December 12, 2019

When less is not more: How typefaces are swinging away from peak minimalist

It seems we’ve hit a point where “less is actually less,” at least with regards to typography in brands. We take a look at the re-emergence of more embellished typefaces in a market that’s likely had enough of peak minimalism.

How we got here

Eliza Brooke for Vox points out the association between minimalist design (and typefaces) with the expediency offered by lifestyle start-ups: “Rather than being descriptive of the product itself, startup minimalism indicates how that product will be purchased and delivered to the shopper: digitally, easily, inexpensively, and with a smile,” she says. “It promises no bullshit and no imposition on your busy schedule.”

It could be said that this level of approachability, which Rachel Hawley describes as “creepy cheerfulness” wasn’t just the doing of new, then-exciting start-ups but a series of factors that followed bigger shifts in technology and culture:

  • The Biggest Players Move: Visual rebrands of big companies such as Google and Facebook in the mid-2010s generated ripples that led newcomers and competitors alike to follow suit.
  • Mobile-first: Simpler fonts are often associated with designing for mobile experiences.
  • Load Times: Likewise, simpler elements mean less information to load and therefore, faster load times on devices.
  • Effort: No one’s saying that sans serif fonts are always easier to develop, but the absence of serifs, representing an entirely new set of design decisions, certainly streamlines the process a little more — especially when your competitors and the rest of the industry are doing the same.
  • Effort: It’s not just the companies that are demanding simplicity in visual language. Howard Belk explained the association customers have, in between simple messaging and the honesty of the company they’re interacting with. For this reason, branding that’s visually easy to process gives assurances to customers having difficulty making sense of a complex world.

What is Didone?

Didones are a category of typeface that emerged in the late 18th century but was not coined until the ‘50s. The name combines the surnames of famous typefounders Firmin Didot and Giambattista Bodoni. This category is characterized by:

  • Serifs: Serif typefaces have embellishments at the end of the strokes in their letters (as opposed to sans-serif typefaces like the ones used on this website). Didones have long narrow serifs.
  • Contrast: Didone has a strong contrast between thick and thin strokes.
  • Vertical weight axis: Vertical strokes tend to be thicker.
  • Modern: They were and are considered more “modern” due to their simplified and relatively unadorned appearance, especially in contrast to the Old Styles that were more defined by the hand lettering styles of scribes.

Despite its long history, Didone’s are still in use, including the eponymous typefaces Didot and Bodoni. Modern typefaces like Didones represent a more complete departure from the typefaces that resembled the handwritten tradition such as Old Style (also called humanist).

The pendulum swings back

Hawley chalks the return of Didones to several factors that accompany the transition away from Peak Minimalism:

  • Luxury: the re-introduction of embellishments with Didones adds a sense of luxury and sophistication to the brand that’s being promoted with the typeface.
  • Startups and Youth: Hawley notes the emergence of Didones for new companies and start-ups marketed toward millennials such as wine club Winc.
  • Gender: Similarly, Didones have been appearing in the logos of brands marketed towards women including clothing retailer Modcloth and Flesh, a shade-inclusive makeup brand.

As the shift in the opposite direction continues, we think it’s likely more brands will return to reflecting their brand, what they’re selling and the audiences they’re targeting in their choice of typefaces (being more specific).

The Takeaway

While this analysis only looks at Didones, only one category of typeface, we’ve noticed other brands seek to visually design themselves with typefaces that buck the stripped-down minimalist trend we saw at the beginning of the decade until now.

This could mean keeping the same minimalist typeface albeit with bolder, louder fonts, drawing from the past with typeface families that are time-tested or doing something completely different with custom typefaces or hand-drawn branding.

Unsurprisingly, when a given “look” or style becomes so popular that the market becomes saturated to the point it becomes the new normal, it becomes that much more important for a brand to stand out and for a more refreshing human touch to come back to the visual language. As Hawley puts it:

“Within the broader minimalist framework, however, ornate flourishes such as that of the Didones sate their viewers’ need for a reprieve from the visual austerity of the past decade, and the political austerity for which it has served as the default style. Sitting on the train, I found myself captivated by an advertisement for mattresses I can’t afford, of all things, simply because its typography injected a moment of beauty into a day spent being bombarded by advertisements that, with rare exceptions, look more or less the same.”

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