ACT I: It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it

One of my main roles as a graphic designer is to visually represent content that comes from words, whether in written or verbal form. In the same way tone is used in literature to convey a certain attitude or feeling, these attributes of language can also be represented in a visual way.

Typography is probably the most literal tool that a designer has available to make written language legible and, more importantly, to guide interpretation. It is a subject that has always interested me, and one I use every day, so I have written down a couple of considerations.

While writing, authors can set a tone by selecting words and arranging them in a certain way. That can differentiate a formal letter from a poem, and even more precisely a playful poem from a solemn one. With typography, we have a set of visual attributes, such as the shape of the letterform, its size, weight, or spacing, that can be used to reinforce the emotions conveyed by the words.

Language and its visualisation become particularly important when we talk about brand identities. Brands very often face a dilemma: while trying to stand apart from their competition, they still need to speak in a language that their audience is familiar with. There is this uniqueness vs. familiarity paradox: some brands sacrifice their point of difference by using the visual and verbal clichés of the market they’re engaged with. Others, trying to offer a radically different approach, risk not being understood or even noticed by their target customers.

Forms, quoting the american designer Jeffery Keedy, “are never completely devoid of content”, they “come from somewhere, and they bring with them vestigial content” (Keedy, J. (2004) ‘Dumb Ideas’, Emigre: Nudging Graphic Design, Princeton Architectural Press.). We could then argue that, when choosing a typeface, you cannot avoid attaching some additional meaning to the written piece. One thing that graphic designers must ensure is that the way information is being displayed is coherent with what the brand aims to represent. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

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Above, left: Deutsche Bank logotype, Anton Stankowski, 1973. On the right: Example of a branded document, 2011

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German stability

The Deutsche Bank identity created by Anton Stankowski in 1973 is an iconic example of the visual language familiar to banking. It makes best use of the swiss typeface Univers, designed in 1954 by Adrian Frutiger. The way it is laid out on a strict grid became Deutsche Bank’s own particular voice, and later a commonplace in the corporate sector to communicate secureness, rigour, and commitment. Associated with the blue colour palette and the minimal logo marque, it created a widely recognisable brand.

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Above: Horseferry and Chadwick typefaces designed by Brody Associates for Channel 4, and print applications, 2015

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Channel 4 has always presented itself with an edgy and disruptive personality. In 2015, Brody Associates were commissioned to create two custom typefaces to be used throughout Channel 4’s on-air identity and collateral materials. The rather neutral Chadwick typeface is complemented by the angular and harsh Horseferry. This combination of fonts, presented in an overly hyphenated and unconventionally spaced way, creates a bold and playful visual language, that resonates the channel’s approach.

Looking at these particular examples, it becomes quite clear that typography can be of crucial importance to visualise the message of a particular brand.Good writing can be dramatically undermined if the typographical treatment that comes with it doesn’t reflect the same values.

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ACT II: Branding the wonder of reading

Erik Spiekermann, the famous german graphic designer and founder of FontShop, argues that a custom typeface is one of the most effective ways to visually present a brand’s personality. The main reason behind this claim is the fact that brands communicate mainly by writing (across all platforms, such as print, video or web), and thus “what we know about a brand or a product is what we’ve read about it”. (Spiekermann,E. (2013) ‘Typography in Branding’, Computer Arts, issue 224)

To give an example from my own experience, recently I worked on a brand identity for Rogan’s Books. It is a bookshop located in Bedford that specifically focuses on children’s books. Instead of being a shop where parents go and just buy books for their kids, the owner wanted to create a space that offered a richer experience, where children could actually spend time doing group activities, and discover the joy of reading.

The nature of the project demanded a unique look and feel, and the opportunity to create a bespoke typeface appeared. As a designer, it was the first time where I stepped out from the role of curator of fonts for my projects and moved into the crafting part, a highly motivating experience.

After undertaking a workshop with the client where we defined the brand’s messaging and tone of voice, we agreed that the brand should appeal both to children and their parents. It should bring magical stories to children, incite imagination but also make adults feel they are in a place from their childhood.

From this starting point, I already had a series of key points that I would need to visually address when creating the typeface. On one hand, it should be playful and genuine. On the other, it should evoke a sense of tradition and reputation.

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3aAbove: logotype and custom typeface designed for Rogan’s Books at Make it Clear, 2015.

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The modern serif typefaces from the 18th century were the foundation for the Rogan typeface. Profoundly associated to old book printing, they communicate tradition and elegance in a universal way. From that basis, I designed the letterforms as if they were being hand drawn. It added that naiveté which is familiar to children’s drawings.

To increase the playfulness factor of the typeface, I drew additional type weights (Condensed and Inline) that allow creating more flexible and dynamic typographic compositions. The idea of infinite narratives that originated from the brief was then also hinted by this custom font.

To conclude, fonts are not to be underestimated. The purpose of a piece of work, a brand and an organisation can all be reflected in the simplest, most common currency of communication, printed text. It is an opportunity that shouldn’t be overlooked, consideration should always be given to type, either we are simply selecting a typeface or creating one from scratch. After all, it’s not what you say, but the way that you say it, that matters.

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For more images of the Rogan’s Books project visit this link.