Ask a Designer: Why is typography so important?
Have you ever been asked for directions, and you know exactly how to get there but can’t remember the streets? Since you can’t name the streets, or God forbid the actual cardinal directions, you explain the route using stores and restaurants [side note: apparently Google has caught on to this too]. Ever wonder why your brain recalls the store signs better than the street signs? Because of branding. Specifically, you recall the visual identity of the brand due to a very important element: typography.
This happened to me just the other day while en route to my afternoon coffee. An adorable couple stopped me to ask how to get to some store, and although I couldn’t for the life of me remember the correct streets, I could easily tell them how to get there based on the Nespresso store and Balthazar. Since this is not the first time this has happened to me (and probably not the last), I was intrigued.
Typography in branding
As I touched on in our Ask a Designer article on color, people rely on visual cues, making them critical for brands. We tend to remember the exceptional — the exceptionally good, and the exceptionally bad. All of the branded signs we pass out in the world — carefully constructed combinations of colors, words, and letters — activate information that we’ve stored in our visual memories. Our ability to recall these distinct signs is far stronger than our ability to recall uniformly presented words like street signs. Brands need to have wordmarks that are memorable, ones that are strong enough and ownable enough that people link the logo to the company long after they’ve passed the storefront.
Typography is an interesting mix of function and style for brands. When you actively notice it most, it’s usually because it’s not working. Like good children, good typography should be seen, not always noticed. While I have a pretty good grasp of the fundamentals, I wanted to dig deep into how it’s used. After all, typography serves many purposes depending on its application, communicating brand personality, position, and visual identity.
When it came time to sit with the design team for the latest installment of our Ask a Designer series, I decided typography would be just the subject. Here’s what I learned:
Typography communicates personality
It is the omnipresent personality of your brand, an extension of the brand’s personality. Each typeface has its own traits. These are based on origin, how it’s been used over time, and therefore how people have come to perceive it. Because of this, the typeface is central to creating a brand’s visual ID. In fact, many companies have custom typefaces designed specifically for them, like Disney. Others come to “own” a typeface or type family by virtue of using it so frequently and visibly, like The New York Times’ Old English or blackletter-style header. Although one is clearly custom and the other appears more common, both typefaces are linked inextricably to the brands, and embody their attributes.
Typefaces build recognition
Without even talking about logo, a typeface can make or break your brand ID. It can be the one thing people recognize, even subconsciously, about your brand. Like most everything else, the process of choosing or designing one is largely intuitive. This is because we are constantly exposed to type and how different people use it and this exposure informs our perception. Here, our team gathers a number typefaces that could potentially work, then begins to eliminate those that don’t feel quite right in the context of the brand materials, or aren’t capable of functioning well in a specific application (i.e. on a website).
It can’t just look good
A typeface needs to be functional. It needs to communicate info, but must also be considered in the context of where it will live. So when selecting font, consider these questions:
- What are all the ways in which this typeface will be used?
- Is it capable of addressing those requirements successfully?
After all, the typography is a major factor in maintaining a consistent brand and should be chosen early on in the branding process.
Be ready to kill your darlings
During the branding process, separating personal preference from what is right for the client is not always easy (but often necessary). When possible — and with luck — choose to work with clients whose style meshes with yours. Otherwise, just present what you believe works best for the brand with a strong rationale. And remember that compromise and diplomacy are your friends!
And finally, since no commentary on typography is ever complete without some mention of the most-often abused typefaces, here’s a last caution from my designer friends: Comic Sans is completely forbidden.
Never use it, except ironically, and even then…
That being said, it’s not that typefaces are necessarily poorly designed (though some might disagree!), it’s that they are often misused. Good design is crucial to strong branding, but so is smart application.