Custom Typefaces: are they worth the hype?

21 May 2018

Nayoung Kim is a designer at brand agency Superunion with “a big heart for type design”. Here, she explores whether custom typefaces are worth the hype, and the hefty price tag.

Custom is a magic word. Everyone wants to be unique, different, special. In an increasingly homogenous globalised world, we crave exclusivity and individuality. Customisation allows for self-expression – whether it’s the clothing we drape our bodies in or the sofas we furnish our living rooms with – we want to surround ourselves with belongings which are unique and representational at the same time.

The concept of using custom brand typefaces isn’t new: they were first introduced in the tech industry about a decade ago as a way to save on the cost of licensing existing typefaces. Today though, as brands seek ever more ways to stand out among the crowd, a custom typeface has become an identity power-up in the game of “This-Is-Me-I-Am-Special.”

Even so, 2018 has been a standout year for custom brand typefaces. A raft of major brands have released their own; from Chobani’s chunky serif to Netflix’s compact sans. YouTube, Lyft and Airbnb have each launched their own custom typeface to much discussion from the global graphic design community. But with big name type foundries charging upwards of $100,000 for a full-featured typeface with only temporary exclusivity, are they worth the money spent?

There are myriad considerations when creating custom typefaces that billions of people all around the world will interact with on a daily basis. Personality is definitely one of the key ingredients. A custom typeface can communicate who they are as a brand in literally everything they say. It is probably one of the most efficient and important tools for incorporating brand personalities in any medium in any size. NG Grotesque for Nasty Gal designed by Colophon Foundry is an amazing example. The brand’s unapologetic, gutsy, and playful personality comes through the typeface’s geometric, bold shapes and unconventional punctuations. Imagine seeing that special exclamation point with an x on a billboard ad in the street – you’d have to pause and wonder what that brand is.

It’s not just about appearance though. It never is. Type is there for a clear purpose: to deliver a message. So, it’s equally important to see what devices the message lives on. For a company like Google, that billions of people interact with on all different kinds of devices daily, it gets more complicated to design a custom brand typeface because you have to make sure the type works well across everything. It’s like cooking one perfect dish that’ll satisfy your 80-year-old grandma, vegan friends and teenage boys. In that sense, Google’s Roboto designed back in 2011 by an in-house design team does its job well especially under the Android open source environment, where it has to be flexible enough to adapt to hundreds of screens at thousands of resolutions.

Just to add more complexity, maintaining a consistent look and feel when extending a custom brand typeface into several different languages is another challenge especially for brands with offices and customers that span the globe. Nokia Pure for Nokia designed by Dalton Maag is one of the best-in-class examples in the world of multi-script typefaces; nineteen script systems in total. An incredible amount of research was put into the project, allowing languages based on very different script system to appear to have common similarities in style and a cohesive feel.

While they’re a huge financial outlay, costing brands up to $100,000 every year on licensing or even bigger one-time upfront payment for no contractual limits, they are a worthwhile investment. Done right, custom typefaces allow a brand to express themselves in everything they do. In the long term though, there are savings. Like owning your home rather than paying rent. It’s worth the upfront commitment.


YouTube Sans


Airbnb Cereal

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Nayoung Kim

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