A favourite Type?

16th February 2018

Typefaces, or fonts, are an often over looked part of the design process. They are, however, a key element of design – try to imagine how different some brands would look with a different choice of typeface. Take something as simple as the BBC logo. A clear, simple design, the lettering is set in Gill Sans.

Gill Sans is one of the iconic fonts of 20th century. Designed by Eric Gill, a noted – and latterly very controversial – artist, it was actually based upon Edward Johnson’s Underground Alphabet, designed for the London Underground and to which Gill had contributed. Gill’s typeface became the standard face for LNER and then British Railways. It’s still a popular choice today. Now imagine that the equally iconic BBC logo was set in Times New Roman instead.

Of all the typefaces in common usage today, Microsoft’s decision to make Times New Roman the default face in Word for many years has made it one of the most recognisable and widely used. For that reason alone it’s often looked down upon, considered by many an unimaginative choice, if a choice at all. That, however, is to overlook its charms. While not a flashy design, its utility makes it worth considering for large sections of body text. It is probably the quintessential serif font for a great many people.

Originally designed in 1932 for the Times newspaper – and used for the next 40 or so years – it was based upon an older-style typeface called Plantin (font-fans might like to note that Plantin was used in the previous incarnation of the ESPC logo). Designed for legibility in newsprint, it’s still a good choice if you have extended sections of text to set. Serif typefaces have long been considered easier and quicker to read than sans serif ones and for that reason are traditionally used for long sections of text (for the uninitiated, serifs are the little hooks and tails on letters, which are absent on sans serifs). Conversely, sans serif fonts have traditionally been used for headings and display text. Consequently, house styles for branding will often feature a typeface from each style for this reason.

Although serif fonts such as Times New Roman are often dismissed as ‘old fashioned’ – and Google’s decision to switch to a sans serif font on its logo is indicative of this general opinion – trends in design, as with many other things, tend to be cyclical. It’s also worth noting that many popular sans serif designs such as Gill Sans and Futura date from the early part of the last century, so are not exactly all that modern themselves. Indeed, even Helvetica, possibly the most popular of all modern typefaces, takes its inspiration from Akzidenz-Grotesk, which originates in the late 19th century.

Using a serif typeface does bring different connotations to a design than a sans serif would. A recent survey claimed that Time New Roman was the considered the most trustworthy typeface in the UK, so one might expect it to be used in legal documents and the like (it’s often specified as the preferred typeface for university essay submissions). That doesn’t make it an automatic choice for all occasions, though. Back to the original question of how the BBC logo would look rendered in Times rather than Gill, here’s a quick comparison.

It’s fair to say that when it’s set in Times it just looks wrong. While the logo has evolved over the years, the key to its success is that it is instantly recognisable, and such a subtle change as altering the typeface can change its appearance and intonation completely.

Context is vitally important when thinking about such things, though, and a serif face could still make an excellent choice for a logo. There are myriad choices options available in the world of typography and while certain ones are more popular (and not without good reason) distinctive design shouldn’t necessarily follow the crowd and being distinctive often requires one to be bold, so don’t write off the old serifs just yet.

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