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A brief hits your inbox and 3 hours go by just in downloading and trying out new fonts. Another 3 hours go by, and you’re still not happy with the results. Another 3, and you’re attempting to recreate references somebody forwarded you. End result: you’re emotionally drained, your head hurts, and you don’t want to see another typeface for the rest of your life. Next day, you’re back to the drawing board.
How often have we spent an entire day just trying out different fonts on the ‘Thank you’ slide of a PowerPoint or a blank artboard on Adobe Illustrator? When endless possibilities meet lack of clarity, one is bound to go down a rabbit hole. So how do you decide which typeface or font family to proceed with? Here’s a checklist.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised at how many creative professionals go straight to the artboard without attempting to understand the brief.
“The key to choosing the right font for any logo or packaging depends a lot on the story the brand wants to tell,” says Norma Rodricks, Design Head at The Republic - a design agency based in Mumbai. “It is essential that a customer understands the nature of the brand through the typeface. It subtly tells the customer what to expect from it,” she adds.
Ayushi Teotia, Product Designer at Condé Nast agrees. “The first and foremost step for me is to reflect on the brief, understand the target person, the brand persona and lastly how experimental the client is,” she says.
So, what really is the brief? Well, it is a note that encapsulates a brand’s expectations. This includes the objective of the assignment, the target audience, the competitors, the single minded proposition, a unique consumer insight, product category and features and price point. It also includes details about the brand personality. For example, what are the values it stands for? Is it an upbeat, “quirky” brand, or is it a sombre, heritage one? Is it mass, premium or luxury? Is it aspirational or relatable? What should a consumer feel about the brand on seeing the communication? And so on.
There are generally two typefaces you need to narrow down in every branding assignment. One is the logo font. The other is the brand font. Typically, these are different. When designing the identity of a new brand, you need to also keep in mind the applications. These include the font on physical objects like flyers, posters, print ads and packaging, as well as digital assets like the website, app, social media platforms and web banners. These collaterals will often be mentioned in the brief. For example, a restaurant brief will have coasters, placemats and menu as part of their deliverables, while a tech platform will have its app and website as the primary assets.
Keep in mind that sans serif typefaces are preferred for body copy on digital mediums, while serif is preferred for body copy in print. For short headlines you can switch things up a bit, and for single word headers, you can afford to go a little decorative.
While this may seem similar to the first step, it deserves significant attention. You are right in deducing that details about the brand will be a part of the brief. But, you must spend an equal amount of time focusing on just the brand.
“One has to put in a little research and thought to the brand; is it modern, traditional, pop or classic? It is extremely important to understand the brand and the client before you begin any design process and pick a typeface that becomes the brand face,” explains Norma.
Understanding the brand includes delving into the category as well as the persona it wants to channel. For example, Dove is a personal care brand. The messaging focuses on ‘Real Beauty’. The values it personifies include inclusivity, diversity and self-acceptance.
When the brand first launched, it focussed on purity and gentleness, borrowing from its formulation. Echoing these values, they chose the colours blue, white and gold. Over time, the meaning transcended into real-world values. They personified purity and hammered down on the message - we don't need to alter ourselves to be beautiful. We simply need to be at peace with the purest versions of ourselves and embrace it.
Clearly, there’s a lot of storytelling behind the brands we see and love. To create an iconic brand, one simply does not wake up one day, and plaster a random font that looks good.
Providing a list of competitors in the relevant segment is ideally the responsibility of the brand or client. But as a designer, you must do research of your own and analyse their design language. What colours and fonts are dominant in the category? Are they using serifs or sans serifs? How successful have they been in striking a chord with the audience? Once you understand the market, you will be in a good position to find a need gap and create a unique design differentiation for your brand.
A differentiation doesn’t necessarily mean flouting the rules of the category and going completely berserk in font selection. For instance, serif typefaces are a mainstay for many iconic luxury houses. Look at the logos and typefaces used by Dior, Rolex, Gucci, Louis Vuitton or Prada. They’re classic serifs. Legendary publications like Vogue, Elle, Business of Fashion and Harper’s also go with serif typefaces.
Serifs are usually used for brands that stand for tradition, luxury or heritage, while sans serif typefaces are often seen on contemporary, modern and minimalist brands. This rule isn’t set in stone, though, as techniques like kerning, leading, font weight and thickness also play a role in denoting the brand values. To give an example, a simple sans serif with generous kerning is also used for luxury brands. Case in point: Versace, Givenchy and Celine.
Meanwhile, Chanel also boasts of a sans serif logo. My guess is that since the brand was very bold at the time, (read: taking black out of mourning and bringing it into the mainstream, championing shorter lengths for women, and getting rid of the corset) they decided to break free of the category norms by going with a sans serif typeface.
The Yves Saint Laurent logotype originally used a serif, but when it was shortened to ‘Saint Laurent’ in 2012, they chose to go with a new typeface that is, unsurprisingly, a sans serif, perhaps signifying a shift into the modern world, along with the change in guard.
Many tech-led brands like Spotify, Amazon, Airbnb, ebay and Whatsapp have sans serif logos signifying modernity, while Wordpress has a serif logo, drawing from the age of the typewriter. Instagram and Pinterest both have cursive logos, perhaps owing to their visual-first platforms.
Do a little research and more such patterns will begin to emerge. You will also observe how certain categories have unique colour identifiers. Fast food chains rely on primary colours like red, yellow and green. Cue: the logos of Burger King, Pizza Hut, McDonalds. Meanwhile, personal care brands generally use blues, browns, golds and greens in their logos. Observe Dove, Nivea, Pantene, Forest Essentials and The Body Shop.
Having been featured on The Dieline and Packaging of the World, for her branding and packaging projects and her illustration work showcased in the first edition of Bezier - The Best Vector Artist Worldwide in 2017, Norma firmly believes in the importance of research before starting working on any branding brief. And I agree. While it’s important for your work to be original and not a straight-out copy, having an idea of what’s out there can push your imagination to think of ideas that might not come to you otherwise.
Spend time on design publications like Design Taxi, Print and Creative Boom. Look up portfolios of contemporaries on Behance. Spend hours on Pinterest. Lap up the work of winners and shortlists at awards like D&AD, Communication Arts Annual Awards, Cannes Lions, A’ Design Awards, The One Show and The Webby Awards.
This will help you grasp typefaces used by your contemporaries and how they’re playing with it to bring out a brand persona.
For instance, say you need to create the branding for a new ice cream chain. Analyse the fonts used in Baskin Robbins, Kwality Walls and Haagen Dazs. Look at their similarities and differences, and map it to their target audience, price points, and proposition.
Recently, Norma worked on a branding project for a handmade ice cream and treats brand called The Burrow. She says, “The font used for the logo is a display serif font called Splandor with a hand drawn style. This visually compliments the handmade and homemade story beautifully. The secondary type used across the menus and communication is a san-serif font with nuances that soften the strictness of pure geometry, and makes it more human and pleasant to read in longer texts.”
While she may not have done so consciously - design now being muscle memory for her - many ice cream brands use script-like, fluid fonts. When starting out as a designer, referencing can help one understand the category markers.
One way to organise your references is a moodboard. And this is my personal favourite. You may not always have time for it, but a good mood board really helps pave the way for clarity on what to create. Without clarity, one will go around in frustrating circles, pairing fonts, trying options and ultimately giving up, or submit a subpar design.
Pinterest is another useful tool. “I love to pin font selections to different "type" of products/services beforehand, which serve as good inspiration when ideating to set up the look and feel for a new project,” recommends Ayushi Teotia.
Once you have your references and category understanding in place, it’s time to shortlist typefaces. “When I begin work, post the brief, I make a list of typefaces that I feel work for the branding project. The next step is to see how versatile the font is and how the font family works across different mediums,” explains Norma.
“It is essential to work with a typeface that has different weights from light to medium, bold and heavy so you don't end up using a mix of fonts for one brand. Ideally a brand should not have more than 2-3 different typefaces,” she elaborates.
Adding to this, she says, “Most often, the font used for the logo is different from the brand font. But it is extremely essential that the typefaces chosen compliment each other. How do you know if they do work with each other? There is no direct answer but a more intuitive one where visually the typefaces fit in seamlessly.”
At this point you’re probably wondering the difference between font and typeface considering they’re (incorrectly) used interchangeably in common parlance. Font is a single style of lettering. Typeface is a family of fonts. To give an example, Helvetica is a typeface while Helvetica Neue Ultralight is a font.
Now that you have your homework down pat, you’re free to open Adobe Illustrator and begin work. The task of creation will be much smoother, and the clarity gained from the previous steps will prevent unnecessary trial and error.
Talking about her process, Norma says, “If the brand logo needs to shout bold and powerful then I would go for a font that represents such characteristics. Within this you can have a bold font with soft corners where the logo does not come out aggressive but yet has a bold persona. Similarly, if the brand is modern or luxury-lifestyle, I would go for a clean san serif or a more new-age serif font that has character in each letter in the typeface.”
Pro-tip: It’s a good idea to come up with at least 2-3 diverse routes. Since aesthetics are subjective, you should present a safe option, a bold option, and a third concept-heavy option. Try not to exceed 4 routes, as then you have the chance of confusing your client, and they might back out of the project altogether, or make you do numerous redos.
“One of the few people on the planet who responds to the infamous “what do you do for fun?” question with “work”. Loves chai, books, beer, and anything touched by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Dreams of curating a meme museum someday ...
. Also a fashion geek in love with sarees.”
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