Why today’s brands must strive for iconicity

Helvetica used on a train station wall (via iStock)

Helvetica has been revamped for the digital age, in recognition of the fact that changing times demand distinctive brand design, writes Andrew Lawrence, executive creative director of Elmwood.

Helvetica may have had a facelift, but designers can still spot the classic font a mile off - and that’s a good thing. 

As arguably the world’s most universally recognised font, Helvetica’s digital makeover was perhaps long overdue. The font was conceived over 60 years ago, long before people started to read on a variety of digital devices. 

The new version, Helvetica Now, looks universally good in print and online. It looks modern and works effectively on a variety of screens whilst adding some new options, making it more customisable. 

Other brands would do well to emulate this type of ‘agile long-termism’, given that the power of design is more relevant than ever in a world of accelerated change. This ability to be flexible and responsive without losing sight of long-term vision is the key to standing the test of time. Because whilst brands can’t consider redefining themselves every couple of years, an ‘always new’ mindset is key: an ability to embrace evolution without introducing needless, wholesale changes. 

Fortunately the redesign of arguably the world’s most ubiquitous font has introduced a range of useful alternates to aid branding challenges, rather than a series of redundant tweaks. It offers a fresh, contemporary character and addresses some of the previous, awkward nuances. Available in three optical sizes, offering easy legibility whatever the device, it has reduced the need for resizing, manual adjustment and repositioning. This allows for clearer communication in today’s varied and demanding design environments. 

Rather than appearing significantly different, it feels reinvigorated and ready for any type of screen, browser or interface. This extra adaptability is an exciting possibility because the ability to customise is increasingly important in an era in which brands have to strive for greater ‘ownability’ of assets. 

And, all the while, the Helvetica font remains a classic piece of Swiss cool. It’s like buying Scandinavian furniture: There is a precision to it and, despite being old, it looks modern. It has an edge. Effective typography, like good furniture design, tends to boast a simple, understated beauty. There is a quiet confidence about Helvetica. 

Andrew Lawrence

But being distinctive is not the same as having timeless appeal. And, when it comes to fonts, there are classics and those that are in vogue, which may last only a couple of years before they end up looking worryingly like ‘Dad dancing’. Helvetica, on the other hand, has aged well, managing to avoid looking terribly dated.

As designers, we talk about doing more with less, about creating assets which are recognisable and which maintain flexibility. Extraordinary design is meaningful, memorable and iconic but it also boasts this type of agility and long-term vision. Simple and distinctive, it works in the blink of an eye.

In the same way as the Apple icon serves as an instant quality kitemark in consumers’ minds, the Nike ‘tick’is a unique part of its identity system and one that shoppers recognise instantly. In this way, it plays into our 'System 1 thinking' – ensuring subconscious recognition with next to no effort. 

Similarly, Adidas has created a selection of brand assets that you could put in a blender and splatter across the wall. You would still recognise the individual components, the shapes, the typography, when scattered, because it has successfully created brand icons. 

Coca Cola, too: If you put its long-standing brand assets into a blender, you’d still see the red background, the swirly ‘c’, the white swoosh and immediately think of the fizzy drink. This is all about brand assets that are iconic, distinctive and recognisable – because we humans are not as rational as we may like to think. It’s about aiming for brand design which is out of the ordinary and which leverages the System 1 thinking that drives the often instantaneous decisions that govern much our lives, whether we know it or not. 

Credit: iStock

By investing in iconic design assets, whether typography, graphics, colour, platforms or interfaces, brands can leverage canvases that can build emotive interactions which are memorable. What’s more, technological innovations allow brands to dimensionalise their stories and experiences in a way that was never before possible.

Of course, if everyone used Helvetica in the same way you wouldn’t be able to tell one brand from another. But design thinking is not just about the font. It’s about everything else that forms your brand’s suite of iconic assets, and layering up those assets of which typography forms just one part. 

When we put these together it’s that blend that creates a unique sense of distinctiveness. 

This new, customisable cut, Helvetica Now, gives us an exciting opportunity to put our own spin on a timeless classic, creating brand assets that work in the blink of an eye, with design fit for the digital world. 

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