One of a kind

The creation of a custom typeface is an expensive, time-consuming business, but, as Jim Davies discovers, there are times when only an original will do

Commissioning a new typeface for a client is not unlike having a bespoke suit made. You know it will fit perfectly and you can be sure that no-one else out there will have anything quite like it. You can choose the fabric, the style, the cut – even have alterations made during subsequent fittings. But then there are the niggling doubts. Aren’t you being a bit extravagant? A tad showy, perhaps? After all, there’s so much good off-the-peg stuff around, you might as well get something a bit cheaper, safer, something classic which has stood the test of time. And when it comes down to it, will anyone even notice the great effort you have made to stand out?

Sure, a distinctive typeface can help to set your brand apart. That’s obvious, especially these days when it seems that Helvetica, Din or OCRB are the only acceptable options for progressive corporate clients. And we all know it’s only one way of creating a point of difference. Colour, tone of voice, illustrative style, company culture – all of these elements contribute to corporate image, and any of them can be used to communicate personality and brand values. So you don’t have to spend the time and the money getting in some obsessive typographer to prove your client’s individuality. Be fashionable. Be enigmatic. Go Swiss. Choose a typeface that says nothing about you, but gives nothing away.

But didn’t someone once say that good design was all about the details? Sure, you may be able to get a half decent Hugo Boss suit, but it’s not going to have lining in the exact shade of salmon pink that you wanted, or the extra side pocket. It may fit you OK, but occasionally you notice that it’s just pinching a bit in the shoulders.

“I’m usually brought in when the designer finds nothing to meet his requirements,” says type designer Miles Newlyn. “Often it’s a case of: ‘I want to use such and such a font, but I don’t like these particular characters’. That’s a bit of a boring brief, but it’s bread-and-butter work.”

If you have the time – and that’s the real point – it may well be worth your while investigating the creation of a brand new typeface. (Erik Spiekermann’s rule of thumb is that it takes around 100 hours, or four weeks per weight of font). It’s not as expensive as you might think. In fact, it may eventually even save you money in licensing fees for existing fonts.

The following three case studies look at recent projects where new typefaces were commissioned from scratch, as well as the reasoning behind the decision.

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