Sans-serifs as comfort

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The Daily

Design parameters for branding have changed a lot. Screen legibility and name suitability for Instagram weren’t exactly top of mind for Paul Rand. Last year this caught up with the fashion industry. The effects yielded this wide-spread image below.

From Bloomberg

Bloomberg wrote a good round-up of the discussions around these design changes. They were divided, as expected. The first camp said that it was dull and generic. The second camp said that it was classic and indicative of luxury. Bloomberg quoted Armin Vit that called it “like wearing a black-tie tuxedo” which is a good, albeit generous interpretation.

The startup scene has a less glamorous past and design heritage. Less to lose, I suppose. Instead, they’ve skipped straight to the sans-serifs. Eliza Brooke at Vox put this elegantly back in 2017:

If there is one style of corporate branding that defines the 2010s, it is this: sans-serif lettering, neatly presented in black, white, and ultra-flat colors.

From OH No Type Co’s Twitter.

She is right. And it has been a very consistent design trend since (although there’s a slight indication of change happening). While reading Lean Luxe, I found an article in Fast Company that poked at this, calling it blanding:

The formula is sort of a brand paint-by-numbers. Start with a made-up-word name. Put it in a sans-serif typeface. Make it clean and readable, with just the right amount of white space. Use a direct tone of voice. Nope, no need for a logo. Maybe throw in some cheerful illustrations. Just don’t forget the vibrant colors. Bonus points for purple and turquoise. Blah blah blah.

Glossier.

You’ve seen it too. So, why is it like this?

Sidestepping the obvious critique of companies being boring and unwilling to take risk, I think there’s something else at play. There’s a global corporate aesthetic developing that implies a set of values and perceived modernity. Look at Sildenafil and how differently it can be packaged. It’s the same product.

Roman Health
Pfizer

The aesthetic implies that it is young, modern, quick, delivered to your door, available on your phone, cheaper. Even if it isn’t necessarily any of those things. It feels like you’ve bought things like this before. And in the case with Roman, it also turns one of the least desirable packages to have in your bathroom cabinet into something you could leave on your nightstand.

We’ve seen this before, but in interior design. Coffee shops now look the same everywhere in the world. Exposed brick walls, industrial chic, and the odd (often knock-off) design classic here and there. It isn’t exactly original. But it is familiar and comforting. And that serves a purpose in its own right.

Brooklyn? Paris? Actually Bandung, Indonesia. Photo: Unsplash.

The Economist defended this development as being less about the world going generic, and more about making connections to a grander collective of people and values:

For the people who live in towns and cities far from the top-tier of globally-connected metropolises, these spaces signal membership of the world beyond the narrow boundaries of their homes. The Ukrainians who hang out at the Molodost Bar in Odessa don’t look around and complain that their neighbourhood looks like Brooklyn. […] On the contrary, the global aesthetic that these establishments bring to their towns contribute to a sense of connection with their peers in Copenhagen and San Francisco.

I think this is what is going on with the sans-serif branding too. It plays to a familiarity of experiences that your customer has already had – or felt like they’ve had – before. And while it does little for differentiation, the branding serves the purpose of charging your brand with a long set of values and traits that otherwise would be difficult to attain. Just like the exposed brick and the Kees Van Der Westen espresso machine does in a coffee shop.

Branding should serve a purpose. Originality can be one of them. But there are others too. It’s lazy to assume that the choice of certain colors and fonts means the designer hasn’t considered the options. They may simply have opted for a different purpose. Like offering the comfort and familiarity of a sans-serif font.

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