From Roi to ROI: what can a French King teach us about the value of custom typefaces for brands.

Brands have invested in typeface design for decades. Lately, the shift from print to digital has brought about a boom in custom typeface design for brands. Some brands that have designed their own custom faces include Netflix, Airbnb, IBM, Coca-Cola, Samsung, Apple, YouTube, Uber, Google and Formula 1. The Brazilian market is not far behind with big players like Globo, Reserva, Gol, Boticário, Natura, Uol, Folha de São Paulo and Latam Airlines sporting their own typefaces in order to differentiate their brands from competitors.

Globotipo, custom typeface for Rede Globo | Plau
Globotipo, custom typeface for Rede Globo | Plau
Fontes Humanas Reserva | Plau
Natura Ekos | Blackletra
GOL Sans for GOL Airlines | Fábio Haag Type

Because fonts can serve multiple purposes, there are many reasons why these companies decided to make their own custom typeface However, there are two that stand out: brand perception and ease of use. Fonts are the stem-cells of brand gospel. They fuse into messages that carry the brand’s DNA in every media imaginable which, in turn, leverages brand perception. Being of the most repeated element in visual identities, it has to be thought as a strategic brand asset and made with intention. A custom typeface is easy to use, because it can eliminate license and compliance issues and simplifies the logistics involved in allowing different agents work on behalf of the company.

Airbnb Cereal, custom typeface for Airbnb | Dalton Maag
Airbnb Cereal, custom typeface for Airbnb | Dalton Maag
Netflix Sans | Dalton Maag
Netflix Sans | Dalton Maag

Le Roman du Roi

If you think custom fonts are a 21st century thing, well, think again. The history of bespoke type design does not begin with Netflix and AirBnB ditching their Helveticas and Gothams. The world’s first custom typeface project began way back in the 17th Century, more precisely in 1692. At that time, the French King Louis XIV commissioned a typeface fit for his kingdom. The typeface gained worldwide notoriety and became known as the Roman du Roi (Roman of the King). More than 300 years later, the Roi would never think his typeface would initiate a very contemporary discussion about the ROI – the return over investment of font-making.

Commissioned in 1692, the typeface would be used for the first time 10 years later and fully completed only 52 years later in 1745. This unbelievable deadline happened not only because back then fonts were physical things that had to be sculpted from metal and melted in lead, but because of very heated discussions about the perfect mathematical proportions for the design. Actually, the King formed a team of luminaries straight from the Académie des Sciences , the French Academy of Sciences

This brings us to three initial conclusions: they took their type seriously; they knew how important it was to make it bespoke to the demanding needs of the kingdom and they refused knock-offs.

The king’s math

Since the 14th Century Renaissance, artists from all walks of life tried to find perfect mathematical proportions for letters. The Renaissance period, afterall, was the era of re-interpreting the classic Greek and Roman cultures, in which the search for golden proportions, be it in painting, architecture, sculpture and more was in vogue. Typography, indeed, was very much a part of this movement.

However, these letter studies didn’t quite move forward… Until the Roman du Roi. In that sense, it was born to be the font to rule them all, the typographie parfait, the definitive shape for all letters. The team started working with a constructive grid of 8×8 units, subdivided 32 times to generate nothing short of 2.304 tiny squares.

The Roman du Roi construction grid
The Roman du Roi construction grid

We’re wired to think in terms of “geometric sans-serifs”, a type style that has become all but the de facto standard of corporate branding. A geometric serif is not what one would normally think, and that is exactly what the Roman du Roi was. Or, at least, what they were going for.

After designing the letters on this precise grid, the king invited the renowned punch-cutter Philippe Grandjean to translate the drawings into matrices. When the time came to do the real work, Grandjean had to adapt the drawings optically. He did so because typography isn’t as much a Math problem as it is an optical trickery craft. The eye is the single most important tool in making type. He therefore made many optical adjustments: small fixes here and there that would make no mathematical sense, yet proved vital for comfortable reading and reproduction.

The original drawings for the Roman du Roi (above) and printed result with optical adjustments (below). | Fernando Mello, personal library

The List of Grievances

The great grandson of Louis XIV, aptly named Louis XVI of France, was a pioneer. Not only he was the first beheaded King in a burgeois revolution but he was also the first to create a List of Grievances (cahiers de doléances). In it, he summoned the clergy, the noblemen and the third estate (the people) to write down suggestions and complaints about the kingdom’s ruling. It was a way of making it appear that the state was concerned about the yearnings of the population in the year that marked the beginning of the French Revolution, 1789.

Cahier de Dóleances’ cover, 1789

Given this context, let’s imagine this: Let’s say that Luis XIV, a few decades earlier, had his own grievance book with all the reasons for commissioning a new typeface for the kingdom. What would it say? How about something like this.

  • I am ashamed that the Kingdom of France, the largest kingdom in the world in literary, philosophical and calligraphic traditions, has not yet solidified its printed tradition.
  • We cannot, under any circumstances, allow a less developed state in the arts of writing (the Germans), to carry with it all the typographic laurels of Europe.
  • It is also entirely mandatory that every royal document looks royal and that anything that is royal has the same look and no other look.
  • We must employ the most talented scientists in the kingdom to develop ‘la typographie parfaite’, based on the only law that is above the king: mathematics.
  • Finally we will inaugurate the post-calligraphic era!

Our imagination exercise suggests some of the reasons why the kingdom would have commissioned a typeface. Like so:

  1. Create a communication asset for the royal press.
  2. Identify the kingdom
  3. The fonts should position France as a pioneer in applying science within typography and overcoming calligraphic models. A means to differentiate our kingdom from others and to make us dominant in the art of printing.

At this point, we can safely compare the kingdom to any modern brand.

Exclusivity or death – cut-off thy heads!

As the official typeface for the Royal Printing Office, those who dared to print other materials using the font would be committing a capital offense. Let’s just say that imitations were, at the least, discouraged.

However, as is often the case in the history of typeface design, other typefaces at the same time were created in the style of, but with markedly different characteristics from Roman du Roi. No one would dare so hard.

List of Grievances, 21st Century edition

In late 2018, with the need to respond to the demonstrations of the so-called “yellow vests” in France, President Emmanuel Macron revived the idea of ​​a “grievance book” to listen to the population. This time, less analogously than in Louis XVI’s time, of course.

Once again, let’s take the grievance idea and list what reasons a 21st century brand might have for complaining about its current use of type.

  • It isn’t unique Brands that do not treat typography with care risk not being sufficiently different from their competitors. For example, anyone who chooses to use Gotham (as Netflix did before developing its own font) chooses, even unintentionally, to communicate the way hundreds of other brands do. Typography is one of the great opportunities for a brand to make itself memorable in the minds of consumers.
  • It does not translate the personality of the brand. Typography is the most replicated element in a visual identity. i.e.: If you can have a font that faithfully carries your identity wherever it applies, your brand is automatically stronger and more memorable. On the other hand, if you use a common or poorly chosen typography, you miss countless opportunities to get marked in the minds of your audience.
  • It is expensive. Companies have to take financial considerations regarding fonts. It is possible that this cost is high. Depending on the type of license (considering the amount of font weights and styles, the number of users, the platforms and the number of page views), a typeface family can cost a brand tens of thousands of dollars. Money which could be better invested in creating a proprietary asset.
  • It is not optimized for digital. In addition to designing readability on different platforms, for some projects it is also important that fonts go through the process we call hinting: it is a way to plan exactly how the pixels will render the characters on-screen. Kind of nerdy, but makes all the difference in the end product.
  • It doesn’t quite fit a typographic palette. A font can be great for body copy and weak for titles, or vice-versa. Perhaps you have a great font for headings and a great font for text, but they don’t go that well together. Developing a custom typeface already includes family-planning. That’s thinking all the styles needed to shape a great brand personality.
  • It is hard to use. As we mentioned previously, a typographic palette can be difficult to mix and match. This includes both visual and technical difficulties or the difficulty of always having to look for an external typeface. One of the advantages of custom designs is that it gives all the typographic elements that the brand design team needs to create, both in subtle or high-impact layouts.
  • It needs more/better features. In addition to the communication element, typography is a facilitator of the design process. This is, of course, if it has the features that fit the brand design routine. This can range from tabular numerals to special characters.
  • It has to be easier to distribute: Some font licenses may limit the number of active users, which may hinder the distribution of typography to the brand communication team. A custom font, on the other hand, can be shared with whoever the brand wants. It is proprietary, after all!

And so the custom typeface can be anything you want. From a special license to a crucial technical particularity for your brand. Besides, of course, the defining reason for custom projects: typography will have the right look of your brand.

The reality of ROI

After 300 years of history, dynasties, kings, revolutions, and designers, let’s finally judge ROI by face value: It’s almost impossible to measure the return over investment of fonts in a numerical-financial value, but that doesn’t should be a limiting factor of the project.

Typography is a design tool, so it is part of a larger system. We cannot evaluate it without the bigger picture in mind. Good type design depends on good graphic design to work.

We asked Matthew Rechs, former director of typography for the Adobe Fonts service, about the ROI of fonts. His response was interesting: “Would you try to measure the ROI of a color change in a brand? Or about safety items when mounting a car? And if typography is meant to communicate, how would you separate ROI of the fonts from the message it communicates? Trying to delimit the unique value of a typography is to ignore that its nature is precisely to be a glue that connects other materials and assets. And even though we want a mathematical answer to our question, Rechs is right. We can’t.

The value of a typeface as a communication piece is always tied to the message that it carries. All of this means that we cannot create a formula for calculating the return on this type of investment.

What we can know is that every brand needs to master this tool, whether as a creative or technical element. And that some companies have in typography one of their main brand element, even though sometimes they aren’t even aware of it.

Rechs also touched on an important thing: “The point is not to define the value of the investment on this particular element, but to have your brand make deliberate decisions about each of its processes and products.” From color to security elements and of course typography.

Make informed decisions about every detail of your operation. Makes sense, right?

The King would agree.

We received valuable comments, observations and images from Henrique Nardi, Victor Calcagno, Billy Bacon, Fernando Mello, Fábio Haag and Álvaro Franca. Thank you all the the help!

Valter Vinícius Costa é formado em Comunicação pela UFRJ. Devorador de tudo o que é tipográfico.