Mad Men Font Fail… or was it?

Tonight was the first episode of the fourth season of Mad Men. It was a bittersweet moment, in which we once again can revel in the mid-century modern adventures of the anti-hero Don Draper, but also mourn the approaching summer’s end.

One of the many enjoyable parts of the Mad Men viewing experience (besides laughing at the characters’ ignorance of upcoming historical events. Fools! Johnson was planning on sending more troops to Vietnam the whole time! And you will have Nixon to kick around anymore!) is watching in awe how the show flawlessly recreates the ’60s style down to pinpoint accuracy. Sure there are a few mistakes, but overall it is very impressive and does a better job at truly immersing the audience than almost any other show.

This is why typeface purists were shocked, shocked, to see the logo for the new Sterling Cooper Draper Price.

Behold! The high quality of taking a picture of a paused DVRd show with my iPhone.

Instantly, Twitter was a twitter with shock and disgust.

Is that…

Can it be…


For those who do not know, Arial is one the typefaces, behind comic sans and papyrus, most likely to get you in trouble with a font nerd. What makes it so repugnant is its obvious ripoff from, yet inferiority to, Helvetica (a typeface so wonderful it merits its own documentary). What is worse is that Arial was created by Microsoft as a stand-in for Helvetica simply so it would not have to pay for the superior original. Therefore, the ubiquity of the Microsoft software has ensured that Arial is used more often as a generic sans-serif than that pinnacle of the modern sans-serif that is Helvetica.

But certainly Mad Men’s art directors would know this, right? They wouldn’t use such an obvious Arial anachronism? So perhaps there are a few arguments that can save Mad Men from such a damning mistake in its first episode back.

1. It is not any typeface.

The logo isn’t on paper. It is not typed. It is not pre-fab lettering. It seems to be a stand-alone, one-time creation for the new company of Sterling Cooper Draper Price. Perhaps the craftsman who created it merely made up his own lettering and went from there, rather than adhering to an established font as a guide.

This would explain the similarity to Arial. The artist looked at whatever sans-serif he had around to get a sense of design and then just kind of deviated from the standard shape.

2. It is Akzidenz Grotesk

I took the super-duper high quality camera-phone picture of a paused TV show and tried putting into What The Font. However, the website had a problem with the shape, contrast, etc. So I fumbled around with the SCDP logo and came up with this:

If you turn up the contrast really high and make it black and white, its modern art!

When I put this into What The Font, its top answer seemed awfully close: Berthold Akzidenz-Grotesk.

Akizdenz-Grotesk would actually be a great typeface for the Mad Men art directors to have used. According to Wikipedia, it was created in 1898 and was the first sans-serif typeface to be widely used, and it ended up influencing many later neo-grotesk typefaces. Neo-grotesk typefaces like Neue Haas Grotesk, or as it was renamed in 1960: Helvetica.

So lets compare Akzidenz-Grotesk to Arial.



The height of the C in Arial in comparison to Akidenz seems to be the most obvious difference, but is it notable enough to prove that the Sterling Cooper Draper Price slogan is not in Arial?

I have enough faith in the Mad Men art directors to believe that they would have gone with not the FAIL of Arial, and not the obvious choice of Helvetia, but instead would have chosen something old and classic for the ’60s. Lest we forget, Helvetica was just released in 1960, only a few years before tonight’s episode. Furthermore, one can imagine that it would be slightly difficult to get large metal letters in the shape of newly released typefaces. One would have to get letters in something that had been around for a while. Something that factories had been putting out for a while, making in bulk. Something like Akzidenz Grotesk.

Mad Men art directors, I will never doubt you again.

36 responses to “Mad Men Font Fail… or was it?

  1. The new logo is at least more period than the old Sterling-Cooper signage that was set in Frutiger. That typeface wasn’t released until 1976.

    • The old Sterling Cooper signage was in Gill. Which is also problematic given that it wasn’t widespread in the US until the 70s as well, but it is not impossible.

      • Maybe they just had some font-nerd designers create the logo in a typeface that wouldn’t really catch on for a while, but were ahead of the curve, he said, reading the The Thresher.

  2. Thanks for the analysis. That drove me nuts when I first saw it.

  3. Thank you, I was very disappointed to see the terminals of that capital C just hanging out there at apparently random angles like Arial. I jumped to conclusions and figured in all my font nerd indignation that the art directors had made a mistake. Excellent research to clear their name.

    • No problem. I may not have a job, but dammit if I didnt get something from 4 years on, working with people waaay better at this than I am.

  4. Nice analysis. Did you also check Arial Black? I really hope you’re right about it being Akzidenz Grotesk.

  5. In regard to the last paragraph, signage like this isn’t made from bulk lettering. No one makes stuff like that. It would be a one-off.

    And even if there was a company that made generic letter squares for signage no self-respecting advertising firm would resort to using them. Much the same way any modern company that is conscious of their image would never stoop to using a web site template.

  6. oh my god I love you guys.

  7. The closing credits are in Arial. One more reason to be upset each time the show ends.

  8. nice analysis, but have the glyphs in this lettermark been horizontally scaled (widened)? all the vertical strokes seem much heavier than the horizontals, which you wouldn’t likely see in a true extended version, i.e., one drawn by a type designer.

    can someone verify that an extended version of akzidenz grotesk exists? that might put this to rest right away.

  9. Angled terminals were around long before Helvetica and Arial were twinkles in their creators’ eyes. Akzidenz, or its more modern interpretation Standard (the NY Subway face) were quite commonly used in the 1950s-’60s. AG was the house face for Braun, for example, used on all their displays and clock faces for decades.

  10. Also, most of us forget that Arial is as much a copy of Monotype Grotesque and other grots as it is a copy of Helvetica.

  11. Odd. Never struck me as Arial. As you illustrate, Arial is rather narrow. I still miss the old Sterling Cooper logo though.

  12. @Bill: The original Sterling Cooper logotype was Gill Sans (1928), not Frutiger.

    S, R, G, C are the best indicators. Look a little closer.

  13. Pingback: Wendt » It’s a Mad Men Christmas…in August!

  14. I’m amazed that anyone who claims they’re a type purist would think it was Arial. The width alone is an immediate cue.

  15. Very interesting share post for me because i am related to graphic design field.Thanks for a nice share post with us.

  16. All I know is, I want that bad boy on a T shirt.

  17. I seem to recall seeing this logo in four different colored blocks in the series. Does anyone else remember that? Or was I just imagining it?

  18. Sorry, but you’re wrong. This is not Akzidenz Grotest. Look at the capital C in the real Akzidenz – the angles are perpendicular to the ends of the lines.

    And how can you compare a fat version of one font to the standard version of another? Font families have many different stroke weights, you know.

    I still think it’s Arial. They also use Arial (Narrow) for the end credits. Tsk tsk.

  19. Pingback: 2010 in review | Burn Down Blog

  20. dustyjohnson10

    Most of the times i visit a blog I see that the construction is poor and the writing bad. On the contrary,I have to say that you have done a good job here.

  21. I love the new logo! It’s simple and… simple… 😀

  22. Wow there is a new logo! I like it too!
    Very good.

  23. Can someone tell me what was the font they used on their door name plates? I want one for my own office

  24. Thank for this blog and the good PR. I will give a backlink.

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