Branding for the heart and the brain: Getting the typography right

Nadine Chahine is UK type director and legibility expert at Monotype. Jonathan Dobres is a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The success of a brand today hinges on its ability to speak to its audience in a voice that can be heard clearly. Brands must compete not only with other brands, but also with the ever-changing contexts in which their brands might be seen. In our increasingly brand- and smart device-saturated world, this can be as challenging as humming a tune in Times Square and hoping that pedestrians strolling around the Village will hear and sing along.

Typography is the voice of a brand

We often say that typography is the “voice” of a brand, because it is quite literally the embodiment of the words with which the brand reaches out to the world. Typefaces easily evoke mood, character, tonality, and intention, and the choice of the right typeface is crucial. A brand needs to find its voice, one that is true to its personality and the overall brand promise. This is no easy task, and for more than a century this has guided designers in the commercial space. But now, as the digital age is maturing, brand designers find themselves confronted by an increasingly complex set of problems to solve.

For many years the role of typography in brand communication was confined to printed touch points, while digital and web displays had limited typographic capabilities. Luckily that situation has dramatically changed in recent years thanks to support for web fonts and the wide distribution of apps. But this means that a brand’s typography needs to do more than give voice to its words on paper. It now needs to speak through a variety of media and in a host of situations that we humans have not encountered before. We have never, in our history, talked to other humans through a device that sits in our pockets, or one that we wear on our hands. Our fridges have never had to write us messages before, and our cars used to be more machine than consumer electronics.

Typography and digital brand expression

While the letterforms that define all Latin typography have only changed moderately in design over the course of their history (after all, letters must look like letters), today’s reading environments are changing dramatically. For many brands today, they will need to connect with their audience via a variety of devices and in reading conditions that at times can be quite far from optimal. Under these conditions, the clarity of the text is crucial. An automotive company today, for example, needs to cater to two requirements in its communication: on-brand messaging in its traditional marketing and social media presence, and the need for high legibility in its HMI design. That luminous screen in the dashboard is not a simple accessory anymore. It is simultaneously a very strong brand signal, and a utilitarian device that needs to communicate clearly and efficiently while we drive down the highway. The same can be said for wearable devices. They, too, are a trendy accessory and powerful brand signal that needs to communicate effectively while we go about our daily lives. The need for legible communication in wearables is so new that Apple designed an entire high-legibility typeface family for it, dubbed “San Francisco.”

And so we find that in many instances and across a multitude of segments there are various requirements for the typography of a display. In many cases there is a conflict between brand identity and the need for legible communication. The typefaces selected for branding might not be optimized for high legibility. Luckily there are two things we can do in order to address such a dilemma, and the possible solutions to these questions are not too far into the future.

Optimising legibility through research

The first thing we need to do is to understand more about designing typefaces and interfaces that are optimized for high legibility. There are already a significant number of typefaces that designers agree are highly legible, and this has been backed by recent research. We also know quite a lot about how to deal with typographic questions in UI design. However, there is a lot that we still don’t know and we need more research in order to better measure the effects of typographic variables on legibility.

Increasingly information is consumed in short bursts of attention as smartphones, wearables, automotive and digital dashboards are glanced at hundreds of times a day. The glance is the new currency of the age and we need to know how to design for it. Despite expanding consumer device obsession, there is a lack of research to guide design decisions or how information is best read and retained in glances. Recent research by Monotype and the MIT AgeLab has looked at the effect of size, weight, width, line length and even ambient lighting on legibility, but there are many more questions yet to answer.

To that end, the MIT AgeLab together with Monotype have launched the Clear Information Presentation (Clear-IP) consortium to drive research that investigates legibility and design questions related to reading in brief glances. The research focus is a continuation of the line of research that both have developed over the past five years. The Clear-IP consortium will reach across industries to work together to understand modern typographic design and information presentation and to establish best practices for quick-glance reading. In short, their mission is to scientifically measure the impact of our typographic design decisions.

The other line of investigation that we can take is to redefine branding typography. Is a single typeface family always able to answer both branding and legibility requirements? Sometimes, yes, and in other cases, no. This means that our approach to branding needs to be adjusted, and instead of talking about a corporate typeface, we need to talk a corporate suite of typefaces that are stylistically linked but still able to fulfill different functions depending on where they are being used. One such example is the newly released typeface family, Between, by Monotype Type Director, Akira Kobayashi. It is a set of three typeface families linked by common design DNA and yet they vary in energy levels that vary from calm to highly energetic. One can easily imagine Between 2 being used for interface design, while Between 1 and 3 are used for more expressive typography.

The way forward, then, is through more experimentation and research on both design and scientific fronts. We need more research to guide our understanding of legibility and the reading process, and more design experimentation to fulfill the functions required by these new brand signals. This merger of arts and sciences, and the resulting knowledge, scientific data, and a new design approach will empower brands to speak clearly, effectively, and with a commanding voice that reaches through the crowds. 

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