Long Live Lobster
We make fun of Lobster for being overused, but is popularity such a bad thing?
Several years ago now, I was editing a newspaper feature that required me to find a snazzy font that would scream, from afar, “COCKTAILS.” It was to be a regular feature reviewing the newest, fanciest watering holes, and it didn’t take me long on the DaFont Top 100 before I found Lobster. It was perfect: retro but not classical, fun but not silly, smooth but not loopy. It became our signature cocktails font.
Fast-forward a bit and a strange thing started happening. Lobster started following me. It began to inhabit my dreams and haunt my waking moments. I couldn’t turn a street in London without seeing it looming over me.
This had happened to me before, of course. It was the late ’00s and the font was Bleeding Cowboys — possibly the most horrendous typeface committed to the internet — which I had used on my Harry Potter website (yes, I was a child). And then, suddenly, it was everywhere, befouling adverts and shop awnings and flyers for club nights. Occasionally still, I see it out in the wild and I get flashbacks to another time, another font…
I shouldn’t have been surprised by the ubiquity of Lobster. It had been, after all, on lists of the most popular fonts almost 10 years ago, where lazy designers go to find the most inoffensive, crowd-pleasing fonts (fonts that Martin Scorsese might call “theme park” fonts). It has 4.6 million downloads on DaFont alone. That popularity might partly be due to the fact that it’s a public domain font, meaning even the most cheapskate clients might plump for it. Pablo Impallari, an Argentinian designer and the font’s progenitor, let it out into the world back in 2010 and then walked away. His website might be 404ed but his work lives on around the world. And the more I found that Lobster was stalking me, the more determined I was to snap back.
I started photographing instances of the font in the wild. Sometimes it was the original Lobster font; at other times it was facsimiles that evoked the spirit of Lobster. Individual glyphs might differ slightly, but the impression was the same. The same binding ligatures, the same swooping capitals, the same feeling that you’ve been instantly transported to Cape Cod or Martha’s Vineyard or anywhere you can hear the soft patter of deck shoes.
Shops love Lobster. It conveys friendliness and classiness hand in hand. It doesn’t have the cold trendiness of the sans serif fonts that litter Soho and Shoreditch and Greenwich Village. It’s welcoming. I’ve seen it on restaurants in London and New York, environmentally friendly dry cleaners, a barbershop in a too-cool-for-school outdoor market.
Packaging designers, likewise, can’t get enough of Lobster. It doesn’t matter if they’re selling a reading light that might only plausibly be purchased by octogenarians or beauty products made with cannabis extract. Lobster was the font. And it wasn’t just cheap, off-brand crap: McDonald’s got in on the Lobster love-in, allowing the font to champion their new Rich Tomato Dip, the default condiment for their delicious new cheesy nugget sharing boxes.
To me, Lobster always smelt of the sea. Perhaps that’s because I always knew that it was called Lobster. To others, Lobster means European. It’s a font that evokes ideas of the foreign, the exotic. I found it on the side of a semi, extolling pastel de natas, and in the branding of a shop flogging discount Italianate luggage. Most bizarrely, I found it in Italy itself, where it seemed to symbolize the U.K. in a British-themed antipasti collection. Home or away, Lobster takes you places.
And that’s the thing about Lobster: However clearly it speaks to me of the seaside and jazz music and mint juleps, it says something different to other people. Its versatility was summed up when, in quick succession, I found it used in a hospital to encourage (children? adults?) to get a winter flu shot (“Be a flu superhero!”) and then used in a leftist meme to embarrass people on Twitter. Perhaps they aren’t so unrelated — once a font has proliferated in the public psyche, it becomes part of a shared aesthetic consciousness that’s ripe for parody. You can see it in that meme, sat alongside the doomed Chalkduster font. Maybe Lobster is going the way of Papyrus and Comic Sans before it…
It’s clear to lots of people (presumably the majority of those reading this piece) that using Lobster (or Lobster knock-offs) has become trite. There is an ugliness to knowing that something lacks originality. As consumers, we like design to have a mysticism; we don’t want to know how the sausages are made. And even if you haven’t downloaded Lobster.OTF yourself, you’ve reached the point in its saturation where you know it. And knowing a font is dangerous.
And yet… there is a comfort that a lot of people find in the familiar. The old adage that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” still stands. Plenty of people, presented with Lobster, will think they are seeing it for the first time. And 4.6 million downloads can’t be wrong; people like it. The kitschier the font, the more easily tired it becomes — that’s why Times New Roman and Garamond have persevered where Comic Sans and Curlz MT have fallen — but Lobster, like Bleeding Cowboy before it, has managed to stay just shy of overexposure. It still gives off warmth, whether it’s inviting you into a bar in Nice or welcoming you to a club night where a Robbie Williams tribute act sings a string of Spice Girls hits. In a confused and confusing world, Lobster makes sense.
How does Pablo Impallari feel, seeing the way that the font has taken over the world? “Always grat [sic] to see the fonts in use :)” he said, back in 2013, when a fellow DaFont user sent him a selection of images of the font being used in television commercials. His follow-up font, Cabin, three years later, was an Eric Gill–inspired sans serif number. It has not experienced the popularity of Lobster.
Great design is often very quiet, improving the UX without shouting about it. We all hold that maxim to be true. And when I first started cataloging Lobster, it was because I felt frustration that such an “obvious,” “unoriginal” typeface was being used so frequently in branding by companies that could afford to be more imaginative, or designers who ought not to be so lazy. But after a while, Lobster got under my skin, and much as it’s nice and good and proper to not notice design, sometimes noticing design can have a humanizing effect.
So each time I see Lobster used now, I picture that tiny thumbnail of Pablo Impallari, the Victor Frankenstein who, known or unbeknownst to him, has a little piece of his work on streets and televisions and in shops and homes across the world. But I also see a version of myself, picking out Lobster almost 10 years ago, making that same decision. My tastes may have changed — I chose Bleeding Cowboy once upon a time, remember — but I am still able to visualize the process of finding Lobster, downloading Lobster, writing in Lobster, and publishing Lobster. And that has the effect of making me feel an odd intimacy with the designers who use it. That might be almost the opposite of their purpose, because good design is invisible, but I find it strangely comforting.
Marine biologists still do not know what the lifespan of a lobster is. They might even have something approaching or resembling biological immortality. I find that oddly fitting.