Mark Simonson’s Proxima Nova is an extraordinarily popular geometric sans-serif typeface, especially on sites and apps that use custom web fonts. Over the past nine years or so, it’s proliferated on the internet, primarily because of its easy availability on web-font sites like Typekit and its similarity to Tobias Frere-Jones’s Gotham, the sans-serif font used in Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. While Proxima was actually designed before Gotham – Simonson started working on it in the early 90s, while Frere-Jones published Gotham in the early 2000s after creating it for GQ magazine – its meteoric rise seems to be connected with Gotham’s popularity. People and companies who used Gotham as part of their branding substituted Proxima Nova on the web for several years because the latter was available as an embeddable font, whereas Gotham wasn’t available until 2013 or 2014.
I will admit that I am not a fan of this typeface, though I like some of Simonson’s other typefaces, like Coquette, Bookmania and his brand-new Parkside. This post isn’t intended to be an attack on Simonson himself; from what I’ve seen of his work online, he’s a reasonably talented type designer who has friendly licensing policies and an excellent blog on type design and typography.
Proxima Nova feels like an unwieldy amalgamation of ideas and letterforms. The capitals on their own look good, as do many of the italic lowercase letters. The roman lowercase, however, feels more haphazard. Proxima Nova is neither controlled enough to be consistent, nor awkward enough to own its weirdnesses. Nowhere is this more evident than in the lowercase ‘a’. It’s awkwardly drawn and doesn’t seem to belong to the rest of the typeface. The letterforms in Avenir and Gotham, two similar typefaces by Adrian Frutiger and Tobias Frere-Jones respectively, have a more consistent, even rhythm than those of Proxima Nova, which can’t decide whether it should embrace its quirks or adopt a more staid, conservative form. Simonson himself has shown an ability to exhibit greater consistency within a typeface; his Muostra Nova utterly revels in its quirkiness. The awkwardness of Proxima Nova’s ‘a’ comes primarily from the abrupt transition between the stem, or the vertical line on the right-hand side, and the bowl, or the rounded portion of the letter. Gotham and Avenir make this transition smoother by using a teardrop shape for both the bowl and the negative space (counter) enclosed within the bowl. The bowl slopes gently downwards, while Proxima’s has a more severe-looking shape that would be better suited to a typeface that is more uniformly quirky like Process Type’s Colfax. The bowl feels tacked on to the stem in a rather graceless fashion.
The spur of the a – the arc-shaped top portion of the letter – is also dangerously close to the bowl; there’s not enough room to breathe. Gotham and Avenir, in contrast, give just enough negative space between the spur and the bowl to make the ‘a’ look more open. The alternative character set, which swaps the bulbous two-storey a for a single-storey one, solves many of the problems in the default character set. Unfortunately, it’s far less common, possibly because accessing the alternative characters generally requires enabling an OpenType stylistic set in Photoshop, Illustrator or InDesign, or selecting alternates in a web-font host’s control panel. This awkward relationship between stems, bowls and counters in Proxima Nova isn’t limited to the lowercase a, either; you can also see it in the b and several other letters, though the a is probably the most ungainly of the lot.
Proxima Nova’s ubiquity on the internet makes its design flaws more obvious, since I’m constantly encountering web articles set in it. Web designers will use it for long passages, though it’s not ideal for reading at long measures because of its inconsistent contrast compared to other typefaces in its genre. I myself find it difficult to read and will usually switch a website into reader mode on Firefox or Mobile Safari when I see it, or will turn on custom CSS in Firefox or Chrome to have the website display in a different font. I think that Proxima has the chance to become an excellent typeface, but its uneasy relationship between conservative regularity and quirky playfulness make me hesitate to recommend it. It needs to own itself, which it doesn’t.
My issues with Proxima Nova go beyond its flaws as a piece of type design. The rampant use of Proxima Nova in website body text is difficult to extricate from the increasing tendency towards boring, derivative web design that uses the same generic Bootstrap-inspired layouts. I’ve come to associate it with bland ‘modernisations’ of websites; there are countless websites that once used quirky, playful websites only to have those more original designs replaced with an identikit redesign complete with Proxima Nova, blue or other primary-coloured navigation bar, and irritatingly perky website copy. It’s part of a general tendency towards homogeneity that I find troubling, though I’ll refrain from going into detail about it in this specific post. I don’t think that Proxima Nova in and of itself is the cause of these derivative designs; rather, it is an unintentional beneficiary, as are Gotham and other geometric sans-serif typefaces that designers reach for as a sort of default. Though I doubt it was Simonson’s intent, Proxima Nova has started to become a default that designers use without thinking. It’s a victim of its own, and of Gotham’s, success. Designers think that because Proxima Nova is popular, it’s the ne plus ultra of geometric sans-serifs, even though there are thousands of equally good, or better, typefaces available on Typekit and other platforms. This is the same kind of thinking that leads non-designers to think that Times New Roman is the pinnacle of ‘serious’ typography. If you are a designer and are considering setting your next site in Proxima Nova, consider why you want to use it. Are you using it reflexively because it’s popular, or are you using it because it matches the tenor of your or your client’s website? Ignore asinine listicles that talk about the ‘top 10 fonts to use for the web’. Think about your intentions and what you and your client want to communicate.
Is Proxima Nova an Arial, a parasitic interloper that rides the coattails of a classic like Helvetica? Hardly. But its legitimacy as a type design doesn’t mean that it’s always the best choice for all design tasks. Nor does it mean that its popularity justifies its structural flaws. I’m not telling you not to use Proxima Nova – it’s not my place, and I’ve used it myself in the past – but I am telling you to pay attention and think more critically about your role as a designer when using it or any other typeface.