“90 percent of design is typography. And the other 90 percent is whitespace.”
While many elements such as color, composition, texture, and movement, are shared between graphic design and other visual disciplines, typography is the closest we graphic designers get to an exclusive practice. Typography, in many ways, is graphic design at its purest – the creation and arrangement of letters to communicate information. There are tens of thousands of typefaces, with boundless styles of expression and limitless opportunities for creativity and novelty. Why, then, have we come to see only the same, small handful of fonts being used? What leads to a font’s popularity, and how can we best use a typeface to differentiate our clients? And what do we do when an off-the-shelf typeface isn’t unique enough?
The Cream of the Crop
Helvetica, Garamond, Futura, Times New Roman, Arial: these fonts and a few others are household names, even for non-designers. These fonts are ubiquitous and have been for a long time. They’ve gained prominence in their own ways over the years, but through their extensive use, they’ve become established players, “safe” bets, and easy picks for certain applications. Choosing Helvetica is like ordering spaghetti at an italian restaurant – it might be delicious, but you know exactly what to expect. While these fonts do excel in some ways (Helvetica is incredibly legible, for instance), they can feel utilitarian at times simply due to their long lifespan. Designers often return to these tried-and-true fonts in a pinch, when looming deadlines force a quick decision, or even when a client wants the appearance of an established, long-lasting brand. However, when a designer does have the opportunity to branch out, new trends can be set.
Commissioned by GQ Magazine in 2000, Hoefler & Frere-Jones’s (now Hoefler & Co.) typeface Gotham is a grounded, geometric sans-serif font that received little acclaim upon its release. It wasn’t until the 2008 presidential race that it found mainstream popularity.
Regardless of your political standing, there is no denying that Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign is a textbook example of successful branding and identity design. Famed designer and Pentagram partner Michael Beirut called Obama’s branding “just as good or better” than the best commercial designs of the time, and he largely attributed the campaign’s success to one thing: a font. Gotham, from Hoefler & Jones (now Hoefler & Co.), was used exclusively for Obama’s campaign materials, creating a sense of unity and cohesion between every single artifact of the campaign.
The crisp, geometric forms of Gotham spread like wildfire across the design industry as “the new hot thing” and as more designers started using Gotham, a feedback loop emerged: more designers using Gotham led to greater exposure for Gotham, which led to more designers using Gotham in their work. You can see where this is going.
This type of trendsetting is common in graphic design (see the “flat design” trend popularized by iOS 7) but few fonts gain such widespread popularity as quickly as Gotham did.
Bucking the Trend
Following a trend can, in many cases, be a positive. It shows that your brand is aware of the current environment and adaptive to the changing times. However, it’s important to remember to retain an individual approach to a trend.
Gotham may have been the poster-child for geometric sans-serif typefaces in the late 2000s; its defining traits – low stroke contrast, large x-height, large counters – were found in numerous other typefaces that all saw a dramatic rise in popularity around the same time. Fonts like Proxima Nova, Avenir, Museo Sans, Sofia Pro, San Francisco, and others all share the same basic set of characteristics, giving brands (and their designers) numerous options in following the Gotham-style trend while still establishing a unique voice for themselves.
Gotham’s popularity led to greater exposure for similar typefaces.
The Next Big Thing & True Individuality
One of the newest trends in type is also one of the oldest. Stemming from the days before metal type and printing presses, hand lettering has seen a tremendous resurgence in popularity in the past few years. Organizations big and small are embracing the craftsmanship and unique character of one-off lettering to give their brand a truly unique voice. Hand lettering can be as varied as a client wants, and the creative freedom this style gives to designers is nearly unmatched, giving both designers and clients the ability to be truly individual.
Custom lettering for a Canton Museum of Art event.
A brand’s font choice needs to achieve several things: it needs to be legible, it should be flexible enough for any application, it should help establish a unique identity, and it should portray the personality of the brand accurately. Taking current trends in design and typography into consideration adds a layer of complexity to this already daunting task. Whether you’re looking for tried-and-true solutions or cutting edge creative, Cassel Bear’s designers & strategists are on top of it.