Trash meets typographical treasure.
Photo: A blue dumpster with the words “City Waste” printed on it in two rows of large, lighter-blue letter.
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The cyan, blocky sans-serif type will sometimes wallop you as you pass a construction site, or some other place where people are creating refuse in bulk. Perhaps years of rugged use have scuffed up the letters, dimming their shocks of bright blue. This is a dumpster, after all, enduring one dusty worksite and landfill journey after another, when people are done throwing all sorts of heavy-duty detritus into and at it. And yet the name rings out, irrepressible: CITY WASTE.
City Waste, Inc.’s large metal trash receptacles are an underrated feature of the Madison landscape, thanks entirely to those capital letters spaced out evenly between their great metal ribs. Four letters on top and five below, all the same size, left-aligned to create a slight but pleasing vertical asymmetry. They are just dumpsters, proclaiming the name of their Middleton-based owner so you’ll remember it in case you ever need to rent one (there is even a helpful link on City Waste’s website titled “I Think I Need to Rent a Dumpster”). But in spite of themselves, they improve the landscape.
One doubts that waste-management professionals sit around jealously comparing their dumpster designs, in a pungent echo of the business card scene in American Psycho. But the City Waste design looks like someone fussed over it at least a little bit—someone with a refined grasp of color and font choices and kerning and so forth. The name is brisk and aspirational, as unabashed as a trendily un-bathed celebrity family. It says: We’re a city on the move, on the make, and we have some shit to throw out. City Waste!
To understand why City Waste and its dumpsters imprint so heavily on my image of Madison, I talked with someone who thinks a lot about typography for a living: Jonathan Senchyne, a professor at UW-Madison’s iSchool and author of the 2020 book The Intimacy of Paper in Early and Nineteenth-Century American Literature. “I think it belongs to or derives from the Futura family,” Senchyne says of the iconic (in my opinion) City Waste font. “Like Helvetica, Futura is part of the family of sans serif faces that became a basic part of the visual experience of cities. It’s where we look for directions, it’s how we find our bus, it’s how we know which way to open the door. It’s how we feel cities as modern and progressive.” Efforts to solicit comment from City Waste, Inc. itself were unsuccessful as of press time.
Senchyne reminds us that modern urban life as we know it has always been a bombardment of text, tracing the font on that dumpster back to 19th-century New York City: “Because printers printed not just books and newspapers, but also (and more often!) signs, handbills, posters, tickets and the like, the visual experience of print included both books and newspapers and… the city,” he says. “Print was everywhere. Advertisements, notices, bills were literally everywhere (think Times Square electronics, but on paper, cloth, and board).”
Futura and its clean, crisp lines are also in the DNA of a newer typeface family called Gotham, famously used in Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. “The dumpster typeface is either identical or very close to the typefaces of modern, progressive political campaigns and are therefore synonymous to many of us with words like HOPE, CHANGE, FORWARD, YES WE CAN etc.,” Senchyne says.
Gotham, Futura, and Helvetica are most closely associated with New York, but people in smaller places reach for those fonts and their imitators to borrow a little of their no-frills urbanity. We’re already steeped in certain fonts, primed to respond to them a certain way, associating them with specific traits and values. It’s so deeply ingrained that it’s just as effective on a dumpster as it is anywhere else. Maybe more.