A Tech Branding Expert Takes Us Behind the Scenes of Creating a Bespoke Typeface

Posted inType Tuesday

The Isle of Man is a self-governing British Crown dependency in the Irish Sea between England and Ireland. Digital Isle of Man supports the island’s tech sector and helps to develop and implement strategies that support sustainable economic growth. 

Branding agency Lantern recently helped Digital Isle of Man refresh its branding system, including creating a captivating, bespoke typeface. Because Digital Isle of Man is centered around technology and collaboration, the typeface is designed to reflect its importance. In addition, the design captures the island’s essence, especially the versatility of design pioneers who work within the metaverse by day, but are active and outdoors by night. 

I had the opportunity to speak with Mollie Kendell, Senior Designer at Lantern, to learn more about the type design process and how typography can help elevate a branding system.

What role does typography play in a branding system?

Typography can act as the glue to the different components of the branding system and bring together the meaning and voice behind the brand. If the typography choice is built on strategy and ideas, I think this is effective to then evoke the brand’s personality, celebrate its history, and bring emotion from the audience. With Digital Isle of Man, we wanted to speak directly to tech founders to attract new businesses on the island. This meant creating a typeface that could make up the branding system to reflect the tech community.

Our work has a big focus on tone of voice and messaging to really connect with audiences. A typeface with real character, personality, and style can help create impact and be memorable. [It’s helpful] seeing how a typeface stands without the logo and whether this reflects the place or branding system.

How can typography alone showcase a brand’s ethos?

By bringing in aspects of the personality, references of the brand’s history, and what they stand for. With Digital Isle of Man, we wanted to design a typeface that is inspired by the concepts of technology or collaboration. Twists were made on characters to bring back to their ethos, such as the ‘L’ and ‘P’ to show networking and connections, while a glitch effect on letters such as the ‘H’ and ‘J’ provide a distinctly digital feel. The typography brought a voice and intentions behind the headlines such as ‘Thinking IOT. Think IOM.’

You created an entire bespoke typeface, Open Mind Display, for your work for The Isle of Open Minds. How long did it take to make?

This took around a month, from initial drawings in the studio to automating and testing out the best algorithm when in use. We designed about 40 custom characters, including a full alphabet, alternative characters for vowels and numbers. Each character was created to reflect technology or collaboration within the tech sector. We explored different ways each character could come together and be formed, whether that was through UI symbols, such as the refresh symbol in the “G”, or the “L” that showed the collaboration on the island, or the “J” and “D” that showed a pixel effect.

What was the most difficult part of creating the typeface?

As this was an open typeface with custom characters, we had to make sure the typeface as a whole had the right balance between functional and playful. When designing the typeface, we went through lots of iterations of characters, testing them in headlines and seeing how they look as a whole. This was a trial and error process of finding what worked and what felt too forced or detailed once in use. We found the more simple characters had the most impact when in use.

Finding this balance was also something we had to tackle when developing the typeface itself. Open Mind Display adapts to custom characters at random, yet carefully spaced intervals, substituting a standard base font with custom alternatives.

It was then a technical challenge getting this to work; we had to ensure the randomized Open Type features are usable on software ranging from Indesign to Powerpoint, [which] meant significant testing and refinement in the font development process.

What was the most rewarding part of creating the typeface?

Open Mind Display adapts and responds automatically, resulting in unique and flexible headlines as well as easy implementation. We worked with type expert Lewis Macdonald to help create the best algorithm of special characters, that automatically swaps out alternative vowels where they have already been used. This results in having each headline that is never quite the same, with different automations of special characters and combinations… a typeface that is bespoke to the user, and freedom to explore different variations.

How do place brands utilize typography in their branding systems efficiently?

I think there are great cases of place brands using typography to lift and celebrate aspects of the place, whether that’s the landscape or history that makes the location special.

Derwent Valley by For the People designed a fluid typeface with sinuous ink traps meant to echo the twists and turns of the Derwent River.

Meatpacking District uses two opposing typefaces that reconciles the clash between the newer side of the neighborhood in New York City with the area’s colorful past. These examples use typography at the heart of the branding to piece up characteristics of the area together.

What’s missing in the world of typography right now?

More accessibility for designers, whether that’s clear pricing and defining a cost for a typeface, [or] having more opportunities to use trial versions of typefaces.

What is your favorite trend in typography right now? What are you sick of seeing?

It’s interesting to see the trend of using more nostalgic, human typefaces coming into branding to bring more warmth and personality. More brands are finding comfort in retro designs and authenticity, from Burger King’s brand refresh, inspired by their identities from 1969 to 1999, to a recent project by Ragged Edge branding a refresh for Monzo, which uses a friendly, rounded, and more human typeface, Oldschool Grotesk…and [ditches] the corporate typefaces.