How AT&T Tricked Phone Books: The Bell Gothic Story

March 29, 2016


Creating a font from scratch is no easy task, but there are thousands of designs to choose from. Even simply opening up Microsoft Word on your computer and combing through the numerous options does not even begin to cover the number of typefaces that you could possibly choose from- and more and more are being added each and every day. Some fonts are simply created for the love of design while others are developed with a specific purpose in mind, such as Times New Roman. One of the most iconic typefaces of all time, Bell Gothic, was specifically commissioned by the AT&T Corporation and has a storied history behind its usage in modern design.

In 1938, the AT&T Corporation commissioned Chauncey H. Griffith of the Mergenthaler Linotype Company to create a font to be used in their telephone directories. This font was developed with the poor quality of newspaper quality in mind, since the ink would oftentimes absorb and spread out, making fonts difficult to read. The font needed to work both as a bold design and a light design since user’s names and phone numbers would be bold, while their addresses would be light.

Griffith was chosen to develop the font due to his success in creating another type addressing a similar concern of smaller sizes on low-quality paper called Excelsior. Bell Gothic specifically needed to be read at small sizes, using a small amount of space, and be readily reproduced for mass distribution.

For 40 years, Bell Gothic was the unquestioned font of AT&T telephones. In 1978, at the 100 year anniversary of AT&T’s founding, the company replaced the classic Bell Gothic with Bell Centennial, designed by Matthew Carter. At this point, Bell Gothic was licensed for external use. In the 1990’s, the text surged in popularity as it became associated with the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Design Academy Eindhoven, Metropolis magazine, MIT Press, Dia Art Foundation, and Semiotext(e) Books.

Bell Gothic is defined as a realist sans serif typeface. It is a sans serif because it does not contain the flourishes at the end of strokes that is characteristic of serif fonts. In fact, before the term “sans serif” gained popularity, another word for a text without flourishes was “Gothic”, lending credence to the font’s iconic name. Bell Gothic has retained popularity in part due to its sans serif status. Popular for their use on computer screens, sans serif fonts are seen as easier to read since serifs may appear too large or the details may disappear on the screen.

While Bell Gothic has been updated as the needs of the typeface have changed, it remains an influential and important font throughout the 20th century. With the rise of computers and the evolution of the way that we look at creating and developing fonts, the type has faced some changes as it has gotten older. However, the fundamentals of Griffith’s design remains and Bell Gothic has a staunch place in the history of American typography!