Insights

Why are Big Tech Companies Designing their Own Typefaces?

Blog / 25 Sep 2018

Tags: Brand Identity / Typefaces / User Experience

Whether you know it or not, quite a few of the big technology companies out there are designing their own typefaces. Google, Airbnb, Netflix and Apple are just a couple of well-known names that have invested in their very own typeface, giving them a unique identity to serve their brand.

This seems to have become a trend for the big guys, but why are they doing it? Is it necessary to design your own typeface? Is it simply because they have the spare cash floating around to do so? Does it mean that if you have the money, you should be designing your own typeface? Are the differences between standard and bespoke fonts worth the millions spent?

So, the main question is why are they doing it? We can split our responses to this question into two – firstly for brand and advertising purposes and secondly for usability.

Let’s take a look at this topic from a brand and advertising point of view.

Recognition

It is very important for consumers to recognise brands in seconds, so if a company is defined by the typeface they use, they immediately achieve the desired recognition from the consumer. Let’s take a look at Airbnb’s billboard for example.

Air bnb bill board

Figure 1

After looking at Airbnb’s advert, a passer-by does not have to look at the text for long or interact with the advert at all to know straight away who the company is. The logo and brand’s colour scheme will contribute to this, but their bespoke designed typeface dominates the billboard. The consumer may not remember the company in the short term, as they always only glance at their adverts quickly, but they will keep the essence of the brand in their minds for the long term.

Identity

Another reason why these big companies are designing their own typefaces is so that their identity is obvious and defined. Using a popular typeface, such as Futura, can make a brand’s identity a bit “blurry”. ASOS uses Futura alongside many other companies. Because Futura isn’t a specifically designed typeface for ASOS, their brand lacks the immediate strength of identity that Apple or Netflix have.

Atlantic Records

Figure 2 - atlanticrecords.com

Figure 3 - asos.com

Although Atlantic Records (Figure 2) is not a clothing website, it is easy at a glance to see the similarities to ASOS. We know that every element adds to why these two screenshots look the same (such as black borders on the CTAs and a grey/white background) but mostly, it’s the Futura typeface that makes them look so similar. Funnily enough, Supreme clothing use Futura for their logo, but still manage to have a strong brand identity. This may be because of the unique and quirky layout on their website. Ableton create their own identity by using Futura in a colourful manner and have turned it into “their own” by using bright colours and uneven grid boxing, however their identity would be much stronger with a bespoke typeface.

Figure 4 - supremenewyork.com/previews/fallwinter2018/all

ableton.com

Figure 5 - ableton.com

Consistency

Maintaining and keeping to your typeface helps consumers recognise your brand. Experiences tend to be very uniform and follow a repetitive path, so the more you use a product, the more you’ll recognise the typeface. The stronger and more obvious the message or typeface is, the stronger the brand will be. For example, the more you use your iPhone or your Apple devices, the more you’ll get accustomed to and recognise their bespoke typeface, San Francisco.

Behind the mac

Figure 6

This leads us nicely into our next section of discussion which is Usability. Apple’s San Francisco typeface was created essentially for usability purposes.

Now let’s move onto Usability and changing with the times.

Helvetica, the typeface Apple used before San Francisco, was designed in 1957 much before text was being used digitally. Typefaces like this were designed for print, not for the screen, so they’re not ideal from a usability point of view. As we’ve seen with the tiny screen of an Apple Watch, the digital world we live in now is much more varied than when it was just print, and the typefaces we use should reflect this.

Apple watch

Figure 7

Consequently the San Francisco typeface is not just one typeface, but actually four, all designed for apple’s range of devices. San Francisco has the same look and feel from all of the individual typefaces within it creating a strong sense of brand identity. However, each individual typeface has some very specific changes which increases its usability for the device it is displayed on.

The San Francisco typeface is created from a standard typeface and a compact typeface, with each one of these parent typefaces having two child typefaces; a display typeface and a text typeface.  (Figure 8)

Typeface family tree

Figure 8

With each one of the individual typefaces slightly changing the aperture of open letters and the spacing and the overall shape to make the design of them just right for the device in which they’re being used on. (Figure 9)

negative space

Figure 9

What's even more impressive about the San Francisco typeface is that when used within an Apple device the typeface changes automatically depending on the environment in which it is used. For example, on a Mac the default is the standard San Francisco typeface and when the text size is below 20px it goes to the text version and when it's above 19px it goes to the display version. (Figure 10)

display versus text

Figure 10

This is just touching the surface of the level of design which went into the San Francisco typeface and it's not just Apple that went to this level of detail. Airbnb’s typeface cereal, is equally as impressive, but within their own brand and visual design language. (Figure 11)

Air Bnb posters

Figure 11

We need to keep up with the times and ensure our typefaces have high usability regardless of the device, screen size, or internet browser they’re being read on. Owning and controlling your own typeface allows you to change it where needed for different purposes. You can manipulate it with more finesse because you own that typeface, which comes in handy when things move even further into the future with virtual and augmented reality.

Is it worth the money?

So, is it worth spending your money and time on your own typeface? How much does it actually cost? If we look at the top tech companies previously mentioned, we’re talking about the people who have the money to spend on their design team. This doesn’t stop smaller companies working with their design team to make something work, but it’s important to remember that there is a lot of time and cost involved.

Why the big tech companies invested in their own typeface

Ultimately, big tech companies are designing their own typefaces to define their brand and improve the usability of their products. This is because lots of regular typefaces do not match the design needs or their brand strategy. However, brands do have to consider time and money, as designing your own effective and impactful typeface is a long term investment.

Before deciding to design their own typefaces, they knew it wasn’t just about it looking great, but about representing the entire company, and because of this you know they really care about their brand.