October 8, 2019
Based on recent engagements with some clients, this article examines a debate we’ve encountered in great firms trying to decide between serif and san serif fonts for their new logos—each in the context of broader rebranding projects. Before we dive deeper on logo typography, let’s start at the top.
A brand is a unique identity based on a promise of value different from others.
Brand makeovers, undertaken for many reasons, are primarily about finding a differentiating promise of value and bringing it to life in an impressive new package. They often include a new logo as the cornerstone. While logos are important in rebranding projects, too often we observe companies focusing as much or more on the logo than they do articulating a unique promise of value. More on that later.
Why logos matter?
The development of corporate identities is solidly rooted in the history of our cultures. In fact, the development of logos—the modern equivalent of heraldry—parallels the rise of capitalism. Throughout time, no one has doubted the power of the image. Before humans could read, they could understand symbols, learning to love them or fear them, hate them or laugh at them. On that foundation, that basic activity of memory, rests the tradition of the corporate logo. Logo has come to mean the graphic associated with a company, product or service.
Why logos are so personal to clients and why they labor over them?
Amid countless engagements over 35 years, we’ve learned that clients view logos as lasting, even as brand messages and the strategies behind them may evolve. Complicating choices, every internal decision maker and opinion holder carries the logo in their wallet on a business card. So choice becomes personal; everyone is an expert. That may be why we see such an intense focus on choosing the right logo elements—including the mark, color, formation and typography. With regard to typography, we’ve been part, recently, of healthy and raucous debates among client leadership teams about serif vs. sans serif fonts. So we are focusing on that aspect of logo choice here.
Serif or Sans? What does a typeface say about your firm?
Let’s start with two well known business-to-business brands, Deloitte and JP Morgan. Each was on display and on prime time TV—nearly side-by-side—at the US Open in NYC late this summer. Each is at the pinnacle of their category, respectively, in professional and financial services. You may even see each side by side as sponsors of a global business forum like the one at Davos. Deloitte is a sans serif font. J.P. Morgan is a serif face. From Wikipedia, you get the formal definition of what your eyes tell you:
“In typography, a serif is a small line or stroke regularly attached to the end of a larger stroke in a letter or symbol within a particular font or family of fonts. A typeface or ‘font family’ making use of serifs is called a serif typeface (or serifed typeface), and a typeface that does not include them is a sans-serif one. Some typography sources refer to sans-serif typefaces as ‘grotesque’ (in German,‘grotesk’) or ‘Gothic’, and serif typefaces as ‘roman’.”
As we said above, in a handful of recent logo (and broader brand) projects, we’ve had client leadership teams split between the serif and sans serif approach. Typically, the split falls along generational lines. The older generation likes the “more traditional” (serif) and the newer generation likes the “more contemporary" (sans serif). The split, we learned, is not limited to these clients. As one benchmark, we looked up the logo fonts of the largest 100 global law firms. 60% use sans serif like Baker McKenzie (below). 39% use a serif, like Jones Day. One firm, Haynes Boone, the 1% in our population, has a logo that uses sans and serif—one applied to each of its two surnames. Talk about splitting the difference.
What’s the right type for your firm?
There is no rhyme or grand strategic reason for choosing one broad typeface family over another. Typically, the choices come down to comfort and comfort links to culture.
Put another way, brand is reputation and reputation is behavior. If you are a more buttoned up place you probably dress the part.
The bottom line is that a brand consultant or design firm can not choose the best fitting type face for you; they have to do it with you. This process includes facilitating lively, spirited debates among the people who represent your brand. The only wrong decision is one that is made in a vacuum.
We advise clients to choose what looks great in a logo, is legible, fits your strategic brand positioning, and also fits your comfort zone. Again, type face is only a piece of the puzzle, you are also responsible for choosing upper, lower or mixed case; the right color palette; a mark (if appropriate) and how the pieces fit together in a stylish whole. Speaking of style, we told several clients facing the traditional versus contemporary conundrum to think of Audrey Hepburn. Her “best dressed” style is from another era, but it would undoubtedly earn raving fans today.
Don’t lose site of the bigger picture
From the top, a brand is a unique identity based on a promise of value different from others. Our parting advice is don’t get so caught up in your font choice debate that you walk past the harder part of addressing what makes you unique. Bear down on your differentiating promise of value and brand story. This is no easy task. But that is the subject of another article.
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