Parting the sea of sans-serification

It’s estimated that a new word is created every 98 minutes, and around 1000 are added to the dictionary every year – don’t worry, this is a design blog – so let’s talk about our favourite new word, sans-serification.

Considering it sounds a bit like a surgical procedure, and in some respects it is, it’s no wonder it’s a topic of serious discussion and debate in the design world. We’re no surgeons, but we take our work seriously and when it comes to brand updates, there’s a lot to consider. You’ve built your business from the ground up, created solid core values to operate on, formed strong relationships with clients and industry experts, and just bagged Alan Titchmarsh as the face of your new gardening range. So, when the time comes around that your brand is feeling a little dated, and that time will come, the real question is how do you modernise and stay up-to-date without compromising or misrepresenting your hard-earned reputation and visual character?

Re-brand or Re-bland?

It seems that recently a lot of brands have taken a very similar approach to this conundrum – enter ‘sans-serification’. In its simplest form, for better or worse, sans-serification is the process of taking a brand, and creating a clean, simple logotype from a sans-serif typeface. Somewhere in that process, the idea either A) works, maintains the brand values and character, creates a design that is effective in both print and on screen, and refreshes an outdated identity. Or B) fails miserably and falls into a bag of template-looking designs downloaded from the internet for the cost of a coffee.

Although we listed it as option B, let’s start with the failures so that we can end on a positive note. The fashion world is an industry in particular which has been swept into the sea of sans-serification recently. Unfortunately, more often than not, it’s been met with an onslaught of criticism, arguing that they’ve lost their heritage and what made them unique in the first place. And we must admit, we’d have to agree. Take a look at this collection of famous fashion figures and how they’ve rebranded in the recent past.

Row 1: Old Burberry logo Vs New Burberry logo
Row 2: Old Yves Saint Laurent Logo Vs New Yves Saint Laurent logo

There’s a huge difference between updating an existing brand and completely changing it. There are, of course, positives and negatives to both approaches, but in the case of these examples, it’s easy to pick a side. One of the highlights of being in the creative industry is (you guessed it) the freedom to be creative; to make things unique, that tell a story and inspire. Picture a fancy cobble-stoned street in Italy, lined with expensive cars and boutique hotels, and these two fashion stores side by side. It’s hard to spot anything (brand-wise) that tells any of them apart; that hints at why they are successful and what they stand for, and that could have any influence on deciding which store you would choose to go in first. We hate to see it as designers, because it both fails its primary purpose, but also creates a misunderstanding of how smart and effective sans-serif logotypes can be. So, on a lighter note, let’s talk about some sans-serification that we love.

Below: Old MailChimp Logo Vs New MailChimp logo

Sans-serification inspiration

If you’re looking for a ‘how-to’ guide or something to pin to your Sans-serification Pinterest board, take a look at the likes of Yahoo and Mailchimp. Ok, admittedly Mailchimp has a supporting logo mark that adds that something extra, but even if you were to take it away, the result still has character. Typography is diverse and versatile, and one of the key problems with the fashion examples above was their choice of typeface and lack of personality. Take Mailchimp, for example, it uses a similar concept, but opts for a font that enables the quirky, weird and loveable characteristics that their business was built on in the first place to still shine through. There’s a sense of movement in it and an element of fun that makes it approachable. It’s been updated, refreshed and ready for the modern world, but it never lost its personality. And yeah, the monkey is pretty cool too.

Below: Old Yahoo Logo Vs New Yahoo logo

More recently, Michael Bierut and friends redesigned the Yahoo brand – a brand that quite frankly, we didn’t even realise still existed. Yahoo is, to Google, a bit like Robin is to Batman. More often than not, sans-serification is cast as the villain, but we actually think it’s more of a hero here. In its essence, it’s simple and clean, just like the flawed fashion examples, but there’s a deeper level of consideration here. Even something as simple as the angle of the exclamation point matching that of the Y and creating a nice level of balance and symmetry somehow feels more satisfying. However, you’ll really see the consideration with this logo when you take a look at its versatility, and how it can be shortened to just the Y and the exclamation point, which in turn becomes the icon for different outlets. It’s these types of elements that can transform a simple idea into a clever and thoughtful one and, in turn, utilise sans-serification successfully.

Below: New Yahoo brand elements

Comic(al) Sans

We love sans serif typefaces. They’re clean and simple, easy to read and can be used for a whole manner of purposes. They work great on screen and in print, in large and small, and are forever growing in popularity. However, if you’re fearing for your brand’s visual future, it’s worth remembering your past, and letting it influence your rebrand. Imagine your brand sandwiched between Saint Laurent and Burberry on that old Italian street, and find a way to make your brand engaging enough that it stands out and gets people through your door first. Consider how it could work in different situations, at different sizes and what messages it should convey.

Follow these steps, and hopefully you’ll be left with something that stands proud on your materials, rather than something laughed about in some design studio buried away in the Kent countryside.