need a workhorse American Gothic that actually gets down to business, I will certainly reach for Balto.

(By the way, Balto, one can imagine, is short for Baltimore, where Leming lives and Type Supply is based. His previous typeface, Timonium, is a town just outside of Baltimore. I’m beginning to sense a theme and, as a former resident of Charm City, I like it.)

Colin M. Ford is an alumnus of the Type and Media program at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague (KABK). He is now living in New York and working for Hoefler & Co. (formerly Hoefler & Frere-Jones) as a typeface designer.

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Typographica is a review of typefaces and type books, with occasional commentary on fonts and typographic design. Edited by Stephen Coles and designed by Chris Hamamoto. Founded in 2002 by Joshua Lurie-Terrell. Relaunched in 2009 by Coles and Hamamoto.

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