There is nothing new about custom-designed fonts. The first, Gutenberg’s, was created for a special edition of the Bible. Custom fonts have been around for a very long time, but they have been the exclusive domain of only the biggest multinational corporations and world-class publications—until recently. Today, they are almost commonplace branding tools.
Although not an impulse buy, with prices starting somewhere around the cost of a good used car, custom fonts are playing into many company’s business plans. Scores of typeface designers are creating more custom-design typefaces for clients than they are for mass distribution.
WHAT'S A CUSTOM FONT?
A custom font is one that is created for a client’s specific needs. Usually, they are completely original designs. These faces are fresh additions to the typographic spectrum or are new designs based on historical models. In either case, they are not typefaces that have any relationship with those you can get from your friendly web store.
There are also times when custom fonts are modifications on existing type designs. Traditional typefaces have basic shapes and proportions that ensure a high level of legibility and make it easier to produce quality typographic communication. Careful modeling of this design foundation can produce a new typeface that is distinctive and is also a strong and reliable communications tool. An important caveat regarding custom typefaces made from existing designs is that proper licensing is still required. With an original design, the client can own the design outright, although some opt not to for financial reasons.
WHY CUSTOM FONTS?
Although he does not make fonts, Rodney Abbot has led some of the biggest custom-font design projects in recent years. A senior design partner at Lippincott, where he has more than 20 years of experience creating identity programs that translate brand strategy into expression and experience, Abbot’s clients have included Dell, IBM, Infiniti, Nissan, Sprint and Southwest Airlines. “The companies that really engage with their customers connect to them at eye level, person to person,” he explains. “They understand who their customers are and create inspiring and intuitive experiences for them. The voice of the brand plays one of the most important roles in this—and the most common mediator of the brand’s voice is type. As a result, we’re seeing brands paying much greater attention to the typeface they use and showing much greater recognition of the power of type to shape their customer experience.”
One of the world’s leading typeface designers, Tobias Frere-Jones has created some of the most widely used typefaces, including Gotham, Interstate, Retina, Surveyor, Tungsten and Whitney—and more recently, custom fonts for a variety of clients. “Understand what fonts can and can’t do for you,” he cautions. “They can focus a brand, they can simplify workflow, ease licensing burdens and lay the groundwork to access new markets. They can’t, however, clarify a company’s mission. And they can’t take the place of a marketing plan.”
“Start with an open conversation with the designer or design firm that will do the work,” Abbot explains. “Make sure you are clear on the business and the technical and aesthetic criteria that will define the scope of the work. What’s the development timeline? What’s the licensing agreement? Who will own the IP? Where will the typeface be used? What level of language support is needed? How extensively will the typeface appear in digital form? What’s the process for creative approvals? Do other groups need to be involved—agencies, IT, legal, etc.? And if so, when? What range of weights is needed? Are any special glyphs required? Only after you’ve sorted out these and other related issues should you start talking about the qualities you want to express in the new design.”
Frere-Jones agrees. “I start at the end, with the result and its use. I ask about expectations, workflow, media, audience—everything but the shapes. The outward appearance is last, being derived from these discussions.”
WHEN TO BRING IN THE CAVALRY
One of the most important parts of custom font development is to meet with the design team early in the process. Frere-Jones provides a universal guideline. “We’re brought in at different stages, either by the client or by outside consultants. But in any arrangement, earlier is always better. If someone calls us one month before launch, there’s very little we can do to help.”
“We try to engage with our clients as early as possible to ensure that we can create awareness to not only think of the brand expression in the typeface, but also to consider the practical and logistical requirements that the client may have,” says Bruno Maag, founder and manager of the 40-person studio team at London-based font foundry Dalton Maag. “This ranges from evaluating language needs to determining what hardware and software is used within the client’s organization—and even the current and future needs of the client’s customers.”
Steve Matteson, one of Monotype’s type directors, helps manage Monotype Studio, the company’s team of creative type designers. Having drawn scores of typefaces for major corporations and branding firms, Matteson explains just how complicated a custom typeface design project can be and how important it is to begin working with the client early on. “Last year, Citrix Systems—the makers of [software] GoToMeeting and NetScaler—completed a full rollout of its typeface branding,” he says. “Depending on the extent of the character set support and number of weights, a custom font can be several months of creative and production work. In many cases, our clients are targeting a rollout of some kind, featuring new brand elements, and that can put an extraordinary amount of pressure on the creative process. With Citrix, we had a very smooth process of design reviews and were able to meet their demanding schedule. From apps to its entire web experience and in print, [the typeface] made its brand voice consistent and unique.”
IT'S ABOUT PROCESS
Creating a custom typeface is never a slam dunk. If someone tells you she or he can turn out a custom typeface in short order, beware. Good custom typeface design is always a detailed and, at times, complicated process. “By the time we start developing a custom typeface, we’ve already settled on the core elements of the visual identity system and know the overall tone we want the typeface to express,” Abbot explains. “We also understand what our client needs from the typeface. We’ll establish the technical and aesthetic parameters and then sit down and have a discussion with the type designer. This is the most important part of the process because establishing an open and frank dialogue is paramount to the success of the project.”
Maag has developed a tiered process for developing custom typeface designs. “Having worked with many large organizations over the years, we have developed a five-stage process to develop font families. It starts with research, where we learn about the client’s needs—emotional and functional. Our findings inform a set of ideations with which we try to capture the brand expression.
A small choice of ideations eventually becomes design concepts, with larger character sets and a range of weights to give the client the opportunity to evaluate the designs in collateral and make informed and confident decisions. Client feedback on the design concepts leads to refinement and, of course, execution to the required specifications.”
Process was key to the development of the custom typeface for Tableau Software, a company that is dedicated to making databases and spreadsheets understandable to ordinary people. “One challenge was the terrain of data visualization, which is often crowded and intricate,” explains Frere-Jones. “The Tableau family of typefaces anticipates that condition by making word shapes that are hard to ‘break,’ or mistakenly separate. This also helps when orientation changes from horizontal to vertical or wraps around a feature on a map.” Frere-Jones organized the suite of designs within fine steps of weight in order to respond to the subtle hierarchies that data visualization often requires. These weights are also drawn within a common set of widths, ensuring that layout and line breaks will not shift.
COLLABORATION IS KEY
The process of developing a custom font is also undoubtedly collaborative. Dalton Maag was brought into a custom design project for AT&T by Cincinnati-based Interbrand Design Forum, which had already been working with the brand team at AT&T on key elements of its new identity. The goal was to give AT&T the necessary brand tools to reflect its recent expansion into different markets and its acquisition of DIRECTV.
The development of the new custom brand fonts was a very close collaboration among all three parties and resulted in a large, distinct type family of sans, condensed and slab serif designs that can support clear corporate messages and customer information with personality—and a clear AT&T voice.
TRENDS AND STYLES
Custom typefaces are part of the total brand statement, and this is not a place to be trendy or stylized. Fashionable designs can make a strong statement for a brief time—but they wear thin easily. “The sans serif style is being pushed further than ever,” says Matteson. “Just in the last eighteen months, I’ve seen a spike in requests for designs with a solid sense of geometry. Fewer contemporary humanist designs, like Frutiger, and fewer traditional grotesques, like Helvetica, are showing up. There has been a pull-away from gimmicky designs, which fall out of fashion faster than brands like to see. If brands are willing to invest in a bespoke typeface, they want a sense of timelessness that will outlast short-term fads.”
Frere-Jones echoes this thinking. “I’ve seen a lot of pretty generic designs, either from the Helvetica/Univers part of the spectrum or something around Futura. Before long, they just blur into each other and fail to establish any clear distinction or identity.”
The keys to the best custom font development are starting early in the brand development process, having open conversations with all those involved, adhering to proven processes, being prepared to collaborate, and avoiding fashionable or trendy solutions. Success is sweet—but rarely easy. ca