• My basket
  • Your Shopping Basket is empty.

Total — £ (ex. VAT)

Beyond the sans serif: how type can move on from ‘blanding’

Sans serifs have spent years reigning supreme over the world of branding. How did this happen, and are we ready for change?

Image from 'Beyond Sans Serif with I love Typography' event at D&AD

For several years now, graphic designers have been hung up on a viral graphic showing fashion brands’ gradual but inexorable march into the land of sans serifs. The chart displays the historic logos of the likes of Balenciaga, Balmain and Berluti, and their more recent logo updates — all of which are geometric sans serifs that remove the distinctiveness of these labels’ previous marks. 

This so-called ‘blanding’ has been a topic of discussion for some time now, as businesses in all sectors lean into minimalism. “There’s a lot of [visual] variation at startup stage, but more recently they’ve been homogenised into a very similar look,” says Nadine Chahine, owner of foundry ArabicType and CEO of I Love Typography.

What’s wrong with ‘blanding’?

Speaking at a discussion panel hosted at D&AD’s London office, Chahine suggested that the trend towards this kind of simplification can be risky. “If a common chapter in all brands’ stories is that they start to look the same, then we’re losing something as designers and as a community,” she explained. “Some of these brands are very old and are part of the heritage of a country. That heritage is important because it tells the story of how these brands came to be and what they represented.”

While Chahine emphasised that there’s nothing inherently wrong with sans serifs, she had a cheeky metaphor for the way they’ve come to dominate the branding world — comparing it to only ever eating vanilla ice cream, or only ever having sex in one position. “It’s still good, but if that’s the only thing you’ll ever do, it feels like you’ve lost something,” she added.

How did we get here?

Shaun Loftman, Executive Creative Director at Landor & Fitch, has witnessed the move from “crafted marks or crafted typography to sanitised versions” firsthand, and believes it’s happened for a number of reasons. “Speed of working has had a huge impact on this,” he said at the event. “There’s the speed of working directive coming from us, or from the client who wants to do everything faster. Do we just have less love and attention for all these things, which means efficiency is impacted? Digitisation of the industry and technology has also meant that some of these lovely crafted marks you saw are not as efficient and don’t perform as well in digital form.”

From the point of view of Astrid Stavro, Vice President Creative Director at Collins, technology has played a significant role. She pointed out that many original fashion logos were created in a time of great craft, when visual elements were painstakingly made by hand. That inherent imperfection doesn’t necessarily work in today’s highly technological society with its reliance on digital platforms, according to Stavro. She also believes the trend cycle is a critical factor. “As Oscar Wilde famously said, fashion is what goes out of fashion,” she explained. “But in stripping [brand elements] of the things that make them unique, we’re stripping them of their soul and heart.”

It’s possible that type trends are, beyond the design world, also a reflection of the times we’re living in. Sarah Hyndman, founder of Type Tasting and another member of the panel, suggested that they speak to what’s happening in wide culture. “You can start thinking about how they narrate cultural attitudes, and how they document social changes that are happening,” she explained. “Sans serifs really became aspirational.”

Image from 'Beyond Sans Serif with I love Typography' event at D&AD

Sans serifs aren’t going anywhere

Sans serifs have taken the brunt of the criticism when it comes to conversations around ‘blanding', but they’re hardly a new trend. As Paul Barnes, co-founder of Commercial Type, pointed out, they’ve been around since the 1800s, and are more nuanced than they’re often given credit for. 

“There’s grotesques, neo-grotesques and geometrics, and lots of other types of sans serifs,” he said. “There’s flared sans, like Optima. But I definitely think it is an expression of the age. I think it’s partly because, when we get down to it, it’s a simple letter, and for graphic designers and clients it has some expressionist simplicity. But it’s a type style and you can manipulate it to make condensed sans serifs and expanded sans serifs.

“Going back to Nadine’s comment about vanilla ice cream — you can also have vanilla with things in it, like chocolate chips. People like sans serifs, and they are our best sellers — we can’t deny it. It’s something you can use every day. You can use it for everything, it’s like blue jeans. So I don’t have a problem with too much sans serif. I think it’s sometimes the kinds of sans serifs, and there’s definitely a lot of neo-grotesques.”

We can’t just blame the client

It’s tempting to think clients are waltzing into design studios and demanding geometric sans serifs, but Stavro emphasised that type decisions are generally part of much deeper strategic thinking. Even so, Loftman suggested that designers could do more to encourage clients to think differently. 

“I think if designers fall in line, and become a bit lazy and default, clients will also follow their lead,” he said. “Maybe typography, in some places, has become the poorer cousin or the ugly sibling of the main set of assets, which is unfortunate. Maybe it’s just become complicated for some people. In that equation of the holy trinity, which is client, designer and foundry, I would say we can do more as designers to promote, and agitate the conversation around typography.”

It’s possible that fostering closer relationships between designer and foundry could also support clients in being braver with their branding. “Foundries on their side are coming up with complex licensing scenarios, and maybe they need to have a complex conversation earlier in the process,” added Chahine. 

Image from 'Beyond Sans Serif with I love Typography' event at D&AD

Change is coming

Although minimalism isn’t going anywhere, there are signs that brands are ready to explore more distinctive, and heritage-led approaches to design — some of which is driven by a need to appear more human. Chobani’s 2018, Pencil-winning rebrand with its soft-serve serif, as well as the recent serified Burberry brand update, are just two harbingers of change. “I think people want something that is a bit softer, and a bit more playful,” said Barnes. “People want something that makes them stand out from the sans serif.”

Loftman believes the change is part of bigger conversations about type, with clients becoming more open to conversations around bespoke typefaces, and more understanding of the time and cost of making custom type. “Someone will wake up one day and realise we all look the same,” he said. “Especially if it’s the right company, in the right segment or section of the brandscape — it’ll make a massive ripple. For instance if Coca-Cola or Apple does that sort of shift, they will become the new standard-bearers.”

For Hyndman, we’re “talking about a trend in its last days”. “I asked my friend’s 15-year-old daughter if she found the current fashion logos aspirational, and she said, ‘No, they’re too blocky and bland.’ But the brands bringing back their old heritage logos? She was like, ‘Yeah we love nostalgia’, and it’s that idea of nostalgia for a time you didn’t actually live through.”

“It’s a really exciting time for type right now,” she added. “There are so many different options, we know so much more about it, have more access to it, and have brilliant type designers.”

This was a free event hosted by D&AD. Stay updated on future free events here, and join us in London at D&AD Festival where we’ll gather today’s most accomplished creative professionals from around the world with the movers and shakers of tomorrow here.

We have placed cookies on your computer to help make this website better.
You can change your cookie settings at any time. Otherwise, we'll assume you're OK to continue.

Don't show this message again