Typography, Branding, and Value

Where do Free Fonts fit into Professional Identity Design?

Recently, I went to Twitter with a thought,

Free typography has its place but I’m not sure professional identity design is where it lives.

Zach McNair gave a valuable response and argued that tools are not the key to design—any tool can create excellent work: a broom can be a paint brush, a child’s crayon can create beautiful lettering, etc. Saul Bass, Paul Rand, and Massimo Vignelli created their greatest work without the aid of tools we have today: 27" retina iMacs and Adobe Illustrator. Free fonts are openly accessible—but are they precisely appropriate?

Fonts can be considered tool but this is not analogous to corporate identity and branded typography.

For the US Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale, Pentagram Partner, Natasha Jen designed an entire visual identity system using only Arial and Times New Roman. The key of the identity is office culture: Arial and Times New Roman shine in this context. What an excellent solution! (See Pentagram’s blog post and case study; Wired also wrote about it.)

However, I wouldn’t be honoring my thoughts if I didn’t propound and qualify my initial statement further.

Variation of Sameness

In brief, identity design is about distinction and differentiation: setting you, your company, your brand, your products, and your services apart from the competition.

The essence of strategy is choosing to perform activities differently than rivals do. —Michael Porter

Professionally, I have concerns seeing the likes of Brandon Grotesque proposed as a “thoughtful” logotype paired with Gotham for body copy. Better yet, Proxima Nova. Trends are now pushing towards Circular, Brown, Haptik, or Walsheim. Aperçu seems to have come and gone out of style quickly.

Each type family listed is well-designed and worth the purchase. The fonts, designers, and foundries are all excellent — hence the popularity! The point isn’t the letter construction or quality. It’s the ubiquity. (Take a look at TypeWolf’s notes on popular fonts by year and all-time and follow up post about less popular alternatives.) It’s easy as an entry level designer to select something safe and familiar: “Just use with Gotham—the go-to, default corporate typeface”.

To take this a step further, we all know Google offers fonts at no charge to use for desktop and web purposes: Open Sans, Lato, Source Sans… again, ubiquity. These fonts are everywhere. Google publicly notes the usage of fonts online. Open Sans is used on nearly 20 million websites, accessed nearly 30 billion times.

As of the week of February 20, 2017

How can a “unique” visual brand stand out with the same typography as everyone else?

I don’t want to say every brand should have a custom font made. That’s not rational or wise. Or even possible. I’d presume a lot of those are web templates, blogs, or sites that don’t carry a strong brand name or much of an identity at all.

But this does bring value to the forefront. A strong identity brings value to a company. A strong identity should—must—include a strong typographic selection that directly affirms a brand’s mission. Does Open Sans reinforce the brand’s goals and aspirations?

Sameness, Less Variation

As an aside, see technology companies like Asana, Dropbox, Google, Lenovo, Logitech, and Pandora have all gone to geometric sans serif logotypes. Most are using a geometric sans for primary typography to pair with the logo.

Considering retail? Crate & Barrel, JC Penney, Knoll, Sears, Target, and Verizon to name a few, all use some variant of Akzidenz Grotesk, Helvetica, or neogrotesque sans serif logotype. Helvetica is often the primary font family of the brand as well. Do these logotypes create distinction and trust? Perhaps they do. What do these logotypes say about their brand’s purpose and value? Clarity, strength, precision?

Globetouch, TacoBell, Calvin Klein, Lexmark, CB2, Electrolux, 99designs, CBS Sports, Mastercard, Vevo, Nordea, Oxygen, and Android all have a basic geometric sans logotypes accompanied with sans serif secondary typography.

Innovation is often a byproduct of competition. Design trends and industry homogeneity place higher value and priority on familiarity and comfort over progress. I owe thanks to Matt Smith for the additional thought on this subject.

Story is King

Zach referenced Casey Neistat’s Guide to Filmmaking: gear doesn’t matter, story is king. Cameras capture content (the story). Typography helps tells that story. Typography helps play the role of content through visualizing voice. Ergo, typography is content. I don’t believe it’s the same kind of “tool” as a camera. Content is constructed of tone of voice, mood, ethos, etc. and a font selection is the vessel through which consumers digest the entire message as content.

Typography has one plain duty before it and that is to convey information in writing.  — Emil Ruder


To conclude, I’ll qualify the accessibility of quality retail fonts. I see value as the answer to the discussion. How is typography valued in context? A personal blog doesn’t require too much of highly personalized and pricey font family. But a $10,000 or $50,000 branding project might consider spending a few hundred dollars to create that credible distinction.

A high price does not always equal a high value, however. TEFF Lexicon is often regarded as the world’s most expensive font. It’s beautiful. Its $391 per style and $4,996 for the complete family (24 styles). That’s a steep price for most and therefore doesn’t really make sense for most projects. Then there is JHA Bodoni Ritalic. A single style of a reversed italic Bodoni revival: $5,000…! I don’t get it.

Don’t be scared to pay a type designer or foundry for their hard work and investment into valuable type families. Do be wary of free options on Dafont (+31,00 fonts), Font Squirrel (+3,000 fonts), and Google Fonts (+800 fonts). Incredible type designers have offered free fonts to their catalogs—some are excellent options—but be skeptical. The Designer’s Foundry (or just “TDF”, formerly Ten Dollar Fonts) offers over 100 fonts at reasonable rates.

Here are three simple resources for finding high quality foundries: Type Foundries Archive (+300 listed foundries!), FontStand, and Village.

My final thought: Be wise, do research, and ask yourself why you are making specific typographic decisions and how those decisions reflect a creative brief.

Further Reading

Check out Matthew Smith’s article, Helping Clients Value Type Differently for an outline of details between similar looking fonts that behave differently.

Font Purchasing Habits is a talk-turned-article by Mary Catherine Pflug. This is a fascinating and enlightening peak into the details of who is buying fonts around what habits and trends.

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