From classic Roman type to slab serifs, typography is the key to effective brand definition. We talk to the designers with their eyes on the next trends in letterforms.
Some designers immerse themselves in the theory and practices of typography, while others spurn such formality in favour of a freeform approach based on an instinct for what is right.
Jonathan ‘Bastard’ Barnbrook is a shining example of the former, while David ‘never mistake legibility for communication’ Carson is the high priest of the latter.
And therein lies the fascination with type: one can dedicate a lifetime to its study, or simply wing it without reference to a single typography textbook. There are rules, but most, it seems, exist to be ridden roughshod over.
One incontrovertible thing about type is it’s more subject to trends and fashions than any other aspect of design. Some such trends last for centuries (roman type) while others flit in and out of favour (Cooper Black and Souvenir in the 1930s, then 1970s). But rarely can trends be explained with exactitude.
One example is Nazi Germany moving from blackletter faces to san serifs such as Futura because the occupied territories could not read Third Reich proclamations.
For the best part, though, trends meld organically, one into the next. Designer and type commentator Simon Loxley believes just such a change is currently underway.
Loxley – editor of Ultrabold, the magazine for members of St Bride Library, the world’s largest resource for print, publishing and graphic arts – says: “After years of sans serif typefaces being predominant there seems to be a bit of a shift.
“Typographical trends build up because people imitate other things they see. When customers go to designers they bring out examples of things that already exist, and tend to say ‘I want it like that, but just bit different’. I think designers just get tired of things looking the same.”
In theory, says Loxley, it takes just a handful of designers to do something different – but not necessarily something new – to spark a new trend.
“Sans serif letterforms have been all conquering during the past decade, because they are synonymous with stripped-down 21st-Century style, and the on-screen suitability of sans serifs has only reinforced their dominance,” says Loxley.
“The Internet is where most innovation is happening, and I think print media tried to imitate that.” But he believes the print side might well be on the cusp of change:
“I’ve seen an increasing use of slab serifs in recent months. Recently on the newsstand I found four publications using these typefaces, including an editorial feature in Mojo, Big Issue, a spread in Marie Claire and the masthead of The Guardian’s travel section.”
Slab serifs such as Rockwell, Stymie and Memphis last had some usage in the 1970s, but the key point was British design of the early 1950s, inspired by posters for the Festival of Britain.
Loxley says the versions on today’s newsstand are of a modern cut, “angular and vigorous”. “I hope this is the beginnings of a change in typographical trends,” he says.
“I like these 21st-Century fat faces; they help you appreciate sans serifs again, purely because you don’t see them absolutely everywhere.”
Others are just as hungry for typographical innovation. Not least Mark Wagstaff, art editor of one of the slab serif pioneers cited by Loxley – the seminal music magazine, Mojo.
Mojo’s chameleon-like typographical style has always marked it out as unique among popular British newsstand magazines, and Wagstaff sees himself as the proud bearer of this torch.
“The thing you’ve got to bear in mind with Mojo is music is a very emotive force. We’re talking about music from the 50s to the current day, and we use different fonts to differentiate between musical styles.”
This means that for punk features Wagstaff might resort to homemade ransom-note-style letter cut-outs, while for contemporary bands like the Arctic Monkeys he’ll employ the “up to date, modern, clean lines” of Geometric Black.
For pastiche covers, like psychedelia, “we might go crazy, and you’ll even see some Inkwell in there”, while to evoke the Rolling Stones’ 70s heyday he turned to a font called Today, “which just has that classic 70s feel”.
Wagstaff is delighted to be bucking the trend of magazines being typographical followers rather than leaders. “If you sit with certain font sets then you have that immediate recognizability factor with every cover you do, and with a lot of women’s and men’s magazines you know exactly where you are.
“But I look at the covers of Mojo almost as one would look at the vast array of album covers out there. I never want to repeat myself from issue to issue.”
That is not to say Wagstaff does not recognize the importance of a core type consistency. “We absolutely have a house style, as you would expect. We used a classic serif font called Lapidary for the body type, while for features where we don’t want to project a certain style or genre or feel we tend to use a font called BeLucian, which has a classic feel.”
But he admits that for the best part, features are a chance “for us designers to show off, by picking a font that is a reaction to the subject matter, which I think is brilliant”.
Designers who have clients rather than readers to keep happy can find themselves straight-jacketed by client preferences when it comes to type, but the most innovative creatives don’t let this stop them pushing the type envelope.
One such agency is ilovedust (ilovedust.com), whose creative director Mark Graham believes that the competitive nature of the design market has honed clients’ appreciation of what constitutes fine design.
“Some designers love fonts more than others, but typographic rules are there to be broken. I find a lot of stuff is very manufactured these days, and I think it’s something clients are becoming more aware of.
“Some of the best typography has been around for a long time – everything from Saul Bass to David Carson. Like Carson, I didn’t learn much about type but I’m a big believer in ‘If it looks right, then it is right’.
"Our main aim when it comes to designing with type is having fun. Using type as image can be as powerful and expressive as an interesting illustration, and we often find ourselves proposing designs that might be purely typographic.”
Graham believes what separates ilovedust from others is that it creates type for itself, and so “brings back quality into the process”. One example was its recent work on a new logotype for the US singer Beyoncé.
The brief was to create a style of type that had an organic feel, because the album was all about Beyoncé going back to musical basics.
Graham says: “This album was not about polished music – she already had the hits and the status; this was all about her going back to her New Orleans musical roots.
“We sketched out some early ideas and did some research into organic type designs, eventually working up a presentation of ideas around 12 designs.”
Once Sony and Beyoncé chose one of the designs, ilovedust hand-drew the selected font in Illustrator, working it up in a digital form that evolved as the project progressed. The result was a logo that captivated fans and businesses alike.
“As soon as the album was released we had a stream of emails from fans and companies asking what the font was, and could we do something in the same font for them.”
Another striking ilovedust project is its work for UK band The Crimea, especially for the single, Disaster Stands On My Doorstep. For this, says Graham, typography was used to reflect the nature and mood of the music.
“We had to work with lot of grainy photographs taken by the band that were basically crap, but this was fine, as we didn’t wanted polished PR-style band shots.
“We asked the lead singer to write down some lyrics on a few sheets of paper, and we layered these in Photoshop over one of the photos. It’s very apt, because the music is layered and dark, and we wanted to convey that in graphical form.”
Tado (tado.co.uk), a Sheffield-based boutique agency comprised of Mike Doney and Katie Tang, is noted more for its illustrative work than its typography – but this has not stopped it exploring the endless possibilities of type.
Doney says: “Type is a fairly small part of our job, but it’s an aspect that we like because it’s different from what most illustrators do.
“If we find a font that we like we’ll break it apart and use it only as a guideline. Quite often, we’ll draw our own type on top of it, until we have something that we feel is a better overall fit for the image.”
Tado’s work is characterized by ultra chunky fonts, which complement the innocence of its cuddly characters-driven output. Among the favourites are Boris Black Bloxx, Whoop-Ass and Tantor.
“We’ll even start with Helvetica Bold sometimes and redraw it in Illustrator,” says Doney. Redrawing fonts is just part of the illustrative process for Tado.
Take its logo for Zarjaz, a 2005 exhibition in London that was a collection of artists’ different interpretations of 2000AD comic characters.
“The logo was a skull,” says Doney, “and we started off with a font called Greefuz that we matched to the death image we’d done. We took it into Illustrator, and made it as dangly, horrible and sharp as the skull. It’s all about creating a balance.”
But illustrators and designers like Tado and ilovedust, who routinely break new ground with type, understand perfectly that not all typography rules are there to be broken.
On a project it did for Nike that went live on October 1, Tado exercised restraint in its use of type, because it was the right thing to do. The project was called United Football Organisation (UFO) – a mythical football association that’s all about the joy of the game and promoting the fun of football.
Mike says: “Nike asked us to create a mini-brand around UFO. It’s a full range, of clothing, shoes and bags, which will be going in to Foot Locker in the UK. We used a font called Metropolitan, but we fiddled with it only in terms of the kerning.”
Neither Doney nor Tang has any formal type training, but they believe this has no bearing on their ability to tap its power. “There are a lot of rules with type, but we weren’t taught them, and I think this has stopped us from going ‘Oh, no, we shouldn’t use that font, because it’s a no no’."
And as with all forms of creativity, inspiration for the use and treatment of type can be found in the strangest of places; it’s all about keeping your eyes open.
“We draw inspiration for type from all over the place – stuff like kids’ food packaging,” says Doney.
“Another source is Chinese and Japanese type, because we can’t read the words, so they appear as images to us, and it becomes a purely aesthetic thing.”
Meanwhile, Graham and the team at ilovedust draw ideas from everything – whether it be master typographers or doughnuts. “We get inspired all the time by the old and the new, whether it’s looking at old-school typographers like Piet Zwart or contemporary designers.
"But a lot of our inspiration as a team comes from experimenting with different mediums and approaches, and ideas can come from anywhere – whether it’s a doughnut, a 70s poster, a car catalogue or old shops signs."
From Hitler’s Germany to doughnuts. Contemporary use of type will always be a law unto itself.
Knowing when to play with type and when to leave it alone is important. For its work on Greenhouse (below) MTV's in-house postproduction company Tado chose a font called Eurostile, and again left well alone because it s specifically designed for logos.
ilovedust agency: Bringing back quality into the process
Mark Wagstaff uses a wide range of typefaces in his role as art editor for music magazine Mojo. From Geometric for a layout on Arctic Monkeys (above), to Helvetica for a cover on Joy Division (below). The layout on Bob Marley (below) used OldPhotoSetType scanned in and set by hand.
Branding for a Web development company would normally prove barren territory for experimental use of type, but ilovedust has shown that the only limitations are those that are self-imposed.
Unwrong (unwrong.com) is a Flash Web development company that ilovedust recently rebranded. The result is fresh, eye-catching and evocative.
“We gave them a quite up-to-date look terms of font and execution. We created the font ourselves in Illustrator.
“After talking to them we realized that they were actually fun guys who make hard things very simple. A lot of Web development companies come across as being formal and grid-like, scary even. We wanted something a little more approachable something that was definitely not too scary.
“We discovered that Pacman was one of the things that these guys really liked, and this was what gave us the idea of creating a type that had a chunky Pacman-type feel to it.
The redrawing and reworking of existing typefaces is an ilovedust speciality. One recent rebranding project for singer Beyoncé involved ornate reworking of fonts to communicate the necessary message.
ilovedust's designers draw inspiration for the use of type from the strangest places. The idea for this self-promotional piece came from an elevenses snack.
Browse the shelves in WH Smiths and you’ll struggle to find much that’s innovative about magazines’ use of typography – yet one art editor has been pushing the boundaries of magazine type for over a decade.
It’s not unusual to find Mojo art editor Mark Wagstaff and his team hunched over a photocopier, distressing type for more-striking effects. Once he even incorporated magnetic alphabet fridge magnets into a feature headline.
“We’ve got a big old font library, and we kind of bend things around to fit,” he says. “We use thousands of pounds of Mac equipment and all the latest programmes but you’ll tend to find us designers bent over a photocopier, degrading the font, to enhance the look we’re going for, and then scanning them back in for use in the magazine. That’s what I grew up doing as a designer."
Of the fridge magnets stunt he says: “This was for a Squeeze feature. We stuck the magnets with Blu-tack on some white paper to make the headline and photographed them with a digital camera before taking them into Photoshop, where we touched them up and added drop shadows. We get up to all kinds of tricks. I think it’s something you don’t tend to see in other magazines.
“Some editors have questioned the eclecticism of the design, and we have discussed tying ourselves down to a font set. But the decision in the end has always been to go with the eclectic nature of the magazine. It’s always been like that.”
Main illustration Nick Ainley, www.shinybinary.com