Type & Branding

briangough's picture

Hello Typophile.

I am in the process of researching a possible question on Type & Branding (with a capital ‘B’) for an MA thesis.

I have a fair knowledge of typography and type design but I am stuck on trying to find an angle which isn’t just based on an historical analysis. I need a question that opens up the possibility of exploration.

If any of you out there have any suggestions I would be really grateful.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Many thanks.


Nick Job's picture

What about the requirement/expectation that a brand has a tone of voice, and the way a typeface is chosen specifically to support or even be that tone of voice (this may be a little subjective but it certainly doesn't depend on the past too much since the corporate typeface business is relatively young and thriving(?), the oldest I can think of being London Underground and the 1916+ Johnston font) chosen for clarity and differentiation in an already busy environment. Branding (and associated typography) is just the same but on a much bigger scale; i.e. there's a lot of noise that a company must rise above if it even to be considered let alone be recognised, then cherished and ultimately advocated. Does a font really help or are branding agencies and/or typeface designers pulling a fast one? (Not necessarily my view but may stimulate discussion.)

briangough's picture

Thanks for responding Nick. I think that the problem with the concept of tone etc. is as you say, quite subjective and I’m concerned that I may end up going down the road of type classification which presents a lot of potential traps. To kick it out there a bit further, I think that you could argue (as Bruno Maag has) that the Roman’s Trajan was the first example of lettering being used as a branding tool and onwards and upwards from there.

I was pottering around with the idea of neutrality and sans serif (with a nod to Kai Bernau and his recent type face) and how this concept extends into branding in supposed neutral zones such as airports etc.

And then there is also the concept of 'white writing' or 'transparency' where there is a deliberate attempt not to influence tone and we can see examples of this in such things as goverment documents which employ 'Type Writer' style fonts.

Do type faces help to progress brand...Well often times I suppose the type design is re-designed but the core elements of the brand stay the same no? This may suggest that type design is part of the top soil we associate with brand design and not integral to its DNA - or is it?

armin's picture


I'm not quite sure what you are trying to do for your thesis, but the moment I read Type & Branding my mind went into a few examples:

Apple used Garamond for a while, including during the launch of the iMac in all its candy colored glory (you know, the ones that said YUM in big Garamond, which legend has it was condensed an extra 80% or something like that). You could pinpoint an Apple ad instantly through the use of Garamond. Then one day, bam, Myriad! A complete 180-degree turn in type and brand association.

A smaller brand, but McSweeney's also uses Garamond until it bleeds.

Volkswagen and Futura. There is a custom Futura version somewhere just for VW. And it goes all the way back to the iconic Lemon ad.

Martha Stewart Living and all of the custom H&F-J fonts they use.

The examples are many -- you could do a whole chapter on Helvetica alone (American Airlines, American Apparel, Parmalat) -- and you could do an interesting study of what fonts make recurring appearances in certain industries, as well as seeing which typefaces become instantly recognizable and associated with a certain brand. Sounds like an interesting challenge. Good luck.

James Arboghast's picture

Brian, Armin -- Helvetica alone is an over-ripe plum for the picking. So many companies use Helvetica or a close variant like Akzidenz et al, for their logos, and as Nick Shinn has pointed out, the thing has become the de facto voice of corporate facism.

I don't know about "facist" connotations, but certainly you could say "blandness" and "homogeniality". Helv is like a dark blue corporate suit---thousands of companies are able to differentiate themselves with different shades (individual logo designs), yet they are all cut from the same basic cloth.

That's paradoxical.

How can it be? The answer isn't too hard to figure out, but an etensive explanation might make fascinating reading.

Then again I could be barking up an ersatz tree with plastic leaves that taste horrible.

j a m e s

briangough's picture

Armin, James,

Thanks for posting. I guess Helvetica could be the most topical of all fonts and the most widely recognised. I think also that a backlash (in answer to the Gary Hustwits film) would be topical and possibly needed. The film seems to pay only meek lip service to the counter argument and concerns itself only with Helvetica’s use in lettering. All mentions of Helvetica’s success in continuous text are neatly done away with and I would agree with Paul Rands view that as body text it’s not great.

What may work about Helvetica is that it is construed as ‘received pronunciation’; a one tone fits all approach. More recently are we starting to see foundries produce popular fonts with a little more character and personality? The fact that The Guardian’s Egyptian face came partially from the teams search for a replacement for Helvetica interests me. Was it changing times that inflected the fonts design? A little more bite? A little less neutral?

I think what may be an interesting concept is that the recent film serves as the death notice for the popularity of fonts like Helvetica. Is modernist, corporate design finally dead? What is the next step?

I basically need to find an edge to this thesis that deals with more than just examples of different fonts and their uses within identity design.

It’s tricky because if I had it my way (and perhaps one day I might!) I would write a straight thesis on type in branding but I think my supervisor is pushing me for something more. I think he’s pushing the idea of ‘type as product’ and ‘brand extension’, translating a type faces core design elements into another area (i.e. a brand of Helvetica soap, nice clean and neutral).

He gave me Franco Maria Ricci as an example. It's kinda confused me.

Nick Job's picture

What about "Where Type has become Brand and what made it happen" or "Can type alone equal brand? The next step for corporate typography..." i.e. is there an example of a typeface alone (the letters alone rather than a hackneyed collection of the few letters from a logotype like you sometimes get with e.g. Coca-Cola) connoting all the brand values of a company. So "The logo is dead...long live the font". There have been many relatively recent examples of a logo/marque/visual device being used alone without typography; can this situation be reversed so that one doesn't need a logo but just a font? (Does the 'global village' with its plethora of languages/alphabets/letterforms even allow for that?) or is logo everything?

briangough's picture

Yeah. I think you're onto something there Nick if we can hammer it down a bit more. If I have you right, you're suggesting that a bespoke type face might be as viable in the future as the traditional marque. So this means that the type face is doing all the work instead of the logo. I like it.

Quite recently I have been doing research into other areas of design and I came across Naoto Fukasawa who has a very interesting approach design.


One big issue faced by any large corporation is winning the hearts & minds of people, not just consumers but perhaps more importantly the people who help bring a brand to life, the employees. Naturally you need employees to live the brand and take it in as a way of thinking, so what approach can you take in order to make this happen? One possible suggestion would be to create some interplay between the brand and the employee/consumer. However, the big question is how can this be achieved?

Is it necessary to break away from rigidity of certain identity guidelines? Is it possible to develop an identity that allows employees the ability to choose how they would like to see the brand represented? Are there any current examples of this now?

writingdesigning's picture

I don't know if this works withing your scheme of things, or if there's enough to make a thesis, but it may be interesting to explore vernacular typographic nuances in global brands, particularly in categories where the audiences are predominantly external - airlines, tourism, ethnic cuisine, etc.

On the one extreme are brands where the typography often overtly reflects regional influences.



On the other are brands that seek to articulate certain favourable aspects of their regional origins by subtle typographic devices, but choose to be, by and large, international in expression:



One may also look at categories where brands of regional origin went through redesigns to shed vernacular elements in an effort to gain greater international acceptance. Hankook and LG are two brands that did it in their own different ways.


Finally there are the international brands that adapt to vernacular typography in local markets:


So what are the typographic nuances/devices that convey regional flavour? How subtle can these interventions be and still communicate effectively? To what extent can you go before the 'interestingly exotic' becomes 'uncomfortably foreign'? How far can typography reflect regional forms and still stay 'on brand'?

Maybe worth a look :)

James Arboghast's picture

..what may be an interesting concept is that the recent film serves as the death notice for the popularity of fonts like Helvetica.

Your main statement is 25 words or less. It's perfect. I would go ahead and write about that. You cannot possibly miss.

What is the next step?

Humanism. Humanism on digital stilts is the next step. Modernism is a mixed blessing in retreat. There is always a backlash going on. At the same time every shift in typographic style and taste is inescapably retro.

...is logo everything?

i m a g e  is everything. Technology is making culture more type-saturated and type-savvy. More type is used in more applications than ever before.

I think he’s pushing the idea of ‘type as product’ and ‘brand extension’, translating a type faces core design elements into another area.

The nearest thing I can think of in that vein is the resurrected Bugatti's use of the EB monogram of legendary marque's founder, Ettore Bugatti.

The EB monogram appears thruout the vehicle, on the engine heads, on each appliance on the dashboard. Look for pics of the inside of the car.

j a m e s

briangough's picture


That is a very interesting take I would never have considered that. I will have to give that some thought as it gives a more global perspective (something an MA project wouldn’t suffer from). I presume getting type right in those cases must be a slow process - little too much and its too kitsch, little too subtle and its lost.

I’m inclined to agree with James though that the ‘next step’ is humanism and it will be interesting to see it played out. We are possibly seeing quite a bit of it already with looser styles. This may stem from other developments outside of design that appear to be influencing our general psyche.

Will we start to see a move away from machined looking design? More freestyle?

I like the concept behind the Bugatti and the idea that the entire car itself represents the marque. No longer will we have the age old acid test of ‘Now take away the logo and see if you can still tell that it's blah blah blah’ the brand will be completely represented in itself.

Is identity design becoming more amorphous?

Does anyone agree with this statment?

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