Type has the ability to connote as much as, if not more than, color. Type establishes emotion, tone, sophistication (or lack thereof), activity, gender, age and even decibel level. Type also has the ability to project nothing at all. Given the ability for typography to communicate such an abundance of useful information to its audience, the horrific number of inappropriate and ill-suited typographic decisions being made in the name of graphic design is mind-boggling. The idea of connotative typography is not a new concept, yet we fall into the habit of choosing a typeface that is aesthetically pleasing and rely on it time and time again with little consideration to how it actually speaks to the audience. No place is this more evident than in logo designs.
Nearly 200,000 wordmark logos were registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office in 2014. That breaks down to more than 500 typographic logos a day! I took a random sampling of 1,500 of those produced last year, analyzing each for typeface selection and validity of design execution. (I allowed my 20 years as a design professional and 11 years of university teaching experience to serve as the basis for analyzing validity.) The results were quite revealing: 831 used sans serif, 350 used serif, and 319 used either script, display or custom lettering. Of those, 127 fall into the category of excellent design; 423 were fine, not brilliant design, but not terrible either; and a whopping 950 I considered substandard for reasons including inappropriate type choice and poor typographic design execution.
What does this mean to designers? We need to take more time to carefully consider our typographic choices. Representation of a company through a small, yet incredibly important medium is a challenging prospect for any designer. Logos aren’t easy. The same due diligence given to color must be given to the logotype. A designer wouldn’t use the latest “it” color for a logo unless it truly represented the brand. Similarly, a designer shouldn’t use the latest popular typeface if it doesn’t accurately represent the company. To that end, a designer also wouldn’t rely on the same blue for all his clients, nor should she use the same typeface or type style over and over again. Typeface choices must be analyzed beyond the font list loaded in the computer. The finer connotations of type have tremendous potential to influence the audience and need to be used appropriately.
IT’S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT
Proper analysis of type means the difference between playful and childish, serious and boring, interesting and weird, spontaneous and messy, and modern and generic. Subtle differences in letterforms evoke a tremendous amount of meaning. The curve of a leg, the sharpness of a terminal, the position of the x-height, the angle of the cross stroke, the size of the bracket—to list a few—speak volumes. It’s necessary for a designer to understand this language in order to maximize the communication presence of a logo—a designer must become a “type whisperer.”
Understanding a type style’s origins is a good first step toward thoughtful connotations. Generally, serif typefaces feel more traditional, and sans serifs feel more modern. Historically, this isn’t far from the truth. Serif typefaces have their origins in Roman times and decorate ancient artifacts such as Trajan’s Column, so it gives a more intellectual or formal feel. Need proof? A scientific analysis with 45,524 participants found that people are more likely to take Baskerville more seriously than any other “serious” typeface, garnering a 1.5 percent more positive reaction. Simply, Baskerville promotes a belief that a sentence is true—a connotation that is shared by many serifs.
Top row, left to right: A brand’s logo projects its typographic personality. Caliber Creative replaced a “too clean” identity with a logo that captures the funk, the dirt and the smell of Deep Ellum Brewing Company. 20nine’s chic identity for Magpie pie shop speaks to the owner’s Pennsylvania-Dutch heritage. Soulmates, designed by MultiAdaptor, portrays a literal interpretation of its online dating service through connections between the letterforms. Bottom row, left to right: Simple sans serifs focus a logo on its message. These, all designed by Spin, still manage to project personality through expressive letterform arrangements. The Sim-Smith logo represents a gallery—the letterforms distributed within a space, like art presented in an exhibit. BoomBoom connotes the explosive action of the aptly named cricket bat and More4 communicates its varied TV programming through an abstracted numeral four.
Sans serifs feel more modern because they are. Although one could argue that sans serifs pre-date serifs in pre-Roman lettering, it’s generally accepted that the sans serif we think of today came to fruition in the late 1800s. A prevalent historic example is Johnston Underground and its use for London’s railway system. The Swiss movement and Helvetica’s introduction in the late 1950s further enhanced the modern persona of sans serif type. Being newer to our repertoire of type, sans serifs tend to be the go-to for contemporary design.
Some typefaces are unequivocally linked to certain time periods. Futura is avant garde modernism of the 1920s. Garamond is old style letterpress of the 1500s. Benguiat is the 1970s in its prime. Some modern-designed typefaces are time-linked as well. Neutraface, a very popular sans serif typeface from House Industries, is used for a variety of current logos, including a hot dog club, pear cider, vodka, an investment group, beer and a major TV network. This typeface, although beautiful, is stylistically indicative of the art deco movement of the 1920s to 1930s, which makes me ponder the relationship between art deco and hot dogs. These subtle connotations need to be addressed alongside aesthetic decisions.
Within these typographic styles and historic classifications are the individual letterforms themselves. Letters can be short, tall, round, geometric, condensed, narrow, extended, italic, bold, distressed, hand rendered, angular or imperfect. Every iteration conveys very specific feelings. Ask any designer who has spent hours looking for the perfect tail on a Q or the perfect ball terminal of an f. Analyzing the subtle differences—learning the delicate distinctions that make a typeface individual—pushes a deeper understanding of what makes type speak or remain silent. A well-practiced type whisperer will allow the message to come through.
A long-surviving trend of the past several years is the need to simplify every aspect of a logo, including the typography. This trend follows web 2.0’s dimensional slickness of the 2000s and shows no signs of slowing down. Much of the trend is dedicated to seeing logo designs and redesigns adopt simple sans serif letterforms.
Helvetica still reigns supreme worldwide in the sans serif logo market, representing everything from airlines to furniture stores, clothing to cars, candy to electronics. It speaks everything and nothing. Its connotative value is completely neutral, making it perfect for a logo that needs to appeal to the masses. Though some may argue that it’s too neutral.
Neutrality seems to be a desired effect in the simplification trend that has taken over the logo scene. The idea that a logo must appeal to everyone and anyone has pushed personality out the door. Microsoft’s old logo has its dissenters, but it still had a hint of personality in the connection between the s and o. Its current plain Segoe letterforms have not a word to say. And perhaps the old eBay logo was a bit too playful, but the new logo speaks nothing to the splendid variety of treasures found on its site, save for the letterforms’ varied colors.
Still, with all that is lacking in simple sans serifs, there are times when that quality is completely appropriate. Simplification works if the letterforms reflect the straightforward mantra of a business, the cleanliness of a product or the streamlined nature of a service.
Simplification works even better with modification. Think of it as the little extra personality kick that separates the plain action of typing letters on a keyboard from truly designing a logo. Ligatures, modified letterforms, and deconstructed and smart type arrangements are on the rise within logos. Companies such as FedEx, Amazon and MyFonts once sparked a surge of intelligent logo design work—work that pulls double duty or combines various typographic elements to create clever results. A resurgence of this movement is happening, with a quest to communicate something more, a personal connection within the letterforms themselves.
With daily deadlines threatening our design output, it’s easy to rely on the go-to typefaces with appeasing aesthetics. The logo will look good, the client will like it. But it will have more value to both the client and audience if a designer fully constructs a deeper message through the typography. Explore the typographic rainbow of connotative possibilities and develop a logo that’s not only beautiful, but thoughtful. ca