Typeface (or font) design is an area of brand development that uses the design of letterforms to bring character and personality to a brand. In this article, we’ll explore why typeface design matters to you and what it can do for your brand identity.
Typeface design (sometimes called ‘font design’) enables a brand to build an emotional connection with its audience by creating a personality through all written content. The level of emotion that can be imparted through a typeface varies hugely — for example, a sans serif typeface may feel utilitarian and modern, while a slab serif can feel authoritative and professional. Conversely, a script typeface feels more personal and heartfelt. A designer can then leverage these traits through typographic design practice, using appropriate letterforms to create unique layouts and visuals that amplify a message. Different typefaces communicate different things — this, in turn, gives more ammunition to a designer when creating a piece of communication design.
The word ‘type’ comes from the traditional printing process of using movable type. The word ‘font’ is derived from the phrase ‘found in’, meaning that font was found within typesetting materials, or on the computer hard drive as part of an installed system. A font also has a religious connotation, where monks would repeat letterforms in order to copy existing scriptures or holy books. Both words essentially mean the same thing, both referring directly to a set of characters used in printing or writing.
Recent examples of typeface design include the repositioning and visual language development of the National Trust for Scotland.
There are many types of typeface design, spanning sans serif, serif, slab serif, blackletter, script, handwritten, display and many more. These styles have evolved over centuries, responding to both changes in technology and stylistic taste.
Serif typefaces have a storied history that spans centuries, originating from the original printing press created around the 13th century and evolving into hundreds of different styles with subtle (but important!) differences. These typefaces were primarily used for print work, as they have a more traditional and formal feel to them.
The function of the ‘serif’, i.e. the flicks at the top and bottom of each letterform, was to help the printer align each letterform with its neighbours. They also help to guide excess ink on the metal blocks to stop blotting. In modern design practice, these are seen as a balance between decoration and functionality; the lines help lead the eye from one letter to the next, creating a natural flow for readers to follow.
While serif design has a long history, it is still relevant today and has become increasingly popular within the realm of website design due to its ability to create a seamless reading experience on high-resolution screens.
Sans serif typefaces are a more recent development in typographic design and tend to be seen as modern or utilitarian because they lack the decoration of a serif. These typefaces became popular when improved printing presses began accepting much larger sheets of paper stock, reducing the need for ink trapping and allowing letterforms to sit more closely together. This development in ‘letterspacing’ and ‘leading’ brought new innovations and typographic styles which would have been impossible before.
Further to this, sans serif typefaces are perhaps the most commonly used fonts today. Their use of clean, modern lines with closed letterforms make them easy to read and highly legible — particularly on-screen. They are often used in body copy because of their simplicity but are also well suited for headlines as they can be more expressive. The words ‘san serif’ means ‘without serif’, showing that they do not have the traditional flicks at the top and bottom of each letterform. These are particularly useful in digital applications as there is no need to trap or direct ink, allowing each shape to neatly fit into the linear pixel format of a screen.
Slab serif typefaces are a type of serif typeface design that looks heavier and more masculine, with thicker letterforms. They have been seen as the ‘masculine’ counterpart to a traditional hairline, or ‘feminine’, sans serif font. Slab-serif fonts were often used in headlines or display text to contrast against a lighter body copy set in a san serif typeface.
For example, banknotes and traditional posters would use a slab serif as they command space and direct the eye well while also instilling a sense of authority. The accentuated serifs become as important as the letters themselves and are no longer seen as an embellishment.
Script typefaces are often used for handwritten calligraphy and in signage. They can be elegant or bold, depending on the style of writing used: a script font is not necessarily cursive-based but most will come with some form of slope to give them an individual feel. Scripts were originally very popular as they were the only typeface that could be drawn freehand and still look good — this is where their traditional use for signage came from.
In modern design practice, these are seen as a balance between decoration and functionality; they can tell a story or act as an interesting alternative to sans serifs in body copy. A script font will often have a more informal feel to it and add a personal touch.
Handwritten fonts are typefaces that have either been created by hand or designed digitally to achieve a similar style. Similar to script typefaces, handwritten fonts are less decorative and feel much less formal. These typefaces are often used for greetings cards, invitations and other personal correspondence.
Designers use this style to evoke a more relaxed response in readers, adding personality to the design experience — much like handwriting itself. They can be expressive or cursive-based but usually have some form of irregularity to add a human element to the aesthetic.
Display typefaces are fonts that have been created with the intention of being used in very specific settings such as headlines or posters. These do not always form a full typeface and may only consist of the required letters and symbols. For example, many display typefaces come in one weight and language with minimal flexibility. This is the most common type of custom typeface that brands commission within the brand identity development process.
Quality typefaces can be sourced from a number of type foundries. Some of these include Adobe Fonts, Google Fonts, MyFonts, FontSmith and Colophon Foundry.
When looking for a quality typeface, there are two main types of font available. These are ‘web fonts’ which are available to use online, and ‘desktop fonts’ for use on a computer. A web font will typically be hosted on an external server and linked to via a subscription method, while a desktop font will be purchased for use on that machine only. Transfer of fonts from one machine to another is usually prohibited. We recommend looking at the font license agreement when purchasing a typeface to ensure you are fully covered against plagiarism claims.
Font licensing can be a difficult process to navigate, but it is important. When a typeface is purchased from a type foundry there are certain licensing terms and conditions that come with this agreement. These vary from foundry to foundry, but they will either be perpetual or temporary in nature — meaning that the typeface will either be entirely yours for the lifetime of your machine or it can expire after a set period, usually one year.
The three main licences you’ll come across are: personal use only; commercial use with attribution (often known as ‘free to share’); and commercial use without attribution. A foundry may also offer something called an ‘exclusive licence’ which is an agreement that prevents the typeface from being used by others in a similar way.
Some of these licenses also provide different levels of commercial use; for example, some may only allow personal and non-profit uses while others will permit anything outside this as well if it’s not sold on a mass scale.
Many larger brands opt to create their own signature typeface to help drive consistency and a unique character. For example, Sainsbury’s in the UK chose to create a bespoke typeface rather than licensing an existing font. This was for two main reasons, firstly to create a unique personality that could not be found in an existing font, and secondly to gain better financial value than licensing an existing typeface across the thousands of required touchpoints.
It is often more cost-effective to create a unique typeface than bulk licensing. If you would like to discuss the creation of a custom typeface, please get in touch directly and we will be happy to discuss.
If your business would benefit from a fresh approach to brand identity development, please get in touch and we will be happy to advise on the best route forward. We recommend that a strategic audit is undertaken before starting new strategic work to ensure it uses a solid evidence base.