Everyone knows Times New Roman and Helvetica. Though you might not realize it, you likely know Cooper Black as well. If you’ve listened to Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys or L.A. Woman by the Doors, you’ve seen Cooper Black. If you’ve eaten a Tootsie Roll, you’ve seen Cooper Black. If you’ve cooked Top Ramen, you’ve seen Cooper Black. If you’ve watched Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road music video, you’ve seen Cooper Black. If you’ve purchased a Vote for Pedro t-shirt, you’ve seen Cooper Black. If you’ve flown on an easyJet plane, you’ve seen Cooper Black. If you’ve shopped at a corner store, you’ve seen Cooper Black. There’s no denying it: this font is everywhere. But what makes a font from the 1920s withstand the test of time so well? Let’s find out.
What characteristics help it transcend time?
- Cooper Black only has curved edges, unlike most typefaces with flat bottoms. The curves make it a very forgiving font to work with. They also allow the letterforms to work well on both a consistent baseline and an uneven baseline.
- There is a “notch” in the lowercase f. This notch allows for maximum boldness while still maintaining legibility. Legibility at such an extreme level of boldness was unusual for typefaces of the same era: miniscule counterspaces were easily filled up with ink, essentially vanishing when printed.
- Its alphabet is ripe with anthropomorphic characters. The ear on the lowercase g has been said to resemble a duck bill, while the tail of the uppercase Q has been said to resemble a snail’s body.
- The backward slanted counter of the uppercase and lowercase O feels friendly. It draws attention to any letters in close proximity.
“Just look at the way the D works with the E and the Y, and ‘Boys’ fits so nicely over the O,” —Stephen Heller, on the Pet Sounds album cover typography
Where did it come from?
Rounded had typefaces first started appearing in the 1830s. By the early 1900s, German type designers had begun exploring more expressive styles that would evolve into the aesthetic that this font would come to monopolize. The Cooper family was designed in 1922 by Oswald Cooper as a metal typeface. Very popular font at the time, Cooper Black quickly became the star of the show. Cooper famously referred to Cooper Black as a typeface “for far-sighted printers with near-sighted customers”: dense with exaggerated serifs and meant to be set large.
The revolution of printing methods
Two new ways of printing that developed in the 1950s helped carry Cooper Black into the second half of the twentieth century. Phototype replaced hot metal typesetting. It did not require keeping heavy metal in stock and allowed the use of a much wider range of fonts and graphics at any desired size, as well as faster development of page layouts. Letraset was the brand name for the original dry-transfer lettering product. An alphabet was printed onto the reverse of translucent film, then coated with adhesive. Rubbing the front of the sheet would transfer the letter to the sheet of paper the film was laid over. These printing methods opened the doors for experimental compositions in graphic design. They allowed for tight leading, kerning, and adventurous letter placement, all things that were limited with woodblock and metal type.
Typography for all
Cooper Black’s letterforms meshed well with the look of the sixties and seventies. The wobbly shapes complimented the hippy aesthetic. It could be found in advertisements, magazines, movies, and album covers everywhere. But it was not limited to these commercial applications. Cooper Black’s availability in Typositor (phototype) catalogs and Letraset meant it was readily available to the masses. Access was no longer limited to graphic designers and typographers. The counterculture movement and do-it-yourself designers embraced Cooper Black. Letraset’s transfer technique was used because of its ease of manipulation, its low price, and the quality of the rendered layout. These allowed subcultures to be independent of printers and publishers. This further proved the font’s adaptability. From highbrow to lowbrow applications, its approachability and forgivability have withstood the test of time.
From advertising to grassroots movements, from album covers to storefronts, from hip hop flyers to food packaging, Cooper Black is everywhere and for everyone.