The importance of typography within a brand
The importance of typography within a brand. By: James Lewis.
In today’s society, letters are essentially combinations of visual abstract forms that communicate phonetics in a given language; when letters are combined, the result is a word that we combine with others, to communicate. Before the introduction of a universally understood written system of communication people communicated visually through sequential art, exploring depictions of objects, people, and events, to create narratives or convey information. Examples of this form of communication can be found across the globe in ancient cave paintings and notably the Egyptian hieroglyphs. One of the main advantages of this early communication method was the ease in which people could make the connection between something they have already seen and its visual representation carved on a wall, this is because the images being produced were direct visual representations of what they were trying to communicate. A major disadvantage, however, was that the visual depictions took too long to produce. As humans developed and spread across the globe, trade was becoming more important in society and there was a need for a faster form of visual communication to help keep track of product, and communicate over vast distances. This resulted in the slow transformation from representational images on cave walls to a symbolic language carved into stone tablets. This was the beginning of the written language we are familiar with in modern society whereas ‘the object or the action was no longer represented by a sign but instead was evoked by pure sound’(1), a sound that was visualised in the form of a letter.
Although the original invention of moveable type first came during the 1040’s in China, it took another four hundred years for the true potential of printed type to be realised. In the 1440’s Johannes Gutenberg had a fundamental impact on Western Europe, and subsequently the word, when he invented a way to mass-produce books at an economically viable price using a mechanical moveable type press. This invention introduced a new era of mass communication and ushered in a new age for typography where ‘typography exists to honour content’(2),
implying there should be a direct link between the message within the content and the selection of the typeface.
This concept is still widely accepted in today’s society and falls into the responsibility of a graphic designer to correctly link typography and content to produce a cohesive and trustworthy message.
Figure 1 clearly outlines this progression of the visual letter from 3500 BC to 1996 AD, thereafter not much has changed in the standardised writing system apart from the development of millions of different digital variations of letterforms. Each new digital typeface offers a unique take on the classic alphabet, each presenting a different set of values that a graphic designer has the job of linking with a given project they are working on to clearly present the information in an informative whilst the “Typography expresses sentiment; it creates a new layer of meaning through the visual presentation of a word.”(3)
In the contemporary, brand dominated marketplace, communication with consumers is vital for a brand and can be used to help exhibit their values. This essay will explore the extent brands utilise and exploit typography in their communications, as well as outlining the effects that good and bad uses of typography have on the end reader. In order to form an understanding, and come to a fair conclusion, the research explores the idea of branding in its broadest terms as well as how typography fits into the brand construction and overall image. This paper will analyse typography used in several instances by the brands: Nike, Obama, and Bing; brands that all originated in different sectors so have the potential to form a rounded view of the importance of typography within different types of brands. In order to understand the effects typography has on the end user a visual questionnaire will be constructed that compares good typographic choices in design, to poor choices, in an effort to find out how obvious these design flaws appear to the end user and if they affect their opinion of the brand.
What is a Brand?
A brand identity is a widely accepted marketing tool that is used to present a business with a set of values and beliefs to improve their self-image and differentiate them from similar products or services, the brand as a result is a constructed embodiment of the values and beliefs held by the company purposefully presented throughout all of the companies communications in an effort to boost sales and improve profits. The brand has also been known to “reassure consumers as to the quality and origin and… provide them with a simple route map through what may be a bewildering choice.”(4) A successful brand identity would encompass everything the company does, from their logo, to their office space, and to moral decisions made within the company; all should revolve around contributing to the brand identity and presenting the brand personality. Correct moral decisions made by the company (e.g. buying fair-trade goods, or sourcing locally) are successful ways to help define peoples “gut feeling about a product, service, or company”(5) and it is this gut feeling in the consumers that brands and marketers hope to manipulate by developing a relationship with the consumer by appearing real, with the ability to express beliefs, values and emotion. This emotional connection the brand forms between a product and consumer becomes more important than the product or even the brand itself, so it is constantly reinforced by utilising consistent narratives and themes throughout marketing efforts.
The origin and construction of a brand highlights the importance of typography within a brand identity. The earliest examples of branding are considered to be monogram hallmarks, and cattle brands dating back thousands of years(6). Similarly an artist signature can be viewed as an early example of branding, alike the hallmark, the main function of the signature was to indicate ownership, and occasionally the origin of the product. The monograms and signatures worked perfectly at the time to present a direct connection with the producer of the product and the end user. Over time people started to attribute values to specific craftsmen’s signatures of monograms, for example, if a swordsmith consistently produced sharp swords with his monogram on, it would have signified to people over time that his swords are guaranteed to be a quality product, and superior quality inspired repeat purchases(7), so the use of typography helped develop his trade. These associations between the consumer’s view of the product and the brand mark ignited the beginning of values based brands. As more values were attributed to certain products, more elaborate marks were produced that consisted of both typography and visual icons that ensured quality, informed of origin, and differentiated the product from others. Typographic monograms and marks were the only connection between the producer and consumer for a long time, signifying everything the brand encompassed through typographic choice and layout.
In the 1890’s innovations in packaging and printing brought upon a new era for brand communication, leading it to being commonly referred to as the ‘golden era for the modern brand mark’(8). It was at this time that manufacturers started to pre-package goods before sending them to retail providing the company the ability to standardise the portion size of their products and distribute from a single manufacture base, both of which helped the product distribution companies to grow massively at the time. Around the same time as the innovations within packaging, the field of market research was beginning to gain traction, claiming to feed back information about what the changing population wanted by taping into consumer psychology. Product manufactures with more expendable income than ever before pumped millions into these new researchers to find out better ways of presenting their brand and selling products to the consumer to gain a financial edge over their own business competition. Edward Bernays, a well-established marketing expert was inspired by the psychoanalytical findings of his uncle Sigmund Freud, and he believed market research was fundamental to understand why and how consumers chose to buy a certain good. Bernays brought this combination of market research, psychological analysis and branding together and formed a field known todays as PR (public relations). By combining the findings of market research with psychological analysis, through mass commercialisation, Bernays set out to “manage the dangerous, previously uncontrollable masses”(9) by encouraging people to see personal choice as a decision between two products, not between ways of ordering community or society. His new model for marketing was “specifically designed to create feelings of inadequacy, stimulate immature drives, and then assuage these negative feelings with consumer goods”(10). Bernays essentially planted the idea into society that buying products will result in personal gratification as you can express your decisions and inner self through the products you buy. The result was a society that valued commercial appeal and brand connection over the product itself, thus elevating the power and status of the brand concept to it being universally accepted by most businesses. Brands were now defining the society around them by appealing to the general public through value-based marketing and forging emotional connections by exploiting the insecurities and aspirations of the consumer. Marketing was being produced to portray and communicate an extravagant lifestyle, often out of the reach of the consumer, which invited the consumer to purchase the product as a way to attain the lifestyle portrayed, rather than to simply purchase a product.
Typography, as it always has been, is integral for brands to communicate their messages and values, the typography used often reflects a tone of voice that accompanies the written content.
For contemporary brands to succeed with spreading their message it requires a sophisticated understanding of the historical and cultural views of typography, as “Typographic style is founded not on any one technology of typesetting or printing, but on the primitive yet subtle craft of writing.”(11) Good brand developers and designers understand this concept and apply thought and process into choosing the correct typography for a given project. This adds a second level of emotional meaning to the text through the typeface's form and structure as people “have learned to associate meaning with the shape of a letterform, therefore there is a typographic class structure with an associated connotation."(12)
Analysis of typography used within brands
Typography has played a crucial role in the construction of brands throughout history; the typographic choices made by a company can either enhance their brand image or be detrimental to how the brand is perceived. By putting together and distributing a typography comparison questionnaire, as well as analyzing in depth the typography used in several instances by three influential bands: Nike, Obama, and Bing, a rounded conclusion can be made about how typography can enhance a brand image and alter peoples perception of the brand.
Barack Obama’s political campaign is a great example of a brand that relies heavily on modern marketing techniques to showcase its views and values to the people. One of the main strengths of the brand has been its consistency, Obama originally proclaimed the campaign was about “reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose, and realizing that few obstacles can withstand the power of million of voices calling for change”(13), a message that stayed true during the campaign and is clearly visible throughout the design and typography used to promote it. Being the first African American person to win the nomination of a major party in the United States, Obama’s inherently iconoclastic image could have possibly proved destructive if it was not accompanied by the consistent theme of “hope for a better future”(14) throughout all the Obama media. The combination of Obama’s image and the idea of hope formed the basis of a value driven brand identity that is relatable to millions of people.
The prolific ‘HOPE’ poster (seen in figure 2) designed by Shepard Fairey is a perfect example of typography successfully chosen and used in promotional material to clearly present and enhance the values held by the Obama brand. Gotham, the typeface used in the poster “although nostalgic, it is a sans-serif free of historical baggage”(15) connoting the theme of progression to a better future. When GQ commissioned Tobias Frere-Jones to design the font Gotham, they requested the typeface to be “very fresh and very established to have a sort of credible voice to it”(16) which the typeface achieves well, making it the perfect choice for an African American presidential candidate, campaigning for hope of a better future. The typeface itself has little variation between thick and thin strokes allowing it to appear simple, modern and geometric. The boldness of the typography combined with the use of all uppercase letters invoke a feeling of urgency within the message, at the same time it enhances the power of the word hope. The typography at the bottom takes up approximately a fifth of the page with only one word; this further solidifies the message of the poster that Obama is the personification of hope.
The typography used in Obama’s main logotype has changed throughout his presidential campaign to successfully keep up to date with his image. Prior to his presidential bid, Obama’s branding (see figure 3) was very typical of a U.S. Senator. By using a serif typeface combined with typical American iconography like the star, red, white and blue colour scheme, and the torch, Obama’s logo was rooted in American tradition connoting little about who he was and what he wanted to achieve and more about his job role and political position.
When the time came to rebrand Obama for his 2008 presidential campaign Sol Sender was brought in to design the now iconic ‘O’ logo seen in figure 4. The Logo successfully visualizes the idea of hope; the sun rising over the horizon evokes ideas of a new, better tomorrow filled with hope for the future. The choice to stick with a serif typeface in the 2008 rebrand was possibly done to affirm Obama’s roots in traditional America before really pushing the ‘hope for a better tomorrow’ brand. The typeface used in the 2008 logotype is Perpetua, designed by Eric Gill in 1929. The font is classified as a transitional serif typeface meaning stylistically it is between modern and old style typography. Transitional typefaces are typically thicker, more assertive, and trustworthy than the old style but not as dramatic and contrasting as the modern style. Obama’s 2008 logotype combines the dark, weighty, serif typography with the softer logo to create a harmony of new and old, the past and future. This typographic choice reflects the position of Obama at the time and connotes the idea of future change as he transitions through this election period.
In an independent survey of sixty people, when asked what the Obama 2008 logotype suggests about the brand, the vast majority answered with reference to hope, and ‘progressing forward over the horizon to a better tomorrow’. The findings could imply that the logotype is very successful in showcasing the values of the brand, however most people are familiar with the logo, the purpose, and values of the Obama brand, so it is difficult to understand how successful the logotype would be at portraying the values if it was not already associated with the Obama brand.
At the beginning of the 2008 presidential campaign the design team were exploring ideas of using a plethora of different typefaces to express different people who were supporting Obama, for example “Women for Obama would use the script Zapfino, to express femininity”(17). The design team quickly realised this idea was unsustainable, it would contradict the idea of unity the brand was going for so they decided to streamline the brand, finally deciding on a definitive brand typeface that spoke with a hopeful tone of voice but was still visually and historically American. The typeface they chose to use throughout the campaign was Gotham as it was both modern in style, and historically American.
In 2011 Hoefler and Frere-Jones announced “"Can We Add Serifs to Gotham? For the President of The United States? Yes We Can”(18) As seen in figure 5 the slab serif version of Gotham was used in the branding of Obamas 2012 re-election. Originally the purpose of slab serif fonts was to grab the attention of the viewer by using mostly capital letters and bold, block-like shapes. The slab serifs in the 2012 Obama logotype solidified Obama’s image as a modern president as the slab serif style is heavily contrasting to the classic serifs of traditional American political branding. The fact the typeface was designed around the original Gotham typeface specifically for the campaign symbolises another forward step in the progression of the Obama brand, and subsequently another step forward towards a better American society.
The different typography used throughout the Obama campaign was each specifically chosen to reflect the Obama brand as it grew and evolved over time. It is evident that the design team put a lot of thought into the choice of typography used, as they understood “there is an infinite range of typographic alternates that achieve subtle or dramatic changes in volume and tone of voice”(19), but aligning the written message with a single corresponding typeface would produce the most successful outcome.
In June of 2009 Microsoft released its third rebrand of their search engine, formerly know as MSN Search, and Live Search, the new name Bing was supposed to be a step in the right direction when it came to their goal of challenging Google as the main search engine website. The rebrand came as a result of Microsoft understanding their ‘Live’ brand was not performing as well as they initially hoped. When asked about the past search engine brands Microsoft had created, the president of Microsoft’s Platforms and services division stated, “There's an opportunity for us to fix those brands. We acknowledge that we need to get that fixed." (20)
Microsoft had always been well known for their lack of good design throughout their product range and branding. The initial launch of Bing continued this trend with its logotype (see figure 6) being ranked by most as the worst identity of 2009, a writer for ‘brand new’, the most influential blog on branding, claimed, “Microsoft has never been a paragon of good design, or even decent design. But this is rubbing it in design’s face.”(21) Upon first glance the typography appears to resemble similar traits to a font that has simply been stretched horizontally on a digital program, however the designer of the lettering, a designer at Razorfish, insists each letterform was originally drawn and digitized. (22)
In a questionnaire of sixty people, when asked what the 2009 Bing logo suggests about the brand there was a wide range of answers from: ‘simple, techy, and fun’ to ‘lazy, cheap, and unorthodox.’ A large percentage of participants were unable to answer the question, claiming ‘I kinda don’t know how to interpret [the] Bing [logo]’ whilst another participant outright slammed the logo stating ‘the brand is boring due to the lacklustre logotype which looks squished’. The diversity of answers suggests that the 2009 Bing logotype is unsuccessful in clearly conveying the values of the brand and as a result it had a negative impact on the image of the brand.
One reason for this could be that the typography used in the logotype is too far removed from traditional typographic characteristics, instead of the logotype looking futuristic through the extended, streamlined forms, it appears too similar to digital “type distorted in violation of everything that has been learned over the past 500 years about making functional and beautiful letterforms.”(23) A graphic designer with knowledge about the history of design and typography would have remembered the craze of digital type distortion in the early 1990s. The introduction of more reasonably priced image editing software allowed people with a lack of design knowledge to freely stretch and distort typography to fit awkwardly in a layout. This eventually led to a backlash against the incorrect use of typography and finally resulted in stretched typography being perceived, even to this day, as a poor and lazy design choice.
With an accolade like worst identity of 2009 it came as no surprise that in 2013 Microsoft presented the rebranded Bing alongside some other design improvements throughout Microsoft. The company realised it needed a change in its identity so they turned to the head of design at Wolff Olins, Todd Simons. The problem at hand was completely rebranding a collection of products that over a billion people used, without the brand appearing to loose its history and move too far away from the current brand. What Todd Simons proposed is that Microsoft needed a “codified Microsoftness that spread across everything, but still allowed some flexibility and individuality at an individual brand level”(24), more simply put, Microsoft needed a consistent design language across all of its products. This design language was realised with the introduction of Metro (see figure 7), a typography and geometry focused design system that was inspired by the principles of classic Swiss graphic design.
The design language was implemented across all of Microsoft’s products and brand material, being visualised by consistent use flat design, a bigger focus on using different colours, and a single typeface used throughout most communications. Typical of Swiss style, the typeface chosen was a sans serif font called Segoe, with humanistic qualities the typeface was designed to appear friendly, highly legible, and with no strong character or distracting quirkiness(25), a good typographic choice to compliment the Swiss style, and enhance Microsoft’s simplified and more approachable image.The typeface was used across all branding and most promotional material, sometimes being slightly edited to retain individuality like the angled ‘b’ seen in figure 8. Through the consistent use of a single typeface and recognisable design elements Microsoft was able to develop a distinguished tone of voice that helped connect the brand with the end user as they were becoming familiar with Microsoft’s new visual style.
Microsoft’s introduction of a standardised visual style marked the beginning of a new image that visually connected all aspects and products of the Microsoft business. By visually connecting all elements of the business the rebrand helped reposition the image of Bing, from the search engine being perceived as an out of date Google wannabe, to it now being used by millions worldwide, becoming the second biggest search engine in the world, a feat that proves “Universal design systems can no longer be dismissed as the irrelevant musings of a small, localized design community.”(26)
Nike is the most recognised sportswear brand in the word, the result of continual marketing success, innovation, and brand development. The story of Nike’s birth is well documented, Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight originally started out by distributing running shoes for a Japanese company at the University of Oregon in 1962. They then decided to design and develop their own footwear, innovating the footwear market by improving on the footwear available, with one goal in mind; to improve athletes’ performance. By Outsourcing the production of the footwear to Asia and combining the innovations within the shoes, the low cost production resulted in footwear that athletes believed would improve their performance and at the same time they were affordable. With the drawing of the iconic swoosh, the Nike brand was born, and soon after well-known athletes were breaking records in their new Nike trainers.
By the 1980s Nike’s profits were doubling each year and they saw it as a sign to break into the casual shoe market, unfortunately the move was disastrous and Nike had to reassess. Nike's sales and profits were dropping fast so a conclusion was made that for Nike to progress into different markets and compete with brands like Reebok they had to spend less time in the lab and “We had to learn to do well all the things involved in getting to the consumer, starting with understanding who the consumer is and what the brand represents.”(27) Nike soon realised their problem, by going into the casual footwear market they were distorting the perception of their brand, at the time people perceived Nike as solely a sportswear brand, devoted to improving athletes’ performance but they wanted to be more. Nike grew to realise “By breaking things into digestible chunks and creating separate brands or sub-brands” they could explore different markets and spread adjusted messages without directly effecting the publics view of the overall Nike brand. This shift of focus from product to consumer sparked the beginning of the marketing focused Nike brand we are familiar with today. Nike soon realised their problem, by going into the casual footwear market they were distorting the perception of their brand, at the time people perceived Nike as solely a sportswear brand, devoted to improving athletes’ performance but they wanted to be more. Nike grew to realise “By breaking things into digestible chunks and creating separate brands or sub-brands”(28) they could explore different markets and spread adjusted messages without directly effecting the publics view of the overall Nike brand. This shift of focus from product to consumer sparked the beginning of the marketing focused Nike brand we are familiar with today.
The visual language of the main Nike brand has stayed fairly consistent since its conception. After the 1978 rebrand the ‘Nike’ letters appeared in an oblique Futura bold. The bold typography invoking a sense of power and masculinity, whilst the oblique aspect coupled with the swish add forward movement to the logotype representing the sporty aspect of the brand as well as its forward thinking and innovative attitude. In a survey of sixty people, when asked what the 1978 Nike logotype suggests about the brand, the vast majority of answers were predictably the same, with most people referencing how ‘powerful, fast, and dynamic’ the logotype is and that reflects the Nike brand. The removal of the ‘Nike’ text in the logotype can be attributed to the fact the human brain sees shapes first, then reads text, so it was wiser to attribute the Nike values to a simple tick, at the same time “the addition of the word "Nike" deemed superfluous”(29) as most people recognised the swoosh and understood it represented Nike and everything it stood for. Although the text was removed from the logotype, Nike understood the typeface was correctly chosen as it represented the brand values, so they saw the importance in keeping their visual tone of voice consistent and continued using Futura bold throughout their communications.
Since Nike’s failure to move into the casual footwear market in the 80s, Nike has developed a vast array of sub-brands, with varying degrees of success, exploring different markets from sustainable shoes to wearable smart technology. With each new market explored, a sub-brand was created, speaking with its own visual language, similar to the main Nike identity, but with its own unique twist, tailored to the market the new product hopes to reach. One of Nike’s most successful sub brands, Air Jordan, launched the Nike brand into the basketball world with a major endorsement from Michael Jordan. Nike always understood that by elevating “individualistic athletes with big-time attitudes above any sport, governing body, league, or team”(30) they would be seen as icons and by getting them to endorse their products it will improve their sales. In current times Nike still highly values its player endorsements, one way Nike is distinguishing athletes’ individual brands is by commissioning unique, bespoke typefaces to be used in promotional material. Nike recently commissioned Sawdust to develop three typefaces to be used exclusively by three individual basketball players in their promotional material. The typeface would act as a unique visual tone of voice, amplifying the current brand values by incorporating them into the design process of each typeface. For the typeface to be successful in enhancing the brand image of the individual basketball players “The typeface needed to be an extension of their existing brand. It was important for the two things not to clash because they would ultimately exist in the same space.”(31)
The typeface designed for Lebron James, seen in figure 10, clearly fits in with his current brand. There is a clear resemblance in visual style between the crown icon and the typeface. Sawdust translated individual characteristics of the logo into the typeface, for example, the ratio of the logo translated into the typeface having a low x height and a wide appearance. The regal nature of the crown was translated into sharp serifs that demand attention, and the typeface utilises a similar weight contrast to the logo. All of these aspects are taken into consideration as “the right typeface, in combination with layout and [supplementary] typography, result in documents that are precisely tailored aesthetically and conceptually to a single purpose”(32) which allows for consistency in brand communications, and a better chance at communicating the brand values.
Nike was lucky in finding out relatively early in their business the power of a good brand and the results it can produce. Nike co-founder, Phil Knight, claims Nike was “first to understand the importance of the brand and the consumer. If we hadn’t made that discovery, someone else would have, and we might have been out of business.”(33) By attributing their success to the understanding of both brand, and the consumer, it shows how crucial it was to the growth of the Nike business. Today, Nike continues this trend of focusing on brand building by developing individual brands within the Nike Company. Nike’s massive success prompted other companies to follow suit and design experts to quote their inspiration for brand development as using the “Nike model”. this proves Nike has well surpassed its origin as a “production-oriented company” to it now being one of the biggest “marketing-oriented companies” in the world.
Typography is so ubiquitous in the modern day it is easy to overlook its significance as one of the most important graphic elements in design.
Typography has always been a crucial factor in defining brands, evolving from originally being the sole connection between producer and consumer, to a vital graphic element in communication that can both inform and enhance a message.
Utilising Typography correctly requires an understanding of both, the semantics surrounding typography, as well as the historical implications that typographic styles bring with them. To a modern company, typography offers a visual manifestation of a tone of voice, well chosen typography can speak volumes about the characteristics the company uphold, consistent use of the typography over time, establishes an emotional connection from consumer to brand through familiarity of distinct characteristics that separate one brand from another. Consistent use of poorly chosen typography however, can have a negative effect on the image of a brand; it distorts the message the consumer receives as the written content clashes with the typography, resulting in consumers making negative connections to the brand. The independent study conducted proved that the general public are quick to pick up on poor typographic choices and use them to inform their decisions about a choice between brands. When presented with two logotypes of brands and asked which they would rather engage with, 80% of the participants decided to go with the brand that used a better choice of typography, the one that portrayed their company values. The results were similar throughout the questionnaire; logotypes and websites that used typography to accompany and enhance their message well were the favourites of the participants. What this shows is that a brand overlooking the importance typography will come under criticism by the consumer. By not tailoring typography to the message you want to communicate, the consumer will get mixed messages from your brand; this results in misunderstanding or confusion about what the brand values are. If the public do not understand the brand values they will not connect to it, and as a result they are less likely to engage with the brand. Strong brand identities utilise typography and design that compliment and enhance the message they are to communicate, the typography used resembles the characteristics of the brand to convey meaning influence people’s perception of the brand.
About the author: James Lewis is a lettering and calligraphy artist based in the UK. With a passion for typography, James knows that a business’ identity is all-important in gaining a competitive edge. Having worked on projects ranging from product design to typographic murals, James is committed to help develop brands that allow you to strike a chord with your audience and shine in a crowded market.
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