Thursday, August 30, 2007

If good typography is like a good wine, are you making me drink cheap hooch?

Typography is the visual articulation of the spoken word. The typeface you choose has a voice that speaks in different tones and expresses different personalities. And like accents and languages, typefaces have subtle inflections and nuances that are distinct and unique. Some speak quietly and confidently, some yell from the rooftops and others dance naked in the rain. Determining what you want your brand to say and how it is said is the first step towards choosing a typeface that embodies those values.

The second part of selecting typography is to complement the brandmark or logo. I equate the experience to selecting a good wine to go with food, there are certain well followed precedents but it is also a reflection of personal taste. But this reminds us the brandmark and logotype are served together and intrinsically linked. It makes sense that the typeface should be integrated with or take some cues from the graphics (or vice versa). An organically inspired brandmark may recall a calligraphic, hand-drawn or humanist type style, whilst a more edgy mark may call for a contemporary selection. Some designers have their favourite five or six fonts that regularly appear next to a symbol but with the ever growing requirement for individual ownership of a mark, varied and custom typefaces have much to warrant selection.

Typefaces are also of different vintages and quality. Some are well made and have gotten better with age. Some need to be drunk right now because they'll have gone bad in a year and others were made in someone's backyard cellar with a strong lack of knowledge. My advice for this last category; Don't use these fonts, it identifies you as someone who lacks better judgement and was happy to accept a free bottle of peppermint schnapps rather than pay for a pinot.

The trend of neutralising the type (you could read this as using helvetica) renders a brandmark cold and impersonal. With the overabundance of visual identities in the marketplace and a recognised need to create emotive and ownable brands, typography needs to speak up for itself rather than looking back at us with disinterest.

Whilst it is a beautiful typeface, Helvetica is like weekend at Bernie's. It looks alive but when you check for a heartbeat, there's nothing. Not to say helvetica doesn't have a place. It works well when you need to let the graphics be the main focus. It's is the perfect social partner, standing quietly at your side looking handsome without saying anything at all. Your friends will nudge you and go 'Whoa, hot date. Where'd you meet?" It makes you look good just through it's presence. But this isn't the way you want your brandmark to act. Brandmarks need to have an opinion. Brandmarks need to be talking to everyone.

Using a custom typeface across a brand allows for recognition even when the brand is extended or sub-brands introduced. This is a compelling argument for using custom typefaces, as the increase in brand recognition is enhanced by an organisation being able to claim a unique ownership of the typography.

There are many cues to help you start selecting a relevant typeface. Is there a brand position or set of values to clue you in? If there is an existing symbol or logo, is it drawn in a distinctive style that could be complemented by a similar typeface? Are there some cultural, historical or locational aspects to consider? Ultimately you want the best typeface you can find for the job. Cutting corners is not an option. Typography enhances other visual elements and most importantly, highlights the content. As Bringhurst says 'Good typography is like bread; ready to be admired, appraised and dissected before it is consumed.' (every designer should read The Elements of Typographic Style)