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.