Recently, I went to Twitter with a thought,

Free typography has its place but I’m not sure professional identity design is where it lives.

Zach McNair gave a valuable response and argued that tools are not the key to design—any tool can create excellent work: a broom can be a paint brush, a child’s crayon can create beautiful lettering, etc. Saul Bass, Paul Rand, and Massimo Vignelli created their greatest work without the aid of tools we have today: 27" retina iMacs and Adobe Illustrator. Free fonts are openly accessible—but are they precisely appropriate?

Fonts can be considered tool but this is not analogous to corporate identity and branded typography.

For the US Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale, Pentagram Partner, Natasha Jen designed an entire visual identity system using only Arial and Times New Roman. The key of the identity is office culture: Arial and Times New Roman shine in this context. What an excellent solution! (See Pentagram’s blog post and case study; Wired also wrote about it.)


However, I wouldn’t be honoring my thoughts if I didn’t propound and qualify my initial statement further.

Variation of Sameness

In brief, identity design is about distinction and differentiation: setting you, your company, your brand, your products, and your services apart from the competition.

The essence of strategy is choosing to perform activities differently than rivals do.  —Michael Porter

Professionally, I have concerns seeing the likes of Brandon Grotesque proposed as a “thoughtful” logotype paired with Gotham for body copy. Better yet, Proxima Nova. Trends are now pushing towards CircularBrownHaptik, or WalsheimAperçu seems to have come and gone out of style quickly.

Each type family listed is well-designed and worth the purchase. The fonts, designers, and foundries are all excellent — hence the popularity! The point isn’t the letter construction or quality. It’s the ubiquity. (Take a look at TypeWolf’s notes on popular fonts by year and all-time and follow up post about less popular alternatives.) It’s easy as an entry level designer to select something safe and familiar: “Just use with Gotham—the go-to, default corporate typeface”.

To take this a step further, we all know Google offers fonts at no charge to use for desktop and web purposes: Open Sans, Lato, Source Sans… again, ubiquity. These fonts are everywhere. Google publicly notes the usage of fonts online. Open Sans is used on nearly 20 million websites, accessed nearly 30 billion times.

As of the week of February 20, 2017

As of the week of February 20, 2017

How can a “unique” visual brand stand out with the same typography as everyone else?

I don’t want to say every brand should have a custom font made. That’s not rational or wise. Or even possible. I’d presume a lot of those are web templates, blogs, or sites that don’t carry a strong brand name or much of an identity at all.

But this does bring value to the forefront. A strong identity brings value to a company. A strong identity should—must—include a strong typographic selection that directly affirms a brand’s mission. Does Open Sans reinforce the brand’s goals and aspirations?

Sameness, Less Variation

As an aside, see technology companies like Asana, Dropbox, Google, Lenovo, Logitech, and Pandora have all gone to geometric sans serif logotypes. Most are using a geometric sans for primary typography to pair with the logo.