is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Vice President of User Experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. You can reach him through one of the services below.+
Over the weekend, resigned to the couch while fighting a cold, I watched John Patrick Shanley’s movie adaptation of his own play, “Doubt.” It’s a truly superb piece of dramaturgy that’s gripping and not a little depressing, to be honest. But it’s also sure to reward any viewing, so thought-provoking and thoughtful are the plot and dialog throughout the movie’s 104-minute running time. That includes the movie’s beautifully simple titles, too. In fact, the titles of this film are so effective, they reminded me of how rare a thing is truly intelligent, rewarding typography.
These titles are not flashy at all, just quietly authoritative in their evocation of tradition and faith and understated in their suggestion of betrayal and suspicion. Though I can’t identify the typeface unequivocally, it’s almost certainly some variant of Cheltenham, a handsome serif face designed at the end of the 19th century by Bertram Goodhue.
Careful Type Casting
In more ways than one, Cheltenham makes for an astute choice. In addition to designing Cheltenham, Goodhue was an architect closely associated with the neo-Gothic style, and he had a prolific career building a series of imposing American churches — churches which were as tradition-bound as the one at the center of Shanley’s tale of suspected impropriety in a mid-century Bronx Roman Catholic school. That location, too, is important: many of Goodhue’s buildings were built in New York in the first several decades of the twentieth century, and so are regionally contemporaneous with the movie’s setting and social context.
That subtle but meaningful harkening back to the typographer’s personal history, his works and his ideas, and the subsequent link drawn to the subject matter of the movie makes for sharp, canny typography. It’s not just Cheltenham’s aesthetic benefits that are conscripted into service for these titles, but also the ideas that typeface evokes. As typographic selections in cinema go, it has to rank up there among the smartest, and certainly among the most conceptually rewarding I’ve seen.
Also, it must be said that The New York Times also uses a cut of Cheltenham, one redrawn by Matthew Carter, in our print edition. Our “Chelts,” as we refer to them affectionately, are a core part of our brand — which obviously explains my predilection for these titles. You could argue, too, that typesetting the word “Doubt” in the preferred typeface of the paper of record — rightly or not, The Times has always been a bastion of certainty — offers another, more contemporary but no less shrewd, dimension to the typography. Whether this is an intentional reading of the selection or not (I’d bet good money that it was no accident, though the Gray Lady plays no part in the plot of the film), the added reading and ambiguity just makes these titles richer, in my opinion.
In an Alternate Universe
If this praise isn’t convincing enough that this kind of typography is rare, a quick tour of the DVD extras offered with “Doubt” should be more convincing even. The typographic choice made for these titles shows what might have been, had the movie’s titles themselves been designed by less capable, less thoughtful hands.
In lieu of the inspired use of Cheltenham, these extras rely on that standby of pop-cultural interpretations of classical and medieval design: the overused typeface Trajan. Exquisitely, even ostentatiously serifed, Trajan has, through much abuse, come to serve as lazy shorthand for anything vaguely traditional, formal or, in cinema especially, anything remotely dramatic. (Not to missed: this amusing video indictment of the use of Trajan in movies.)
And that’s the tole Trajan is playing here in the titles for these DVD extras: lazily telegraphing “Doubt”’s most superficial qualities. Gone is the research, the thought and the tasteful restraint that went into the movie’s titles. In their place: 3D rendering, hideous drop shadows and, in case you somehow missed the fact that “Doubt” is a movie about a Catholic school, a shadow of a cross.+