The Curious Case of Goldman Sans

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by Ellen M. Shapiro

On Aug. 23, the front-page article in The New York Times Sunday Business section was headlined “Now Goldman Sachs Has a Typeface of Its Own.

I dug right in because, well, how many typefaces get front-page stories in anything but design magazines and blogs? And because I’ve always appreciated the high design bar set by Arnold Saks for Goldman Sachs in the 1980s, especially the annual reports in Palatino, Hermann Zapf’s most elegant typeface, with Burt Glinn’s iconic black-and-white environmental portraits.

So what was the big news? Many of the world’s newspapers—from the U.K.’s Independent to The Sacramento Bee—have custom-designed typefaces. Tech companies, including Apple, Google, IBM, Intel, Netflix and Samsung, have been commissioning typefaces for more than a decade.

From its snarky tone to its content, beginning with a short discussion of bespoke corporate typefaces and the choice of London-based Dalton Maag as design firm, the Times story was odd. What initially seemed like a positive summary of the brief—“… a lot to ask from a font: distinctive enough to please aesthetes, neutral enough to include in paperwork for an initial public offering”—segued into a somewhat detailed but sometimes inaccurate description of the letterforms themselves, characterizing the ‘@’ sign and ampersand as “almost obscenely curvy,” and lauding “the challenge of getting numbers to align perfectly in financial tables.” However, tabular figures have been part of type design for decades, and most OpenType fonts allow the user to choose between proportional figures (numbers with varying widths) or tabular figures (numbers that have the same width).

The article then launched into nearly 500 words of harsh criticism by notable type designers, including Erik Spiekermann and Sumner Stone, all of whom characterized the typeface—actually a family of 11 Roman, italic and condensed fonts—as “missing life,” “boring,” “derivative,” “very safe” and (indicative of) “lack of courage and imagination.” I contacted three other well-known typeface designers for their opinion, and all declined to comment. What was going on? Sour grapes?

Interestingly, the print edition of the paper did not include any images of the typeface itself; the story was accompanied by an illustration in a Stuart Davis–like modernist style. The online edition, with a different headline, did include a showing of numbers and the ‘@’ sign, ampersand and lowercase ‘g.’

The article’s longest section focused on font licenses, copyright law—including a comment by an attorney who’d argued before the Supreme Court—and a now-removed “disparagement clause” that attempted to restrict users who downloaded the font from using it to write mean things about Goldman Sachs. People are still writing mean things; the responses to the online version of the Times article show that most readers equate the firm with corporate greed; many suggest that instead of commissioning typefaces, they should spend their money on narrowing the gap between rich and poor. The thread of 202 comments was also (understandably) colored by contempt for Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, who worked for Goldman for 17 years.

Was I still wearing the rose-colored glasses I acquired when designing proposal formats for the Goldman Sachs Public Finance Department more than 25 years ago? Following the Arnold-Saks-Palatino vibe, the proposals helped their bankers pitch to become lead managers of revenue bonds that financed projects including dormitories, roads, bridges, public utilities and hospitals. Good things, I thought.

Wanting to delve deeper, I reached out to Steve Turbek, Goldman’s managing director of user experience, who headed the typeface initiative. My first question was, “How did everyone at the firm react to the Times story?” The answer was, “It’s hard to tell because everyone is working from home.” He went on to say, diplomatically, that “since type design is rare to see in the popular press, we were glad it was recognized. Hopefully the reader came away with a new appreciation that people actually make those fonts.”

This led to a discussion about the firm’s larger brand identity initiative. Turbek explained that the typeface is part of a “One GS” program that aims to unite multiple Goldman Sachs brands, including the traditional investment bank; the Marcus consumer banking division; Ayco, which provides financial counseling services; and everything that’s needed to support the firm’s new focus on retail and speaking directly to the consumer. “You’ve gotta bring your design A-game when you’re behind Apple’s credit card,” he said. “The firm is at a very interesting transitional moment.”

When I asked who is designing the overall system, I was expecting to hear the name of one of the top multinational branding firms. Instead, the answer was “We are.” Meaning in-house. Over the last three years, I learned, Turbek has helped grow the global in-house design function from five to more than 100 people, most of them working on infographics, websites and trading applications. A recent project was a refinement of the Goldman Sachs logo, opening up the spacing so it’s more legible in small applications and on phones.

Goldman Sachs, Turbek said, “views design as a core business function. And Goldman Sans is an extension of that strategy. It’s our corporate sans-serif typeface, and Sabon will continue to be our serif typeface.” I wondered: Why did you go the custom route instead of choosing one of the many similar sans-serif faces, like FF Meta?

“The first step was building consensus that this would be a valuable asset for the firm,” he explained. “People here are open-minded, but designers often do not have experience communicating the business value of design—for example, reducing typeface licensing fees.”

More answers to that question can be found online in a slideshow, art directed in-house by Michael Craig.

Terri Bogaards, a San Francisco–based designer who worked for Arnold Saks Associates in New York on several Goldman annual reports, told me that she found “all that Palatino boring.” Sh
e characterizes Goldman Sans as “a clean, nicely condensed font that looks good small, especially the numbers.”

And that’s exactly what they were going for.

“We think it effectively delivers on the brief—a very flexible, neutral, sans-serif face with high readability for digital user interfaces and content articles,” Turbek concludes. “One of the Times commenters posted that it’s boring compared to the NatWest advertising typeface, which is correct, but seems to miss the point. This is a functional typeface, not a flashy one for ads.”