When Robbie Kowalski asked me out in the fourth grade, even at nine, I knew in my heart of hearts that it could never, ever work. The note he used—which he had painstakingly two-finger typed and printed in the school computer lab—read something along the lines of, “I like like you, will you be my girlfriend?” Charming enough, but he had a bowl cut, and wasn’t very good at tetherball, and had never read a Harry Potter book. Plus, I towered over him by a good 12 inches—a mismatched couple if there ever was one.
Still, the true death knell? Comic sans.
Even my fourth-grade self knew this was no unfortunate default-font happenstance. No, I was certain this was concrete evidence of a holistic moral failing—a harbinger of my potential future as Mrs. Robbie Kowalski, dotted with anniversary dinners at the Cheesecake Factory, wine cut with Sprite, and evenings spent watching reruns of The Bachelor. By all means, this was not the life I had sown for myself. Plus, I was a Times New Roman girl; my prince charming would be bothered to spare me a serif or two.
Needless to say, Robbie and I didn’t exactly go the distance, but he did leave me with the perfect didactic anecdote to serve as blog fodder for life. The lesson? Packaging matters. As much as we might not want it to, the medium in which a message arrives can be just as important as the message itself. In the same way a bowl cut can sully an otherwise perfectly passable face, your font choice can significantly alter the way your message is received.
So what constitutes a good font?
“The basics of a successful font,” says Amanda Reilly, an associate creative director of design at Firewood, “are legibility, kerning, and consistency.”
“That being said,” she continues, “a good font rarely exists in a vacuum. To some extent, the success of a font choice will always depend on external factors like intended audience, and the medium in which the font is used. A good font knows its audience. A good font fits its medium.”
She breaks down three main principles:
1. Know the space
When you’re working on a branding project, the ability to define the audience—who you’re speaking to—is critical. Says Reilly, “You’re not going to use Helvetica for children.”
It’s important to carefully consider your competitors, current trends in your industry, and whether or not your intended audience abides by these trends.
The 2014 Southwest Airlines rebrand is a good example of this kind of strategic font use. Wanting to differentiate themselves in a saturated market, Southwest swapped its generic logo for one with more heart, literally. By switching their logo from all-caps Helvetica to a thicker sans serif font that includes lowercase letters and a small heart, Southwest was able to present a friendlier, more human image to travelers. The custom font and heart easily stand out among the more austere logos of their competitors, and help create a distinct brand voice.
A survey mentioned in the New York Times found that 95% of Southwest customers considered the new identity appealing, and Southwest reported an increase in revenue and bookings post rebrand. The font mattered—to the tune of a $485 million net income.
2. Tell a story
A good font should evoke a specific feeling, explains Reilly, and can even tell a story.
“There are basic practical elements to consider. Serif fonts, for example, are typically seen as traditional or reliable. Sans serif ones are more modern and clean. These basics are the building blocks of your story, and you work up from there.”
Take the Stranger Things logo. It’s effective because it immediately evokes a very specific kind of nostalgia. The red on black, the intentional retro flaws, and that particular serif font all suggest a pulpy 1980s genre. And the font in question, known as ITC Benguiat, did in fact grace the covers of many a Stephen King novel (in arguably his best era), as well as the Choose Your Own Adventure books, and even a Smiths album cover.
This font is powerful because it has that familiarity for anyone who lived through the ’80s (or, like me, has a penchant for earlier Stephen King works), and can therefore set the scene for a show that relies on ’80s nostalgia—and do so in just seconds.
3. Make it an opportunity
According to Reilly, there are a few reasons behind my innate hatred of Comic Sans.
“First,” she explains, “it’s because of the way it’s structured. It lacks even visual weight, which can make reading it unpleasant.”
But font, as we’ve learned, is both a science and an art. So the other reason, she insists, is that defaulting to a common font can oftentimes be a bit of a missed opportunity. The science of font dictates certain symmetry, consistency, and geometry. But the art of it can be where the real appeal lies.
“There’s so much you can do with font, and if you fail to factor that in to the overall story you want to tell, then you’re letting one of your biggest, most subliminal allies fall by the wayside,” says Reilly.
Font, it turns out, is inherently emotional, and whether you’re an established airline giant, an unexpectedly successful Netflix original, or even a fourth-grade Robbie Kowalski, love letter in hand—that kind of emotion can make all the difference.