Why some brands break out fresh fonts—while others revert to type
Helvetica, the famous sans-serif font, starred in its own 2007 Gary Hustwit documentary. In 2016, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art rebranded with a custom lettering design that set internet critics howling. And lest we forget, Gap had those five minutes in which it dared abandon its stately, elongated all-caps lettering for a ham-fisted arrangement of title-case bold type and a tiny blue square. Which is all to say that typefaces, while they may not be immediately discernible to the consumer (or brand marketer, if these examples tell you anything), are an integral element in setting apart a brand’s design.
But one particular class of type has become brand-blurringly rampant. Geometric sans-serif fonts have lately taken over the direct-to-consumer universe from Allbirds to Zocdoc. Whether shopping for car insurance, a new mattress, men’s khakis, takeout or a razor, anyone tabbing through the worldwide webscape of d-to-c brands would be forgiven for confusing their favorite sofa-in-a-box with their monthly subscription libido-booster.
What links these together is a distinctive branding style, and you know it when you see it: Product photography where the object of desire is shot isometrically askew; solid background colors that are predominantly neutral; copy that has an ironically familiar tone—and is nearly always set in that eerily similar, playfully bold, geometrically designed sans-serif typeface.
For type designer Tobias Frere-Jones, principal of type foundry Frere-Jones Type, who has designed typefaces and logotypes seen the world over, the choice is puzzling. “It’s like everyone has decided to paint just in shades of blue,” he says. (Full disclosure: Frere-Jones designed two of the three typefaces used by Ad Age, including those that this article is typeset with, in addition to the Ad Age logotype).
“This has been building for a number of years,” says Frere-Jones, “and it feels like there’s a saturation in this very particular style of geometric sans-serif, which often has a naïve quality to it.”
Nostalgic for nostalgia
But like all over-replicated styles, this one may be wearing itself thin, ready to give way to a new one. “There’ve been some other trends slowly building over the last few years,” says Frere-Jones, “one of which is a nostalgia, sometimes full-on camp, a reference to the typography of the 1960s and ’70s, like the titles for ‘Stranger Things.’ This has triggered all kinds of memories for all kinds of people because it was done so spot-on—a Proustian moment of going back in time.” (See “The great business of the good old days,” on Page 18.)
But throwback fonts can also be risky.
“There’s also a danger in that, because each one of these has a set of associations already attached to them,” Frere-Jones says. Case in point: Cooper Black, a 1970s designer standard featuring bold letters and heavy serifs, is making a strong comeback. “The very first thing that always comes to mind in seeing Cooper Black are those iron-on letters for T-shirts,” says Frere-Jones, recalling heat-transfer initials. Today you can find it in use extensively on d-to-c duvet brand Buffy’s website, or on the Brothers album cover from the Black Keys.
It’s the same with a quirky seriffed font called Windsor, a turn-of-the-century design that became a 1970s standby, says Frere-Jones. “If you take Windsor and set it centered, just a couple of words, white on black, you will not be able to think of anything else but a Woody Allen movie.”
Bridging old and new
Where a brand succeeds is hinting at nostalgia while creating something new. After hiring Leland Maschmeyer as chief creative officer, Chobani relaunched with fresh branding via its in-house team. Building a system of muted colors accentuated with bright photography, Chobani introduced a curvilinear, natural-looking seriffed type that harkens to the same roots as Windsor. But rather than just pick up an existing design, Chobani worked with typographer Berton Hasebe to create a new set of designs that wouldn’t make one think they’d accidentally walked onto the set of “Blue Jasmine.”
Designer and critic Armin Vit wrote that the work evokes the past without actually creating something that looks old. “[Chobani] is one of the best revolutions—screw evolution!—of a leading product in its category, that further separates it from the competition and it’s doing so in its own unique voice,” Vit enthused on Brand New, his blog covering contemporary brand design.
“A good type designer can step in and sort of fill in the history that may not be so apparent,” says Frere-Jones. “Like the building inspector can inspect the foundation of the house that you’d like to live in, [typographers] can steer this away from something that might have some awkward association, or just remove something that was motivated by a technology that is no longer relevant.”
Getting it right
Beyond the brand fonts themselves, typesetting decisions—spacing, compositional design in the layout, typographic density or “color”—all work together to give a brand an aesthetic voice. “It’s never really just one thing, like one aspect of a ‘g’ that’s shaped like this, or a cap ‘P’ like that,” says Frere-Jones. “It’s all these little decisions together, like the edge quality, the way corners are treated, the way the spacing is done, the way the outside is proportioned. All of those will add up to the flavor [without] invoking anything that’s come before.”
Which brings us back to d-to-c brands. Buffy, designed by Natasha Jen at Pentagram, appeared in 2017 with some of the same aesthetic qualities as other d-to-cs, but the use of Cooper Black and its Cooper-esque logotype pulled it away from the crowd.
“When a brand, either a new brand or brand refresh, goes in some very clearly different direction, something like Chobani Yogurt, it will really make people pay attention because it’s nothing like the type that all of these other brands are using,” says Frere-Jones.
That’s not to say that the current design trend featuring geometric sans-serifs, which he refers to as “harsh, strict reduction of form,” won’t evolve into something more organic, expressive and, well, Chobani-like. “The cycle repeats over and over again in art and design history,” says Frere-Jones.
Of course that cycle goes both ways. Let’s just hope that Gap’s tiny blue square doesn’t tuck itself behind anyone else’s name anytime soon.