A Type of Two Cities: how fonts can make you feel at home

Design agency Without on making typography tap into a neighbourhood’s DNA.

You know you’ve arrived in New York City when you see Helvetica popping up all over the place. It’s part of the urban scenery. A clear, calm signal that you’re approaching the subway before you descend into the clattering, chaotic underground. 

Johnston has a similar effect in London. Created in 1916 by Edward Johnston and still used today, it’s an iconic sans-serif that helps around five million passengers a day negotiate the Tube. Berlin owns BMF Change, the Netherlands Eindhoven, and Chattanooga has its bespoke Chatype.

Typefaces have a powerful role to play when it comes to defining places and spaces. They help shape the aesthetic and, much like handwriting, reflect a certain personality. Over time, they can come to form part of the DNA of a place.

All of which is important if you’re a brand – whether establishment or service – trying to evoke and reflect the mood of an area.

Like many of the world’s major cities, London is more a collection of separate villages than one amorphous conurbation. And the people who call it home are very attached to their neighbourhoods. For many, where they live forms a part of their identity. East End boys and West End girls? North or south of the river? And people expect a certain ambiance when visiting a specific part of town, too. 

So, when Mel Marriott – with more than 20 years’ UK hospitality experience – approached us to devise a brand identity for a new group of pan-London bars called Darwin & Wallace, we knew that a one-size-fits-all approach wouldn’t cut it. 

The British love affair with ‘the local pub’ is well-known. But the 1990s had seen the rise of the ubiquitous gastropub, all with chalk-board menus and slate tiles instead of plates.  

Mel wanted to shake things up, restoring ‘the local’ specific to its neighbourhood. She felt that pubs were failing in their function as places to get together and socialise, whether that’s businesspeople holding breakfast meetings, new parents and their babies getting together for lunch, or office workers letting off steam after hours. 

It was important that each bar’s identity belonged to its respective location to create a sense of ownership, as well as form part of the wider Darwin & Wallace group. And it had to be subtle. Too often brands compete by turning up the volume, but a hyper-visible approach wouldn’t have worked here. Darwin & Wallace is about people first, and how they live in their neighbourhoods. 

Enter the typeface.    

By using each location’s address and ascribing to it its own typeface, the group felt coherent and yet each bar unique. Specific typefaces were chosen to reflect each area’s history, architecture and the typical demographic, amplifying the sense of belonging. Eschewing traditional pub monikers like The Red Lion, The Royal Oak and The Queen’s Head in favour of conventional street addresses made each bar seem more ‘home from home’, too.  

No35 Mackenzie Walk, for example, the group’s first East London venture in Canary Wharf, has a light, characterful Tropiline serif to contrast with the hard, industrial lines of the Wharf. Whereas No29 Power Station West, set on the south bank of the River Thames slightly west of centre, has a deco-inspired bespoke font, named DW Battersea Sans, which reflects nearby Battersea Power Station’s heritage. Once inside each venue, the typefaces are evident throughout, built into the fabric of each building through signage and decorative elements, gently reinforcing the brand identity.

Typefaces are a subtle, generous form of branding. They communicate volumes without shouting. For hospitality spaces, this is crucial, allowing customers to feel at home. Less about ‘I ♥ NYC’ and more about staying true to type.  

Here are the typeface names for various locations across London created by Without:

no11 - Quicksand
No32 - Pochoir
No197 - Gravur condensed
No1a - GT Sectra display
No29 - (Fully bespoke) ‘DW Battersea sans'
No35 - Tropiline
No17 - Interstate
601 - chap

Roly Grant is creative director of London-based brand design agency Without.

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