• Transform magazine
  • August 06, 2020


Light, medium, black


Crafting bespoke typefaces has become more common, particularly among digital-first brands. How do type designers approach challenging briefs and what are the benefits of implementing a branded typeface? Melina Thalassinou reports

In 1938, Alexander Graham Bell’s company, AT&T, created the most iconic typeface of the 20th century, Bell Gothic. Now, with companies such as Coca-Cola, Airbnb, Netflix, Apple, YouTube, Google, eBay and PayPal creating branded typefaces, the business world is seeing that trend flourish once again. Typeface renovation – an effort to make a change that may seem small and therefore comfortable for the audience – can create a big impact. For companies taking this route, it is increasingly popular to create custom fonts when changing an old typeface that no longer represents the brand.

According to Bruno Maag, founder of type design company Dalton Maag, the secret behind a successful typeface change lies in how unnoticeable it is. “The typography has to support the entire brand. We, type designers, can become a little self-absorbed and feel like we do the important work, when in fact we don’t. Typography is only a part of a bigger picture, it has a supporting role, not a leading one. A successful change is when the typography eventually supports the brand so well, that it is barely noticeable,” Maag says.

Ian Dickson, manager of design & wayfinding customer communications at Toronto’s public transit authority, Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), agrees with Maag. However, Dickson stresses the importance in the details, “While I wouldn’t say it’s focal to the brand, it’s integral. A cornerstone of the TTC brand is that the TTC is literally ‘built-in’ to the city. The TTC is one the reasons Toronto is considered a great city to live in. The Bloor-Yonge typeface is sandblasted into station walls. It’s a metaphor for the relationship the TTC holds with Toronto, its residents and visitors.” TTC’s original typeface was hand-drawn by unknown engineers in the early 1950s. The typeface was used for station names on platform walls, as well as on ceramic pan face wayfinding signs. In 2013, TTC designers redrew and digitised the typeface, naming it Bloor-Yonge after one of the system’s busiest stations.

For Stuart de Rozario, senior type designer at type foundry Fontsmith, typeface design plays a big role in a brand system. “If you were to take the lettering or typography away from the brands identity, would you still know what brand it is? Typography is one of the fundamental building blocks of design, so selecting the correct typeface will enhance a brands tone of voice. A typeface is the key ingredient that binds all these design elements together. Technology changes, fashions and trends change, and typefaces change with them,” de Rozario says.

A prime example of a big company introducing a new typeface is Apple, which released a new font named San Francisco. The new font was designed to take the place of the Helvetica typeface Apple previously used. The objective was to create consistency between Apple’s products and to ensure a better on-screen translation in small and large scale applications.

The reasons behind creating a branded typeface vary. To improve and evolve their brands, companies can choose to do so either by adopting an imposing image that reflects the company’s experience and power, which was the case for Volkswagen, or by adopting an image that is modern and fresh, reaching younger audiences, such as Pepsi.

Additionally, as a result of the digital age, a variety of new ways for companies to connect with their customers have been produced. This can be at the same blessing and a curse. Dickson says, “We’re looking at more real-time displays in stations and vehicles, mobile apps, open data and interactive kiosks. These all present challenges and opportunities for our designers.”

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Maag says some of the reasons a company might seek to create their own branded typefaces are to future proof the brand, to avoid additional licensing fees for new technologies or to ensure the best targeting of a brand’s audiences. He says “I think there are multiple reasons to [do so]. One, is to control the typographic branding expression. Secondly, it is an effort to be in technical control, because many brands nowadays work primarily in digital environments and in these environments, there are you have all sorts of different technical requirements, so by having your own typeface right from the start, you can work towards these requirements to make sure that they are met. Lastly, it’s a logistical issue. Once a client has a typeface designed for them, then they can do whatever they want with it.”

As Maag suggests, from a financial perspective, it makes more sense for a company to use a customised font, avoiding the need to pay royalties and licensing rights each time an existing font is used. For Dickson, the biggest advantage of a custom typeface is its exclusivity, “Our typeface is an extension of our brand identity. As a result, in Toronto’s urban context, anything set in this typeface immediately becomes associated with the TTC. It’s difficult for anyone else to use the font without their work appearing somehow related to the TTC,” Dickson says.
When designing a typeface, however, a multitude of factors must be taken into consideration. “One, for display, for which you can be much more expressive and creative and two, for reading, for small sans texts, which is all about functionality and readability and the typographic expression is subtle. The first question we ask the client is, ‘Where and how are you going to use it?’ and, ‘Who is your target audience?’ and then we make decisions regarding the design,” Maag says.

De Rozario adds, “Are we designing for a specific accessibility requirement? Does legibility play a role? Does heritage of the brand have an impact on the visual identity? From small size on screen to print at 3,000 point on a billboard sign. Text type, display type, desktop or web fonts, large and small scale, there’s a hundred and one things that need careful consideration and could determine the outcome of the design.”
Trends are also a factor that can determine a designing company’s choice of typeface. It is a clear that today, different fonts are linked to different qualities and characteristics and companies need to be aware of those correlations to make an educated decision. From a consumer’s perspective, sans serif fonts tend to be regarded as more contemporary and modern, whereas serif fonts tend to be regarded as a bit dusty and outdated. However, Maag doesn’t entirely agree with that. “I find this to be a weird perception, because there are a lot of serif typefaces that look very contemporary and in the right hands they can enhance the brand and create a very contemporary feel. If you look, for example, at Mercedes Benz, they use a serif typeface and they’ve used it for the last 20 years. However, it still looks fresh, clean and contemporary. It exudes a certain authority,” he says.

De Rozario gives another example of a brand that has proved trends wrong. “Why can’t you use a well-designed sans serif for a bank? We worked with ING who were developing a new digital first identity. It used a modified version of our highly accessible [sans serif] font FS Me as it wanted something legible in all digital applications. I think banks now see the importance of appearing friendly as well as trustworthy.”
Despite experts explaining the misconceptions of specific qualities attached to certain type families, there is still an idea of Helvetica as the modernist ideal of typeface, for example. It is this idea, that has been perpetuated by design companies, that only sans serif typefaces, grotesque and geometric ones can be regarded as modern and clean.

One example is Airbnb’s use of a typeface called Circular, which was geometric. Maag says, “That is an example of a fashion trend that is very much driven by branding agencies. Branding agencies don’t really innovate, they follow trends, because it is the safe ground and it makes the client feel safe and happy to invest.” Following trends, however, is not the solution for all. Dickson says, “With many properties across the city, we can’t take risks following trends that could fall out of fashion. We use Bloor-Yonge in a very controlled manner so that it is not over-used or applied inappropriately.”

Inside the type design community, another problem arises, following the increase of companies changing their typefaces. Maag says the debate centres around a perceived increased uniformity of typeface design. “I don’t think that is particularly true,” he says. “A lot of people don’t understand that you work to a client brief. At the end of the day, we are designers, we’re not artists. We don’t work for ourselves, we work for someone else, we must solve someone else’s problem. Of course, regarding aesthetics or visual expression, we have to be aware what other people have done so that we don’t accidentally copy anyone.” But, typeface designers have to ensure their work is both artistically unique and meets a client’s expectations.

Typeface may not be the main feature of a brand, it is however a vital one. Whether by following trends, or by coming up with innovative ideas, companies use typefaces to build their visual identity and differentiate themselves in an incredibly competitive market, seeking uniqueness, functionality and a contemporary aesthetic.