All trousers, no legs

In recent years we see more and more discussion about branding projects revolve around the typefaces in the new identity. However, in many cases the typeface designers are the last link in a chain that includes a client with a poorly defined idea of what they need, and agencies with only a superficial understanding of typography and typeface design. Unless the right relationships exist between client, agencies, and typeface designers, it is very difficult for feedback about the design brief to reach the right people at the right time. And yet, the brief is the most important element in the design process: an unfocused brief increases dramatically the risk that money and effort will be badly spent, and pretty much ensures that the client will not be able to determine why their big rebrand was a flop after all.

I don’t usually comment publicly on typefaces for brands, but the new Google logo struck me as a particularly unfortunate piece of design, not least because of the claims of functionality-driven design, so my apologies in advance to any friends and colleagues who were involved in this.

Over the last fifteen years Google established a brand based on a modulated type style with several quirks in letterform details (a low bar on the G, a script-like g, a double serif on the top of the l, an inclined bar in the e). The overall weight was on the light side, amplified by the incised terminals of the strokes — but the style was distinctive and plausibly evolved from the early versions of the identity. The quirky modulated style had also the benefit of disassociating the logo from any connotations of child-like lettering that the primary colours might suggest. The logo could use some beefing up of strokes and a revision of details, possibly with careful amplifying of some of the quirks: fewer stronger ones, rather than lots of little ones. (That lower-case g in particular had considerable potential.)

That the logo went from a flawed but characterful modulated style all the way to a geometric sans suggests that the branding agency had neither good ideas, nor typographic expertise. It abandoned almost completely the established identity without exploring the potential for some formal continuity, going for a style that loses all but the most crude formal qualities for differentiation. The exception of the inclined bar of the e is telling: within a geometric monoline style, it is only big features like this that can carry over from the previous version. But, whereas in the older logo the inclined bar was part of a set of deviations from a genre, in the new logo it is an obvious exception, trying too hard not to look like Futura. This is a problem for all geometric sans typefaces: once you reduce modulation to optical compensations and structure strokes on geometric primaries, there is just too little room for any distinctiveness and identity.

The argument that “it works better on more kinds of screens” might have had some weight a few years ago, but not today, when even cheaper phones have not-terrible resolutions. But let’s assume that I’m wrong in this, and the rate at which resolution densities rise is low enough to matter in the timescale of this rebrand. In that case, is a geometric sans the best option for ensuring distinctive, legible shapes? I would argue that forms with a more square structure, with some modulation, have met that brief very well already.

Examples? Gerard Unger’s Demos, Bigelow & Holmes’ Lucida, and Petr van Blokland’s Proforma were all designed for severely constrained rendering environments. Proforma in particular is a masterful example of economical design that not only survives low-resolution rendering, but also maintains a distinctive identity in high resolution output as well.

Typefaces for phototypesetting like José Mendoza y Almeida’s Photina exemplify a genre that treated inconsistent rendering with sensitivity and insight. And, since Google is all about text, why not look at typefaces for really intensive text use: Ladislas Mandel’s Galfra, or ITC Mendoza? The complex curves of these typefaces combine superior functional performance with a visual language that is both distinctive and rich in its capacity for expansion.

Google is right to rebrand: they are marking a period of maturity for the company, an embrace of the wider range of modes that people interact with its services, and a promise of expansion into new areas of activity. But by which criteria is reheated European modernism from the 1920s a good answer to this brief? Are there no shapes other than the most obvious geometric cliches to support a rich visual language and a compelling narrative? In 2015, I cannot imagine that monoline circles are the ultimate representation of pervasive, transformative innovation.