Local Types

Creating a bespoke typeface for a place can have multiple benefits. But can letterforms ever truly capture the essence of a place?

In early 2013, typographers Jeremy Dooley and Robbie de Villiers launched a campaign to make Chattanooga the first US city to have its own custom font.Originally occupied by Cherokees, Chattanooga was home to the world’s first Coca-Cola bottling plant and used to be one of the wealthiest cities in America. In the 1960s, however, it was named the country’s dirtiest and has spent the last 50 years reinventing its reputation. Today, it’s home to creative studios, tech start-ups and big brands including Amazon and Volkswagen and boasts the first one-gigabyte-per-second internet connection in the west, apparently.

De Villiers and Dooley, who met after moving to Chattanooga around three years ago, wanted to create a custom typeface to celebrate this cleaner, greener image. Aware they’d be unlikely to receive public funding, they called a meeting at the town hall to gauge local support for the idea. “We expected a handful of people but when we walked in, the place was packed – that’s when we knew we were on to something,” says Dooley.

Dooley, de Villiers and fellow designers DJ Trischler and Jonathan Mansfield launched a Kickstarter campaign in February, asking for $10,000 to make Chatype. The typeface was released on October 31 and has now been declared the official font of Chattanooga by the city’s mayor.

“We can’t go downtown without being surrounded by Chatype now,” says de Villiers. It’s been adopted by local newspapers, TV channels, car dealerships and coffee shops and is used in magazines, menus, news bulletins and the local library’s website. Overwhelmed by the support and enthusiasm for Chatype, de Villiers and Dooley are now writing a book on the project which will be published later this year.

Of course, creating a custom typeface for a place isn’t a novel idea – many European cities already have bespoke fonts and Edward Johnston’s typeface for London Underground has become synonymous with the capital. But de Villiers and Dooley say Chattanooga is the first to be made possible by a grassroots campaign without government involvement and implemented citywide. It also raises some interesting questions about the need for custom typefaces and the ways in which they can be funded, created and distributed today.

Why bother?

But is there really a point in creating a custom typeface for a place? After all, it’s just one element of a visual identity and it’s unlikely that those with little knowledge of design will pay much attention to the subtle nuances of bespoke lettering.

Dooley and de Villiers, however, say the benefits of Chatype don’t just lie in its design but in the exposure it has offered Chattanooga. “There’s a prestige attached to having your own typeface of course, but it’s also the viral nature of the idea: Chattanooga has received a huge amount of attention for having its own font and that has been very important for the city,” claims de Villiers.

David Quay, who created a set of typefaces for Bath in 2011, likens a bespoke typeface to a city’s scent. “If a logo is like the make-up on its face, a typeface is its perfume – it’s subtle, yes, but people do subconsciously recognise it and start to feel like they own it. You wouldn’t get that sense of ownership with Helvetica,” he says.

There are also financial and legal incentives to create a custom typeface – it is expensive and labour intensive but as Jeremy Tankard, who designed a sans type for Sheffield in 2005 explains, it can be the only option. “Sometimes, off the shelf types don’t offer the required language coverage or licensing restricts their use in a certain way,” he says. Designers should be wary however, adds Tankard, of a client’s reasons for commissioning a custom font.

“They think they will get something unique but this very much depends on their ability to allow the type designer freedom over the design. Most of the time, a client will want to tweak an existing typeface, which is mundane work and offers nothing new, exciting or creative. It is also legally a grey area,” he adds.
Conforming to expectations

Communicating a brand or client’s values in a typeface is always an arduous task but when designing for a city or country, there is the added risk of offending those who live there. Designers producing custom typefaces for places are often asked to capture both the spirit of a city and its heritage; and experimental designs are almost guaranteed to attract controversy.

In 2012, type designer Gareth Hague designed a typeface to accompany the London Olympic Games logo, designed by Wolf Olins. His brief was to create a high impact headline font echoing the logo’s spiky – and controversial – aesthetic.

Hague’s finished design was used to great effect around the Olympic Park and on print material promoting the Games but it was widely criticised at the time of its release. Many objected to the design on purely aesthetic grounds, but others complained because they simply didn’t feel it accurately captured the look of London.

“It didn’t conform to expectation,” says Hague. “The 2012 branding expressed an idea – successfully or not – of the spirit of the Games as expressed by the London Organising Committee, and the spirit that London has – dynamism, energy and youth. London was presented through this idea rather than through historical imagery or architectural landmarks and this, and the spiky, abrasive design, clearly bothered a lot of people – more so before than during the Games, when the scheme could be seen as a whole,” he adds.

Another city that has taken an experimental approach to type design is Eindhoven: last summer, the city’s marketing organisation assembled a ‘virtual studio’ made up of ten designers and creatives and asked to them to make a logo, typeface and visual identity scheme for the city. The system will replace government and marketing communications with one unified look and the resulting headline font has already been applied to street signs, wayfinding and bus shelters.

Like Chattanooga, Eindhoven is a city with an industrial past and a creative future – it is home to Dutch Design Week and Dutch Technology Week, as well as a High Tech Campus housing 120 companies and institutes. Rather than design a historic looking typeface, the virtual design studio responsible for its makeover opted for a design that would capture Eindhoven’s ‘energy’.

“We wanted to create a voice for Eindhoven,” says Remco van de Craats, a creative director at Edhv, which worked on the project. “It’s not neutral, it’s pretty blunt and it looks a little unfinished but that was the intention – to look edgy,” he says. Van de Craats admits the headline type looks a little awkward and will probably need tweaking to avoid becoming dated but said the local response to it has been mostly positive. On the CR blog, however, it received a mixed reaction.

Past or present

Whether you can really capture the essence of a place in a typeface at all is a matter of debate and as the saying goes, you can’t please all of the people, all of the time. But perhaps the secret to creating a typeface that will have a lasting and broad appeal is designing one that captures a city’s attitude and its visual culture, without departing too radically from traditional popular designs.

When de Villiers and Dooley designed Chatype, they opted for a contemporary look that referenced Chattanooga’s heritage and its local landmarks: it’s inspired by Cherokee letterforms, the ‘golden proportions’ of the city’s Walking Bridge and the logos and signs dotted around its streets today. “We wanted to look to the future but also reflect Chattanooga’s past,” says de Villiers.

When Quay designed typefaces for Bath, he created not just one but a set of serifs and sans serifs. The designs were inspired by the elegant lettering carved into Bath’s Georgian buildings by local craftsmen but they are also designed to look clean, modern and clearly legible.

“It’s a very conservative city – residents recently opposed a multi-million pound investment from Dyson because they wanted to build a shiny glass box there – so an edgy type or a generic font wouldn’t have worked. It needed to tell a story to capture the city’s character,” he adds.

For cities that don’t have such a rich lettering tradition, it’s still possible to create a similarly modern font with a familiar feel, as Stefan Hattenbach demonstrated with Sweden Sans, which he created with digital agency Söderhavet. The typeface was released in November and forms part of a new visual identity launched to aid the Swedish government’s marketing efforts abroad.

Scandinavia is well known for its design credentials but as Hattenbach points out, Sweden’s domestic type history doesn’t stretch as far back as it does in countries such as the Netherlands, Germany or Italy: before the early nineteenth century, he says, the country often imported foreign typefaces for use in books and newspapers. When designing Sweden sans, Hattenbach took his inspiration from monoline typography and road signs from the 1930s. The result is a minimal design with some unique touches, such as a zero slash and serifs in uppercase I’s. As a typeface that has to work online and in print in communications with various countries it works perfectly.

The future

While cities such as Eindhoven are happy to invest in custom typefaces, there are still many that would consider it a frivolous expense, particularly in places faced with heavy public sector cuts. Dooley and de Villiers, however, have shown that it can be done on crowd funding alone and instead of drawing up complex licensing agreements, they have made their font available for free to residents. This may mean it’s used in a way professionals would consider improper but Dooley and de Villiers don’t mind – so long as it’s only used by Chattanooga residents.

“We’re excited to see non-designers use the font,” says Dooley. “Yes, we will see examples that from a design perspective, may be considered misuse but I think it’s exciting – if people are using Chatype, it means they’re embracing the idea behind it. They’re learning more about fonts and why they’re valuable and that’s an important first step,” he adds.

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