When did every brand start to look the same?

Even old, established companies are adopting a similar look—and it reveals the changing place of design in our modern world

December 18, 2018
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Look around and you’ll see it. Adverts, posters and cover art are all using the same fonts—ones that have a clean, ordered look. Logos that have existed for years without undergoing drastic changes are suddenly being tweaked to fit what is apparently now a universal house style. Messaging from disparate worlds is being delivered in the same way. Everywhere, words are starting to look a little...well, flat.

The world of tech throws up some interesting examples. Recently, four of the biggest tech companies in the world—Google, Spotify, Pinterest, AirBNB—have all changed their branding in very similar ways. Pinterest shed its italics and its fancy ligature. Spotify lost its off-set O, which doubled up as a speaker. AirBNB changed its colour from a lurid blue to a softer pink, de-bubbling itself in the process. And Google carried on what it’s been doing since its first logo launched in 1998—over time, its colours have become more muted, the letters less embossed, they’ve lost a drop-shadow. Finally, in 2015, they removed the serifs.

You’d maybe expect this from modern companies. In moving from their old quirkier logos to these plainer designs, they’re evoking a sense of legitimacy, binning the bean bags and ping pong tables of the start-up world and going to work in tall buildings.

However, this pattern has played out with heritage brands too. A recent tweet showed five major fashion brands, with well-established visual identities, abandoning them wholesale and falling in line with the new status quo.

Graphic designer and art director Gavin Day puts part of this change down to new technologies that these logos now need to appear on, and that originally logos would never have been designed for.

“The big giant subject is from analogue to digital,” he says. Brands are “moving away from grungy typography, or pencil lines, to clean, crisp digital screens, iPhone adverts and screen rendering.”

“It goes all the way back to the beginning of the twentieth century, with the move away from the Victorian, ornate, William Morris style, to be more about the future. It’s all about reusability and perfection, and less about individual quirks.”

Benefitting from this flattening out of design is Brandon Grotesque, a typeface developed by Dutch foundry HvD in 2010. It won the Certificate of Excellence from the Type Directors Club New York in 2011 and is now ubiquitous.

Maybe you’ve seen it in this advert for Costa’s festive drinks, or on the front cover of Ruby Tandoh’s books Crumb and Flavour. You could have spotted it used for huge movies posters—like the new film Beautiful Boy—and small fringe theatre shows alike. In its short existence it’s been used to sell chocolate, coffee, indie-folk, biltong, iced coffee, and art exhibitions. It is everywhere. We cannot escape it.

Perhaps within Brandon’s popularity we have a way to understand how brands are attempting to traverse the choppy waters of 21st-century commerce. One common denominator across all brands now is that the fourth wall between consumer and producer has dissolved, and every brand now has to deal with talking directly to its customers—not just staff at the front of house, but the brand itself. As a result, brands need to strike a balance between being respectable and being approachable. Every brand now has to be David Brent: friend first, boss second, and probably an entertainer third (see: banter twitter accounts). Brandon fits the bill.

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“That font is a reaction to decades-old fonts like Helvetica or Arial, which are quite cold and authoritative,” Day says. “Brandon Grotesque has a bit of fun, a bit of character. It still has rounded edges, it has weird little kinks in it. It manages the tricky task of combining authority with friendliness...”

“Very few fonts can do that convincingly.”

What Brandon’s ubiquity points to is a move away from the importance of a logo in coming to define a brand, towards a more general visual language.

Day continues: “Logos have gone from being a thing that designers are told at university is a big deal, to being really not important at all. It’s much more about your choice of typography, or your colour palette.”

One of the strongest examples of this comes not from a commercial brand, but from a director: Wes Anderson. Though Anderson’s roots are as an independent, arthouse filmmaker, there’s no denying he is now very much a part of the mainstream. Since Rushmore in 1998, almost all of his films have had a better opening weekend than the film that preceded it.

For two decades now, Wes Anderson has made films defined by symmetrical frames, smooth, straight camera movements, a very particular colour palette, and, right at the centre, a clean, sans-serif typeface: Futura. If we want an example for this idea of a “visual language” marking out good branding, then you could do a lot worse than point to him.

This year, HvD released a new cut of Brandon Grotesque called Brandon Grotesque Condensed, a squashed up, space-saving version of the classic. It’s the Vanilla Coke of the Brandon family. Two Font, Too Furious. The message seems to be that this font isn’t going anywhere. More and more brands will look to a cleaner, plainer, flatter kind of typeface.

Whether it’s the influence of creatives like Wes Anderson, or of our increased reliance on digital technologies, or maybe just a cultural desire to look for order in the midst of an increasingly chaotic world, you’d hope that these brands start thinking more broadly about their overall style—otherwise, everyone is going to start looking the same.