A Very Special Type Tuesday with Branding Expert Margaret Nolan

Posted inType Tuesday

If it wasn’t already evident from my weekly Type Tuesday ramblings, I’m an absolute type nerd. Typography is one of the most important aspects of a design, as scientific studies have proven that subtle differences in fonts have a significant affect on emotional response to an image.

I recently had the unique opportunity to sit with an expert and discuss the deeper meanings of typography. Below, Denomination’s Global Creative Director Margaret Nolan talks about the crucial role font plays in design, the evolution of typographic style, and how to maintain a timeless aesthetic.

Can you explain why typography is essential to the core of a design project?

The fundamental purpose of typography is to convey information, from a brand name, through the logotype, to detailed instructions or storytelling— which really is the purpose of graphic design. It’s incredible how great typography can simplify complex information or create a personality for a brand.

Great typography for me is at the heart of every brilliant design. It’s about understanding the environment where the type is going to be read and what its purpose is. In an age of Edwardian ornateness, Edward Johnson understood this brilliantly with his simple, easy-to-read font for the London Underground. Saul Bass showed how great typography can instantly create a mood in film title sequences. Andy Warhol used his mother’s handwriting in his early advertising drawings and prints, which captured the quirky, unconventional personality he became famous for. It was the cutting edge typography by Neville Brody and Fabien Baron in The Face and Interview that gave these magazines their cult status.

Typography can instantly create a mood. Think when you are handed a genuinely hand-written menu in a restaurant, versus a typeset one— which one gives you a connection with the chef? In design projects, it’s knowing about when to shout and when to be restrained, how to complement imagery without competing, and how to create a unified, seamless whole. On wine labels, where you don’t have a lot of space, the type is always something you have to spend ages getting right, and a lot of people struggle with it. I always tell our designers if their designs look better without the type, then the type isn’t working.

How do you incorporate trending design styles into your brand work while retaining a focus on sustainability?

One thing I’m never influenced by is trending design styles, because that is kiss of death to the longevity of any label. I’m influenced by the brief: the brand, its personality and story, and what font will communicate that in the best way. In terms of sustainability, I don’t think you need to resort to overtly “sustainable-looking” typography. A lot of new packaging— imperfect recycled glass bottles, paper pulp, etc.— already gives consumers a visual cue to sustainability, so typography and design don’t have to mimic it. Sustainability is now the way of the future; brands need to adapt, but not necessarily change their personalities. It was the same when the organic movement hit: everyone was using rustic typefaces, so they all started looking the same. You don’t have to resort to cliché— it’s the message that’s important. You can play with the fonts to suit the brand.

How do you determine which typographical styles best represent your clients? How long can it take to find a perfect font? 

I think it’s a matter of understanding the brand. Is it a 200-year-old-port brand with heritage and gravitas? Is it an experimental, funky natural wine brand? You can already gauge a direction for the typography by the brand positioning.

How long to find the perfect font? You always have to keep in mind it has to work for the brand across lots of executions, i.e. how it works down small, how it reverses out of black, etc. Finding the right font is always the thing for me that takes the longest when I’m designing.

How can brands use typography to communicate their goals? 

I think this can be done in the messaging; not necessarily the choice of fonts. Important messaging on packs needs to be clear, but not fight with other key elements. This is always an art on wine labels, where space is at a premium.

Type trends are constantly changing and evolving. What are some trends you’ve noticed lately? 

Fonts with exaggerated thick and thins. They look wonderful up big in editorial, but when used on packs, they become illegible. If there’s one thing that bugs me, it’s not being able to read something— after all, that’s the whole point of typography.