A recent discussion got me thinking about the part saturation plays in the selection of typefaces within identity design and what impact it has on the classics. What really separates Helvetica from Lobster and why do designers attribute the same negative perception of saturation to two completely different typefaces?
I’ve chosen Helvetica and Lobster as representative examples of two typeface groups, one that I believe should be used with caution and the other embraced.
For me, Helvetica has an understated familiarity, it is not significantly distinctive today as it was (there are many with similar philosophies and forms) but it’s respected as a product of functionality and the modernism of its time.
Conceived in 1957 it has seen a slow burn to saturation, typically utilised in corporate settings it’s now perhaps frowned upon because of its transferable personality and ease of use. For this article, Helvetica represents the broader sans serif families such as Gotham, Univers and Avenir etc. In contrast, Lobster has an overt and distinctive tone of voice delivered through superfluous detail and ligatures. Fast in its uptake and subsequent saturation, Lobster is a product of a current 50‘s trend perpetuated by an expanding free typeface market, tighter budgets and the accessibility of design to the young and inexperienced. It’s one of a number of ‘character’ typefaces which include Museo, Fertigo and Deftone etc.
I believe that the saturation of character typefaces in the freelance industry is as a result of peer admiration being heavily weighted in favour of the artistic merit of single, isolated assets perpetuated by ‘logo-only’ on-line galleries and publications. The vast and continual absence of context across these resources creates an environment where art is celebrated over competency and restraint. This display and adoration of artistry encourages the inexperienced and impressionable , in a bid to draw community attention and fulfil just-a-logo briefs, to select over-designed typefaces such as Lobster, on the basis of initial impact and a ‘wow’ factor while Helvetica is quickly discarded as it delivers (to design illiterate clients) less perceived value in isolation.
In isolation character typefaces flourish and saturate quickly in the hands of the inexperienced but context and experience favours the classics.
A good brand should have a multi-faceted but coherent personality that can converse with a consumer through a number of different interactions. Each trait must be balanced across a diverse and communicative fabric of touch-points and assets, avoid contradicting itself and be collectively unique and expressive. Any component that appears borrowed, easily recognised, dominant or confused with another brand will compromise the integrity of the brand. This is where Lobster begins to demonstrate problems. Its overt quirks and distinctive personality is likely to either define, mis-represent (in inexperienced hands) or over-power the communicative subtleties of a broader set of assets. Helvetica’s restraint and its broadly unidentifiable traits (to the non-designer) becomes a flexible and complimentary tool, able to deliver a sense of professionalism alongside other more proprietary components.
The subtle characteristics of a logo-type should add further depth to a brand’s visual identity and not be relied upon to bare the weight of the whole message. It’s a careful balancing act that typefaces like Helvetica can contribute to and Lobster upset.
The impact budget and experience has on saturation
With freelance constraints such as requests for single assets, the growing commoditisation of logo design (due to crowd-sourcing and off-the-shelf products), the increasing accessibility of design opportunities to the young or subsidised fees to quickly build a commercial portfolio, inexperienced designers default to the popular and highly stylised free typeface choices. It’s a complex series of factors that ultimately places increasing pressure on designers to deliver more for less. In contrast, experienced designers and studios, working with larger budgets to create brand experiences delivered across multiple assets are far less interested in the impact of individual elements, their challenge and sense of creativity stems from developing the more communicative aspects such as environmental and interactive design. The saturation and price of Helvetica is far less of a issue when taken within the context of a brand.
The site Brand New really emphasises this divide as the inexperienced criticise the experienced for the use of Helvetica logo-types while offering praise for the innovative animations and engaging collateral.
Long term vs short term saturation and the importance of origin
Like many of its character companions, Lobster is the product of a quick and increasingly disposable market place that was originally created to stimulate the purchase of complete families. This free market built up around this idea has led to typefaces being created purely for impact and personal exposure rather than longevity, practicality, usability or founded on an interest in solid design principles. Helvetica was born out of a design philosophy and the accumulated design experience of Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann, it has a strong and definable purpose that is functional, highly legible and easy to manage. Unfortunately it’s this functionality that has secured its position as the go-to choice most likely to look good with the least amount of effort. With such a perception (and perhaps a design snobbery), experienced designers, looking for originality and with the same desire for admiration (frequently with a large audience of ‘followers’), unnecessarily shun such a typeface.
Understanding the origin of a typeface can provide a designer with a clue to its trajectory, in the case of free typefaces this can be widely unpredictable and quick to occur while significant longevity follows a far less erratic and predictable course ideal for a brands that may expand their propositions.
What can be drawn from these observations?
Young designers should look to create logo-types with longevity by considering whether their selection is appropriate within the context of a growing company and diversifying brand experience, even when working on a single asset at the beginning of their career. They should be confident to select simple typefaces, chase projects with broader scope and temper their desire for peer admiration.
Experienced designers should acknowledge competent type selection skills and kerning on community websites and question young designers on the necessity for customisation. They should aim to share context with well written descriptions and ask others to expand on theirs alongside the critiquing of artistic merit.
All designers should endeavour to learn more about the origins, histories and philosophies that underpin their typeface choices and how well these resonate with the identity project they are working on. These can often reveal the long-term suitability of such a choice and avoid spending too much time on the fixes needed to make cheap character fonts appear well resolved.
Ultimately typefaces like Lobster command attention, they are inflexible and specific in their tone of voice, limited in their suitability and should be used with caution. Helvetica continues to be an effective typeface, its saturated but still thrives within agency design because of its complimentary personality and professional sensibilities. As such it shouldn’t be discarded but considered as part of a wider brand experience, whether that begins as an isolated asset of a small logo-only project or as part of a full branding exercise.
Written by designer Richard Baird