By Meg Beckum, Executive Creative Director at Elmwood New York

Meg Beckum, Executive Creative Director at Elmwood New York

If we designers look back at the past decade of type in brand, we may all sigh a collective yawn. Sure, that geometric sans we used was a home run with those coveted Millennials. Sure, we “couldn’t go wrong” with the international appeal and utility of that neo-grotesque. But maybe that was exactly the problem. Maybe we were too scared to go wrong. To break away from the safety and comfort of our beloved go-tos. Maybe the “less is more” mantra got stuck in our heads. Let’s blame our UX partners with their well-meaning best practices. Or our programmer friends who warned: That won’t translate to digital. Hell, let’s blame Mr. Zuckerberg for propagating our addiction to this functional formula.

Whatever the cause, the uniformity of today’s brands is real. It’s ironic (maybe even downright negligent) that we branders (those hired to create difference) are responsible for this sea of sameness—these soulless typographic systems lacking texture and flavor. Isn’t it our job to dig deep, discover the heart of a brand, and craft a unique language that expresses its true identity? Then why are we ignoring the most valuable asset—typography?

There is much value to be gained in creating custom typefaces that infuse each character with meaning, personality, and, yes, character. Done right, tailor-made type allows brands to build distinctiveness into every touch. In terms of visual identity systems, typography can become an important proprietary element, especially for companies fighting off copycat competitors trying to mimic their brands, such as private labels. When built with story, craft, and expressiveness, type becomes a distinctive asset that other brands can’t easily replicate.

While building custom brand typefaces isn’t a new trend, recent developments have opened the door to greater typographic potential. New innovations in variable fonts, kinetic typography, three-dimensional type, and their application in VR and AR allow for more stylistic freedom and expression. Many of the technical limitations of the past are no longer in play, but we still have it in our heads that expressive type leads to usability challenges or that creating a custom typeface is cost prohibitive. In reality, bespoke typography is becoming more and more flexible and accessible.

Last year, we helped define the brand identity for Knotel, a flexible workspace provider that empowers enterprise companies with the freedom to flex with tailored, on-brand workspaces. Our solution visualized the workspace strategy and adaptive intelligence that fuels Knotel’s platform with design language that is alive, constantly evolving and modulating for different audiences and environments.

As part of this system, we designed Knotel Display, a typeface that shape-shifts to accommodate spaces and imagery. While the design system is highly flexible, the geometric shapes and letterforms move and scale on a grid with discipline and intention. The result is something uniquely and iconically Knotel that competitors will be hard pressed to imitate.

With the massive number of brands entering today’s market, it’s increasingly difficult to stand out. No matter how clever or seemingly original your brand identity may be, chances are another brand has landed somewhere similar. It’s no longer possible to own a brand color or symbol, so finding original ways to build meaning, texture, and expressiveness into design details is critical. Luckily, in the world of type there’s still a ton of potential waiting to be unlocked. Along with interaction and sound, custom typography is one of the final frontiers in brand design. Yes, its development requires effort, craftsmanship, and some investment. But its value to brand is exponential. So let’s ditch the blasé sans-serifs and build brands with a bit more soul.