A friend of mine, who shall remain nameless (but whose name rhymes with Lay Shewis), recently asked for my opinion on a logo he was working on. I have to admit that my immediate reaction had nothing to do with what you’d normally look for in a logo—simplicity, impact, memorability, composition—but the choice of the typeface the designer selected. If I remember correctly, my response was something like:
“Is that Hobo? No Hobo!!! PS: The Yankees are stupid. And so are sweater vests.”
This “Lay Shewis” character didn’t really deserve such a curt response and he certainly didn’t deserve all those exclamation points. I liked much of what he had done with the logo, yet my response was based on a visceral reaction to a typeface I’ve seen perhaps one too many times.
This got me to thinking, What do I have against the typeface Hobo? It’s not poorly designed like Comic Sans, overused to the point of irrelevance like Papyrus, or inherently hateful like Curlz MT (we haven’t written about Curlz MT yet, but it’s coming). So why does Hobo so frequently show up on lists of the typefaces designers hate most? Usually when designers take a disliking to a typeface, it’s not necessarily that it’s a bad typeface, it’s just that it’s been misused and/or overused.
Hobo is like your kindly grandfather: playful, unassuming, and 100 years old. It was designed in 1910 by Morris Fuller Benton, the chief type designer for the American Type Founders from 1900 to 1937, to be used for display purposes in informal situations. It’s been described as a “humorous novelty,” which makes me think of it as the fake dog poo of typography. Here’s a description from the website Typedia, a website you didn’t know about because you’re not a huge nerd:
The Hobo font is a dynamically tapering face in which all strokes are accentuated curves, achieving a superb decorative effect. Hobo almost suggests a freely drawn alphabet with its unusual robust roundness. The Hobo font was designed to be used at large sizes. It has no descenders: the lower case g, p, q and y are incorporated into the x-height. The Hobo font imparts a friendly personality to display work such as invitations, menus, signage, and packaging.
Let me repeat part of that back to you: It has no descenders! (I know, again with the exclamation points.) All of the letters g and y and p and j and what have you end abruptly on the baseline. I mean, has the whole world gone crazy? Also, the entire character set is made up of curved lines. Look at it and you’ll see there’s not a straight line to be found.
There’s at least one website dedicated to the dislike of Hobo, but it doesn’t have anywhere near the same energy or force as those opposed to truly bad typefaces like Comic Sans. There’s a website called Hobo Sightings, a Flickr page, and a firm called The Design Office in Rhode Island dedicated to documenting instances of Hobo in its natural habitat, which appears to be on church playgrounds, restaurant signs, and whimsical T-shirts or bumper stickers.
I guess, in retrospect, I don’t really dislike Hobo. My reaction to seeing it in Shea’s “Lay’s” logo design was based mostly on the fact that it is fairly prevalent in the visual environment, usually found in lower-end fare. But it does what it set out to do and it obviously has stood the test of time.
And I think that’s the crux of it. I don’t mind seeing Hobo on fliers for neighborhood cookouts or canvas banners announcing 2-for-1 egg rolls at the local Hung Far Lo Chinese eatery, but I can’t see it being used well in a piece of sophisticated, high-end design.