The Cult of Custom Fonts

2018 is the year of technological reinvention. From the improvement of outdated models of UK outpatient care to the inclusion of new features on Facebook Messenger, companies have been focusing on refining their existing technologies in order to maximize profit. More importantly, in recent years, there has been an increasing emphasis on visual design as companies strive to provide a better consumer experience. Facebook’s new Messenger, for instance, rolled out three weeks ago with reduced visual clutter— “fewer tabs, color-gradient thread background and a rounder logo,” according to Josh Constine of TechCrunch—resulting in a more modern and streamlined appearance. However, while many design overhauls occur due to a desire for improved aesthetics, others cater to a much simpler reason: profitability.

Typography has always been fundamental to the principles of design. It is, according to Swiss typographer and graphic designer Emil Ruder, an “expression of technology, precision and good order.” This practice isn’t so overly artistic as to be ornamental; rather, it exists to be functional and good for everyday use. A font can make or break the overall appearance of a graphic display and leave a meaningful impression on the observer. For instance, audiences poked fun of the Papyrus font that formed the title of Avatar—the controversy even generated a spoof from Saturday Night Live. RMIT University researchers from Melbourne, Australia came up with Sans Forgetica, a slanted and narrow-edged typeface that, drawing upon cognitive science and psychology, is supposed to help readers retain more information. And lastly, there is Comic Sans - a 1994 sans-serif casual script, designed to imitate cartoon lettering, that has long been branded by popular culture as the universally hated font.

Recently, many companies have been creating their own custom typefaces and implementing them into their products. Apple’s default font is San Francisco, built in-house specifically to “maintain clarity and legibility” regardless of scale. In terms of other companies with custom fonts, Samsung has SamsungOne; Google boasts Roboto and Product Sans; and Microsoft uses Segoe. Netflix is latest to join these large tech giants with its own Netflix Sans, and the practice of commissioning custom fonts has been trickling down to smaller tech companies as well.

However, the main purpose of generating new fonts is to save money from the licensing fees required to use existing typography. As the Netflix design lead Noah Nathan explains, “Developing [Netflix Sans] not only created an 'ownable' and unique element for the brand's aesthetic … But saves the company millions of dollars a year as foundries move towards impression-based licensing for their typefaces in many digital advertising spaces." Though each custom font should be visually unique, companies still want much of the same keywords to describe these typographies: “friendly, modern, clean, simple, human,” as designer Arun Venkatesan describes. This results in many newly minted fonts looking stylistically familiar, opening up to the question on whether “companies wanted a custom typeface simply because that’s what everyone else is doing.”

Whether out of corporate vanity, or merely an attempt to cut production costs, custom fonts are a small design detail that tech giants such as Google, Apple, and Netflix have increasingly attempted to refine. The emphasis on typography this year is illustrative of a larger trend within the techspace: as companies seek to improve their current technologies, it’s not just the function of the product that matters anymore, but the form as well.