By Oliver Shilling

Finding your brand’s visual voice

A strong brand relies on a level of consistency across the whole experience, with every element working in harmony. Using a typeface that sits awkwardly with the rest of the brand can be enough to undo a strong project. So how do we make the right choice?

You might be surprised to read that whenever we start getting to work on creating a brand, we think about the tone of voice before we explore the visual direction. Once we’ve developed a brand model that defines the client’s attributes, personality, source of authority and promise, we look at how the brand should sound before exploring how it should look.

This is all about clarity; many clients find it easier to understand where we’re positioning their brand when it’s described in plain English than when they’re presented with visual reference, and at this early stage, ensuring everyone’s on the same page is essential.

So we begin by creating a mission statement that captures the company’s personality and can act as a platform to begin exploring visual direction. It can be as short as a few sentences, but describing the business in a new tone of voice can act as a smooth transition between strategic positioning and visual direction, and before you know it the creative ball is rolling.

VINIV Bordeaux – A life explored, a story bottled. Sang Bleu from Swiss Typefaces

Bringing the VINIV tone of voice to life with ‘Sang Bleu’ from Swiss Typefaces.

Translating this positioning and tone of voice into a visual brand is, of course, why most clients come to us in the first place, and one of the key decisions at this stage revolves around typography. How do we find the perfect typeface for this brand? (N.B. It doesn’t always exist).

If attaching emotions and personality traits to a business seems straightforward, looking for those same traits in a typeface is a different ball game and takes a skilled eye. As Sarah Hyndman (author of the brilliant book, ‘Why Fonts Matter’) explains –

“Each of our emotions contains a whole range of feelings and these nuances can also be conveyed typographically.”

Why Fonts Matter, by Sarah Hyndman

And so the search begins in earnest. It doesn’t take much to convince a designer to spend their day looking through type specimens from the world’s best typographers, but depending on the brand’s positioning it can feel a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack. We not only have to capture the brand’s personality in each character but often have technical factors such as language, legibility, flexibility and cost to consider. You may also need to find a pair of typefaces that complement each other and have enough contrast and visual hierarchy. Can a typeface feel authentic? Charming? Spontaneous? Of course it can. Can it be all three? Trickier, but not impossible.

Sometimes we luck out. For our recent brand work for Laki Kane, we were looking for a curvy serif that referenced rum paraphernalia of the past, and when we found the Bianco family by AlfaType it felt like the perfect fit. To our eyes, Bianco Serif was a modern interpretation of the references we had gathered, while the supporting Bianco Sans allowed us to use the whole family and ensured a common design sensibility throughout logotypes, headlines, and supporting body copy.

Laki Kane – Escape, discover, and lose yourself in an authentic tropical experience. Bianco from AlfaType.

Sometimes the search is fruitless and a more bespoke solution is required. With hundreds of thousands available it might seem unlikely, but sometimes the right typeface for your brand doesn’t exist yet. For some brands, type is so integral to their identity that creating a bespoke typeface is an opportunity to create a really distinctive brand.

This year’s rebrand of The Guardian is a perfect example. With such an important relationship to the written word, they took the opportunity to create a new typeface with Commercial Type that was easier to read while retaining, as they described it, “the much-loved Guardian visual wit and style.” Many other big-name brands such as Channel Four (with Neville Brody), BBC (with Dalton Maag) and Sky (with Swiss Typefaces) are popularising this route, but it’s not impossible to add this bespoke character to your brand on a smaller budget even if it’s just in your logotype.

The rebrand of The Guardian

Some have questioned the ubiquity of geometric sans-serif typefaces in the world of digital start-up branding (think Airbnb, Pinterest, Spotify et al). But when you think about the easy-to-use, forward-thinking and digital-first products they are representing is it really surprising? Or more importantly, wrong? If similar typefaces are all it takes to dismiss thoughtful branding; a lot of us would be in trouble. In these cases, they each fit the profile of the company and serve their functional need.

Copy-led campaign for Spotify by Christopher Doyle & Co, brand by Collins

Copy-led campaign for Spotify by Christopher Doyle & Co, brand by Collins. The typeface, Circular was chosen for being “a friendly sans-serif with unmistakable character and universal appeal”.

Whichever path you take, marrying your brand’s personality and tone of voice with your typography is essential to guarantee your message garners the right emotional response from your audience and helps build a lasting and engaging relationship. Choose wisely.