Close to a year ago Neville Brody announced “TCCC Unity: The New Typeface for Coca-Cola.” It seemed incredible that Brody, once the maestro behind The Face and Fuse magazines and the emblematic types of the late 80s and early 90s was creating type for one of the world’s most emblematic corporations (and products). But his design has long been evolving along with his expertise as a go-to designer and I got the scoop behind the upgrade of the Coca Cola font then and am looking back on its debut now that its first anniversary year is here.
The Endless Variations of the Coca Cola Font
The typeface has been produced in a number of weights and styles to ensure a high level of flexibility and voice in application, and allows the company to control and evolve its visual language. Other influences have played a major role in the development of TCCC Unity, in particular, the Americana of the 1930s and ’50s, with its typography of speed, construction and modernity, combined with a vernacular influence.
The typeface is designed to be open, with a large x-height, and has a wide form, extended to relate this sense of Modern Americana. In terms of functionality, through the development of a text and display version, the font is designed to both operate successfully at a small text size, and to achieve personality and impact at large usage.
A typeface for a company as world renown as Coca Cola is not just any old typeface. What were you asked to achieve with this new Coca Cola font? And how’d you go about finding the best solution?
The process was highly collaborative, and the Coca-Cola Global Design team, headed by James Sommerville, primarily asked us to deliver a contemporary typeface which operated successfully across both a current and future suite of platforms, from digital to mobile and from print to product and environment.
It needed to be something that was highly scalable, from text on a mobile screen to display size on a hoarding, meaning that it had to combine a high level of legibility and function at a small size, and have enough personality and interest at a large size. This flexibility would allow the Coca-Cola company to navigate future landscapes and successfully anticipate technological shifts, and at the same time be able to build a cohesive and coherent typographic language and system across all touch-points.
It also needed to be ownable and recognizable, and be seen as authentically Coca-Cola by relating design qualities that were felt to be part of the brand and story. The company had been using a great font, but one which is now used by so many companies that it has become ubiquitous and no longer delivers the market stand-out that Coca-Cola desired. It also meant that both creative and quality control in its numerous territories was increasingly challenging. An ownable and controllable typeface with a suite of styles and weights helped counter this and delivers greater creative opportunities and integration of messaging.
The Coca-Cola company and product has become globally renowned for specific key elements—the color red, the script font, the bottle shape—but had never in over 130 years owned a proprietary font. This is the first.
Coke has such distinctive branding assets, what influenced the design of this Unity typeface?
Myself and the Brody Associates team, including senior type designer Luke Prowse together with Phil Rodgers, Chris Nott, Jack Llewellyn, Josh Saunders and Joe Dick, maintained a constant state of open communication with the Coke team in Atlanta, including many on-the-ground visits and workshops, making it a live project and increasing the opportunity for dynamism.
We immersed ourselves in the archive at Coca-Cola’s headquarters, spending days investigating thousands of heritage items in order to be able to piece together a tangible Coca-Cola typographic reference toolbox, one formed of shapes, quirks, repeated motifs and structures. We assembled these and selected the most common visual elements to form the core structure of the typeface, which we call the ‘spine’ of the font giving it its language of proportions, line weight, curve and junctions. Once fixed and agreed, we then populated this framework with a number of clear visual treatments and flair informed by our research, and shared these in workshop sessions with the team at Coca-Cola. The final space, “Unity,” was the further-refined outcome of this process.
One of the discoveries we made through interrogating the archive collection, was that the Coca-Cola history somehow reflected that of America itself. In 130 years we saw the progression from Victoriana, with its decorative swirls and local engraving-based expertise, to a kind of Modernist Americana, one of frontier-base speed seen in automobile and diner culture. In the middle period we observed an clear influence of construction and industry, somehow mixed with vernacular flair and quirk.
We made careful selections to ensure that the font was not overwhelmed with personality, but that just enough was embedded in order for it to be clearly ‘Coca-Cola’. The font itself is fairly wide, and has a large x-height. Open arcs and rounded counters deliberately bring air into the font, with flourishes and curves bringing a sense of humanism and accessibility.
People use the term “story” or “narrative” to describe corporate branding models. How does the Coca Cola font reflect or support Coke’s narrative?
The current trend of a brand being seen increasingly as a storyteller has from day one been a principle at the heart of the Coca-Cola narrative, to such a degree that it is now part of our mass unconsciousness. Globally, we recognize this brand and its attributes more than any other, and have deep cultural links with its perceived nature and story, from the iconic bottle shape and script to a red Father Christmas.
The most important thing today for a brand is not the content that it talks about, but how it talks about it. The typeface becomes a critical part of that voice and DNA, with consistency, authenticity and believability becoming paramount requirements.
You’ve come a long way from The Face to Coke. Are there fundamental or nuanced distinctions in the way you designed type then and now?
To be honest, I’ve always produced commercially-focused work alongside the more experimental work. This project interestingly straddled both of those in some way,
in that the challenge here was to understand just how far we could build personality and human quirk into a highly functional font design, a mechanism with surprise. Of course, my understanding of typography and type design has evolved since that early period, but at the heart of my approach has always been the idea that typography is part of cultural image making, and that every font carries information in a way that is emotionally coloured or influenced by its form. The receipt of all information is informed and influenced by the way in which we distribute and deliver it.
How did the Coca Cola font commission come to you? And what makes it a true Brody production?
I was asked by James Sommerville to be part of an internal design conference day put on for the design team at Coca-Cola in early 2016. The great consequence of this was that James understood more about our work in the area of type design, something we usually keep under the bonnet. James had been thinking about the need for Coca-Cola to develop its own typeface. We began a conversation. The beauty is that the teams at Brody Associates and Coca-Cola are small, agile and highly efficient, meaning that we were able to work together extremely well and make decisions quickly.
I would say it is strongly a Brody production, in that it also shares many typographic details and qualities that I have always loved. I have always veered towards early Gothic and constructed typefaces: Venus, Trade etc. It was a thrill to be able to develop this design for such a company on such a global scale.
Are you pleased?
I am. I think it solves the challenges that were set for it, and gives The Coca-Cola Company a typographic language and system that will carry it forward for years to come. It was a difficult challenge. But I believe it is robust and accessible and captures the Coca-Cola personality, and yes, I’m proud of the outcome. To be honest, having the chance to design the first global typeface for Coca-Cola is pretty amazing.
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About Steven Heller
Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →