Why This Font Is Everywhere: How Cooper Black Became Pop Culture’s Favorite Font

You know Times New Roman, you know Hel­veti­ca, you know Com­ic Sans — and though you may not real­ize it, you know Coop­er Black as well. Just think of the “VOTE FOR PEDRO” shirt worn in Napoleon Dyna­mite (and in real life for years there­after), or a few decades ear­li­er, the cov­er of Pet Sounds. In fact, the his­to­ry of Coop­er Black extends well before the Beach Boys’ mid-1960s mas­ter­piece; to see and hear the full sto­ry, watch the Vox video above. It begins, as nar­ra­tor Estelle Caswell explains, in Chica­go, at the turn of the 1920s when type design­er Oswald Bruce Coop­er cre­at­ed the series of fonts that bear his name. Near­ly a cen­tu­ry after the 1922 intro­duc­tion of the vari­ant Coop­er Black, we see it every­where, not just on album cov­ers and T‑shirts but store­fronts, movie posters, and can­dy wrap­pers all over the world.


The evo­lu­tion of print­ing, specif­i­cal­ly the evo­lu­tion from carved wood type to cast met­al, made Coop­er Black pos­si­ble. Its dis­tinc­tive look — and the curved edges that made it for­giv­ing to imper­fect print­ing process­es — made it a hit. And when film strips replaced met­al type, allow­ing the kind of close­ly-spaced print­ing that Coop­er thought best pre­sent­ed his font, the already-pop­u­lar Coop­er Black under­went a renais­sance.

“It thrived, as always, in adver­tis­ing,” says Caswell. “Its friend­ly curves fit the tongue-in-cheek aes­thet­ic of the 1960s and 70s, but it also showed up in mag­a­zines, movies, and hun­dreds of album cov­ers.” To typog­ra­phy enthu­si­asts, Pet Sounds seem­ing­ly remains Coop­er Black­’s finest hour: “Just look at the way the D works with the E and the Y, and ‘Boys’ fits so nice­ly over the O,” as art direc­tor Stephen Heller says in the video.

In the 1920s Coop­er Black not only show­cased cut­ting-edge print­ing tech­nol­o­gy, its aes­thet­ic looked exhil­a­rat­ing­ly mod­ern as well. Now, of course, it looks com­fort­ing­ly retro, evoca­tive of the era of hand­made graph­ic design slip­ping out of liv­ing mem­o­ry in our dig­i­tal 21st cen­tu­ry. But the 21st cen­tu­ry so far has also been a time of “retro­ma­nia”: with all pre­vi­ous media increas­ing­ly at our fin­ger­tips, we draw inspi­ra­tion (and even mate­r­i­al) for our art and design more direct­ly and instinc­tive­ly than ever from the trends of the past. No won­der we con­tin­ue to feel a res­o­nance in Coop­er Black, whose let­ters, as Caswell puts it, bring with them the weight of “a cen­tu­ry’s worth of changes in tech­nol­o­gy and pop cul­ture.” Nor is Coop­er Black­’s next cen­tu­ry, what­ev­er uses it sees the font put to, like­ly to dimin­ish its appeal.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The His­to­ry of Typog­ra­phy Told in Five Ani­mat­ed Min­utes

Com­ic Sans Turns 25: Graph­ic Design­er Vin­cent Connare Explains Why He Cre­at­ed the Most Hat­ed Font in the World

Down­load Hel­l­veti­ca, a Font that Makes the Ele­gant Spac­ing of Hel­veti­ca Look as Ugly as Pos­si­ble

The Mak­ing (and Remak­ing) of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Arguably the Great­est Rock Album of All Time

Enter the Cov­er Art Archive: A Mas­sive Col­lec­tion of 800,000 Album Cov­ers from the 1950s through 2018

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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