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Trying to Kickstart a City ... With Letters


A recent headline on the website, "Can a Font Help a City Make a Comeback?,"sounds simultaneously intriguing and ridiculous.

Chattanooga Font

I mean, governments have tried layoffs, pay cuts, tax increases, reductions in services, even speed traps (not that anyone will admit to it) and they’re still struggling. How could a font do what all those austerity measures could not?

A handful of designers from Chattanooga, the fourth-largest city in Tennessee, think it’s possible.

They launched “Chatype,” a project to create a typeface for the city, on everything from street signs to business cards, that they hope will convey to the world that Chattanooga is an up-and-coming city that is “dynamic, unique, forward-thinking and technologically strong” —and attract more business to its tired economy.

What's a typeface?

“According to the US government, [typefaces are] technically letters,” said Paul Rustand, the creative director of design firm Widgets & Stone. “But they’re designs of letters actually and they have very specific feelings. To me, they’re a lot like tones of voice.”

“Type is the overlooked foundation of communication. Until computers beam thoughts and information directly to our brains, we need type to communicate advanced ideas,” according to the Chatype web site. “A custom typeface reflects character, extends excitement, and becomes a rally point for suffering projects.”

Chattanooga may be best known for the 1941 swing-band classic “The Chattanooga Choo Choo” and in the late 1960s earned the distinction from the federal government of having the “dirtiest air in the nation.” By the 1980s, pollution proved the least of its problems as de-industrialization spurred layoffs and economic deterioration.

Since then, the city has gone through an economic redevelopment, with a waterfront and downtown revival that has attracted more businesses and earned it national awards for outstanding “livability.” They've attracted several new businesses, including a $1 billion Volkswagen plant and a high-speed Internet network that offers the public speeds up to one gigabit per second, the fastest in the US.

The designers think that a Chattanooga typeface is the way to convey that transformation to the world. And they’re not the only ones who think so: They’ve already raised more than $10,000 on Kickstarter, a grassroots-fundraising web site, from more than 240 donors!

It does sound a little wacky — a typeface, really? — but if you look at European cities and countries, they’ve been using fonts for branding for a long time. When you travel to certain regions, there’s a cohesiveness in the signs. And, sometimes it reaches outside the region – think Roman numerals and Roman texts or the famous triangular Greek font that you see on everything from those “We are happy to serve you” blue and white paper coffee cups to Greek restaurant signs. I mean, have you seen a restaurant ever deviate and use a different font? (It’s called Dalek, by the way.)

And look, companies do it — imagine a New York Times newspaper with the banner written in anything but Old English, or a Google logo in anything but red, yellow and blue. In fact, put anything in that font (which is called Catull, by the way) in red, yellow and blue and you can’t think of anything but Google! (Try it here with this Google logo generator.)

So, why not a U.S. city? Why not Chattanooga?

The designers met with a local historian and really did their homework to find the right font. It’s still a work in progress, but where they’re at is something the designers call “geometric slab serif” — the slab being a nod to the city’s industrial past and the geometric part to convey a sense of futurism. The city is actually doing a major push(i.e., giving away large chunks of cash) to try to lure tech start-ups and other innovators to the city to make it a sort of Silicon Valley of the east.

“If you think of a brand as a story, [Chattanooga] has an amazing story,” D.J. Trischler, a brand consultant in Chattanooga, told Good. “If you look at the visual brand, it doesn’t back up that story.”

And, while it’s usually cities that come up with the idea to rebrand themselves and then they contract designers — not the other way around — they’re getting some support from the city for their project.

“All cities that are memorable have character — when you think of New York, you have a certain image that comes to mind, LA, Seattle, Miami. All these cities have a certain character,” said Chattanooga City Councilman Andrae McGary. “The more that we as a community in Chattanooga can capture that spirit and put it in a meaningful, bite-sized way for people to get, I think it’s very important.”

And, while this may just seem like a Chattanooga thing, the designers say they “want Chattanooga to be the poster child for municipal branding in America.”

Choo choo!

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