Typecast Q&A

Shelly Wilson at Typecast asked me some questions for their blog typecast.com/blog in which I ‘explain the relationship between type and brands, where brands are going wrong, and how I identify a brand’s essence before choosing type’. Well, I’ll let you decide whether I do that or not.

They had seen I think my Q&A for Form magazine, so some of the questions and answers may overlap that a bit, so sorry if I’m repeating myself!

Thanks to Shelly Wilson and Typecast for being interested in what I had to say.

What does branding mean today?

Branding has to demonstrate that it adds value and doesn’t disguise failings or present a message that isn’t supported by experience. It also seemingly has to be liked by everyone, and if it’s not, the opportunities for debate and comment allowed by social media drive strong (and sometimes hyperbolic) opinion.

The London 2012 and ITV identities are two recent examples of large-scale ‘public’ branding projects that have received hugely vocal online debate, with 2012 being a notably extreme example. In America, attempted rebrands of Gap and University of California were withdrawn after online protests. Recently in the UK, supporters of Everton FC campaigned against a new logo for their football club, which has now been withdrawn.

This makes me wonder how much the public trusts ‘branding’ and branding agencies, and if agencies and companies need to find ways of engaging and explaining what they do. There is an emphasis on management-speak that might be successful with clients in a business environment, but is little liked, believed or understood in the wider world.

What do you feel typifies a great brand?

More than anything else, successful brands have a confidence in what they do or sell and how they present themselves. The two go together, but great brands have a great, wantable, useful, innovative, functional, exciting product.

In an environment where similar services are offered at similar costs by competing companies – whether utilities, groceries, or clothes – what separates them is, firstly, how they present themselves and how they interact with their customers and would-be customers. Different digital platforms offer more ways of doing this – through type, still and moving image, and sound – but all have to express a consistent, holistic vision.

How would you describe the relationship between typography and brands?

Type is the tangible medium through which language is disseminated, so it has a primary importance in any kind of print and screen communication.

In branding, type’s role is to drive a message of difference – what it is about a brand that is distinctive, special, valuable and relevant to a consumer.

Developments in web typography mean website and mobile design can be synced with design for print and tv. This is extremely beneficial and a huge opportunity for brands to communicate different expressions of the same message.

Having created designs for some real uber-brands, describe the challenges of pairing type with already strong and distinctive typographic identities.

If this is a challenge, it’s a good one. A distinctive typographic logo is a great starting point as well as being a hugely valuable asset.

For example, Prada’s eclectic and striking logotype was a great start point for a typeface. Making it an alphabet for limited, high-impact uses such as advertising or packaging branding made everything about those uses ‘Prada’ – expressing the values of Prada without saying the word.

For London 2012, the requirement was for a typeface to connect with the existing angular, type-ish logo – to belong in the same world without clashing or overpowering it. In the end, it was used separately to the logo as a central branding device of the Games – from lane numbers and magazine design to stadium screens.

The logo, typography, brand colors and any other supporting design elements are a kit of parts that drive the brand message. These can be distinctive individually, or not, as long as they work together as a distinctive whole.

You’ve joked on Twitter that most of your design work uses custom fonts that you, yourself, designed. Why create custom fonts when there already are tens of thousands of fonts to choose from?

The value of having a unique, bespoke, crafted type identity is that it expresses the particular, specific values of a company. For example, for a company that designs, makes or produces things – whether materials, food or products – it reinforces the idea of being tailored, crafted, special and different. This idea of bespoke makes an identity thought about and thoroughly conceived at every level and indicates a company that thinks about every facet of itself in the same way.

It’s not the only way of making a distinctive, rounded identity, and it’s not necessarily the right way for every company.

You’re fortunate to work for clients who understand the value of a good type solution, but there are still many clients (small and large) who just do not want to pay for typefaces despite having loved and signed them off during the design phase. How can designers help clients care about (and be willing to pay for) quality type?

Fonts are intellectual property – licensed software as well as creative assets. As such, fonts have a value. Unfortunately there is still a lack of awareness that this fundamental and key factor in communication comes with a price. There is an expectation that fonts should somehow be free. Why? What else is free?

They need to help clients understand that the investment they make in their type choices will see a return in the effectiveness of their communication. As well as adding an aesthetic quality to a client’s identity, having a consistent, structured typographic identity maintains and promotes their brand values and saves money by being quick (and therefore cheaper) to implement. By using a typeface specific to the their needs and matched by clear, consistent copywriting, the client’s message is expressed with a unified tone of voice through every facet of its communications.

How do you get to the heart of a new client’s brand in order to do it justice through typography?

My process depends on the type of project. We could be designing an identity for a new company (Hunter Gather), adding to an existing identity (London 2012, 3.1 Phillip Lim), adding a product to an existing system (Calvin Klein Beauty), or developing a logotype into a typeface (Prada).

We define how and where the typeface will be used. Then, we identify key words that sum up (simply and without business gobbledygook) what the company is and does. The subtle differences in the client’s product, requirements, or even how they’re named, can be helpful here. Our summary might be separate from how they think about themselves, or it might be a way of presenting their proposition to the world in a new or different way.

We present options and work to define the right typographic solution at the same time as developing layout, application proposals, and a copywriting tone of voice. All of these help define the design of the typeface. The more these are worked on at the same time and at the start of the project, the better the outcome.

However, type isn’t and can’t be a visual representation of every facet of what a company does or its content. Yes, if you want to be obvious then hand drawn type can mean ‘hand made’ or a wobbly old-looking serif typeface can mean ‘traditional’. But type selection should avoid the cliché or familiar. Instead, it should try to express a clear, focused, uncomplicated, message in a clear, focused, uncomplicated – and immediate – way.

How does designing for fashion brands differ from other industries?

Although it’s renown as a creative industry, fashion is big business. Luxury groups such as Moët Hennessy –Louis Vuitton and the Gucci Group are multinational corporations with the same considerations as any other big business in terms of expressing its particular message, values and product to the world. However, fashion brands represent themselves through image rather than type, and tend to work best with the fewer words. On these projects, the role of type is to separate itself from the essence of a particular fashion moment or campaign – to capture a designer’s or brand’s ethos or spirit and remain relevant through different fashion collections over a period of time.

However, the type can still be striking and impactful. Fashion houses have some of the most iconic, famous identities of any industry – Yves St. Laurent, Prada, Chanel. You can use support type, layout and website navigation to make a bold statement, too, particularly for brands aimed at youth culture.

How effectively do you feel companies are carrying their brand identities to the web? Who’s doing it right, and what could brands (and their agencies) be doing better?

Who could do better? In pure design terms, anybody still using default system typefaces with the default ideas and lazy thinking they represent. A default typeface and ill-considered typography says ‘This is not thought about, is a rushed, easy solution. Not functional, and not a positive message.’

If a brand matches type design and typography to message in a way that is different from their competitors, consistent across all its formats, and that expresses what makes them unique, then they are giving the consumer every opportunity to decide in their favour – if, of course, they have the right product or service.

If your brand’s supporting typography is system Helvetica, or Times, why? How is it relevant? What does that choice of typeface say about your company? How does it present your message? If everything about your brand isn’t distinctive, isn’t different, why not? If your brand isn’t distinctive, or different, what is it? Why is it there?