By Sebastien Hayez. Published April 18, 2022
Custom Font & Brand Identity
Let's leave our modernist colleagues behind and concentrate on an activity that is still too little known, and therefore too little exploited.
Massimo Vignelli (1931-2014) used to say in his book The Vignelli Canon (2010) that very good typefaces were not legion and that the professional graphic designer could reduce his typographic palette to a handful of typefaces definied as timeless:
"Besides those already mentioned, I can add Optima, Futura, Univers (the most advanced design of the century since it comes in 59 variations of the same face), Caslon, Baskerville, and a few other modern cuts."
Other great masters, probably more pedagogical, affirmed that a typeface is comparable to a voice and its intonation. Now, if we take up Vignelli's thought, all the big companies could enjoy communication with superb but indifferent voices. In short, Coca-Cola as well as Pepsi would use the same actor for their radio spots and we would have to wait for a jingle or the final slogan to guess who would be the advertiser. The absurdity of such a practice is not surreal. The global internationalization at the end of the 1960’s pushed the companies to use Sans serif fonts as a culturally neutral typography, when it was not almost exclusively Helvetica. The graphic landscape became so monotonous that any design that was significantly more expressive than a Zurich poster seemed to be revolutionary if not avant-garde.
History shows us that to forge one's identity, one must be able to define oneself before wanting to resemble one's competitor. However, agencies specialized in graphic identity must work on each case as an indivisible whole: from the web to the mobile apps, from the advertising poster to the promotional leaflet, each communication tool is based on a typographic text. And it is this rudimentary tool, this brick, that composes the unsuspected architecture of your communication.
Thus, when the client has the ability and desire, the creation of a dedicated typography will establish an original graphic identity.
The custom-made brand identity
Everyone can admit it: there is a difference between wearing a ready-to-wear shirt and wearing a made-to-measure shirt. With the same quality of raw materials as well as finishing touches, the made-to-measure cut brings an unparalleled comfort as well as allowing to optically correct the body in order to make it thinner, squarer, in short: to your image.
Custom type design is the customization of typography. It consists in the creation of a typography dedicated to an exclusive use for a company, a brand or a product.
Massimo Vignelli did not criticize this practice of design, but the quality of it and the financial advantage that some agencies get from it.
But like all good designs, there is a difference between doing a good job and doing a well done job.
Identity interest: brand consistency
Custom type is primarily intended to be useful before being differentiated for the final client. Thus, the first step is to clearly define the reasons for the typeface to be created.
Logotype/Wordmark: logotype typography, is often more expressive than titling or commercial typography. It requires a smaller set of glyphs designed since punctuation or diacritical characters are sometimes optional. On a screen or printed on a poster, the letters need to fit the medium. More than a graphic design task, it’s what type designers are doing everyday. Finally, the weight and even the glyphset (uppercase, lowercase, etc.) can be unique. In this case, the font will only serve to homogenize the different logos used within the same company. The most obvious example is the acquisition by a parent company of a new subsidiary and the harmonization of the new identities acquired.
Titling/Headlines/Display: As for the title, it consists of the main voice of the company, the one that will cover the largest graphic surface on all media. It will carry the tone and values of the company while keeping a certain restraint in order to be readable. Variations in weight or inclination are possible in order to become a complex type tool: rich in solutions and expressiveness. Finally, international communication will require the creation of a large set of characters to cover many different languages.
Body Font: this is the richest and most complex case, the one that requires the most elaborate work. Here, the fonts will be used in small sizes and will be more read than looked at. Thus, the designer delivers a subtle work where the imperceptible details for the neophyte can be difficult to perceive and therefore understand. However, it is this subtle but present work that will be anchored in the memories of each consumer. Typeface & font development can take many months, as the scope of the work can be quite massive: several weights, several styles, a large character set, open-type functions, ligatures or contextual variants. It is no longer a tool but a heavy artillery dedicated to communication.
As usual, every chosen option needs more work: testing, coding, proofing and mastering are an important task to produce more than a collection of glyphs, but an efficient software able to operate on various terminals, various systems and display perfectly on every possible screens.
Economic interest: the font license
The use by large companies of a family or a set of fonts can represent a significant expense. Some foundries will charge yearly for such massive uses in order to cover a wide scope of possibilities & potential uses of the fonts. Each type foundry has a different licensing policy: some count the number of computer stations used, others the number of visitors to the web page, etc. In short, so many cases that a choice sometimes considered as insignificant can become a never-ending expense for the company. As such, it can be a very interesting economic point to choose a custom font instead of licensing a font family.
Pragmatic interest: ease of use
The creation of a graphic identity implies a broad vision and especially a capacity of anticipation. Indeed, defining the field of use is one thing, defining and anticipating the future is the quality of great business leaders.
An innovative and fast-growing company needs to plan its future growth if it wants to pass certain critical thresholds. Good communication defines the future today. In terms of usage, dedicated typography allows one to focus on the messages more than on the form, since the latter is already defined and reflects the values of the company or the brand.
Moreover, whether it is for an internal graphic creation, by a specific agency or by a network of external communicators, the solution is simple: a graphic charter defines the uses according to the contexts and the typographies are provided on a web server to each provider. There is no need to question the choice of typography since it bears the brand name and appears to be obvious.