Typography as branding strategy—an art form where small biz gives us the best. And worst.

I’m hardly the most well-versed person in typography —far less than a good old friend of mine who runs a burgeoning podcast on tales of the supernatural—but I enjoyed computer fonts enough as a child that I can still recognize some of the most prevalent ones from the late 80s up to the mid 90s.  I have chronicled pop culture’s off-again, on-again relation with serifs.  I understand and appreciate kerning.

More importantly, I grew up in a household where the breadwinners worked much of their professional lives in marketing, either through a larger ad agency or in running their own small business.  They inculcated in me at an early age an understanding and appreciation of cues and symbols embedded within various typefaces.  So it’s no great surprise that my head turns when I see an example of a logo that deploys typography particularly well or poorly.  Like this low-key national chain, spotted at a lifestyle center in the suburbs of Baltimore:

bland typography for a national company

I use the adjective “low-key” only because Carter’s is actually a pretty huge, publicly listed company with over 700 locations spread across the entire country.  It’s probably less of an eye-catching name than the OshKosh B’gosh subsidiary that Carter’s, Inc. purchased in 2005.  But, judging from the logo here, its nondescript approach extends to the name, neither of which reveal the nature of their product specialty: clothes babies and kids.  Does “Carter’s” sound whimsical or nonsensical like Zany Brainy or Gymboree or Toys ‘R’ Us?   Does anything about this staid, sans-serif, business casual font convey a childish lack of inhibitions?  Except for the lack of capitalization, the end result is quite the opposite.  In fact, I’ve seen the “Carter’s” logo numerous times—many of us have—but it was only upon getting close enough to it to snap this photo that it finally occurred to me that this was a retailer for very young children.  In fact, it conveys the exact opposite demographic.  Kid-themed establishments often deploy tactics suggestive of a nostalgia for youthful amateurishness: irregularly shaped letters, misspellings, maybe the signature backwards R.  And of course they often include an endearing cartoonish figure, often an animal like Geoffrey the Giraffe.  Carter’s has none of this.  The only logo more austere that immediately comes to mind is The Children’s Place, but the all-caps and serifs gives it more gravitas.

Then again, all those goofy-named places have completely shuttered their bricks-and-mortar operations, so perhaps Carter’s has the last laugh.  And, to be fair, the more eccentric and irregular typography for mountable lettering is almost certainly going to cost more.  A massive company like Carter’s probably determined it didn’t need a particularly eye-catching logo on the exterior of its stores.  Save that for the mom-and-pops.

Truth be told, the bespoke approach is what attracted me to a little sole proprietorship in Havre de Grace not so far away a few years ago.  And probably what caught my eye in an entirely different setting as well:

clever typography in small biz

I confess that the first characteristic of this restaurant in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen that struck me was the unusual name; Der Krung didn’t sound remotely like a Thai restaurant.  Sure, I don’t speak Thai, but I do speak German, and “Krung” most certainly has a German sound to it, while “der” is the most common masculine nominative article for “the”.  “Krung” is in fact the Thai word for Bangkok, or at least part of it: the full name is Krung The Maha Nakhon, and a German-English dictionary recognizes it as such.  I’m not sure if this means Germans are more compelled to call the major city “Krung” and I still can’t figure out the reasoning behind the “der”, but that’s only half the point.  I also love the lettering.  Check out that “G”.

It uses the same molded metal shape as the letter “D” at the beginning, rotated 180 degrees.

Did this restaurant’s owners save money by ordering two of the same letter?  Or is it just a clever stylistic gesture?  Can it be both?

I certainly appreciate any cleverness used to assert individuality, something that small businesses typically strive to achieve to highlight their distinctiveness and ingenuity, as well as their capacity to maneuver distinctly to meet customer needs, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.  Yes, I’m generalizing a great deal, but it’s amazing the sort of semiotic hints that strategic typography can deploy.  Or the negative consequences when it fails.  Like this confusing effort in Alexandria, Virginia:

tricky typography in small biz

Perhaps I’m just thick, but at first I thought the name of the establishment was “Alens Physical Therapy and Sports Performance”, and that the symbol at the beginning had no phonetic significance.  Then I looked more closely and couldn’t tell if the humanoid figure with arms raised was intended to signify the letter “V” or “Y”.  This ambiguity could actually hurt the businesses if people are trying to look it up online after walking or driving past this logo.  I ultimately came to the conclusion that “Yalens” wasn’t really a common last name, while the option with “V” evoked a certain short-lived iconic pop star from yesteryear (even if it wasn’t his real last name either).  I’m probably over-analyzing this as I’m prone to do, but I still think the attempt at a clever symbol to begin the naming of this establishment creates more confusion than good publicity.  The logo just doesn’t blend well with the typography.

Still, the Valens/Yalens/Alens naming conundrum represents far less ambiguous typography than this example at a mall a few miles away:

Huh?  What’s that say?  Wervr?  Is that a play on “wherever”?  Or is the middle “R” viewed separately so that it says Wevr—“weaver”?  It turns out it’s a virtual reality gaming center called We “R” VR.  They could have fooled me.  And obviously did.  If my parents had countenanced such a logo while they ran their businesses, I can imagine they would have facepalmed.

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on email

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on email

7 thoughts on “Typography as branding strategy—an art form where small biz gives us the best. And worst.

  1. Kerrie Mistry

    The d g forms look intentional, subtle reference to the shapes you see in Thai alphabet. Name translates as “Dear Place”. Interesting observations. I hope you are doing well.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Agreed. Definitely intentional. And I believe “Krung” is a shortened name for the Thai word for “Bangkok”? I thought this was a very well-conceived lettering!

      Reply
  2. Jeffrey Jakucyk

    The extensive font libraries included with (infuriatingly mandatory) subscription-based design software has led to some more creative typographical expressions. Alternate/discretionary/decorative ligatures bring additional design flourishes, almost like an accent but without the verbal baggage. It’s interesting how whimsical sweeps and strokes can tie together the letters of a word (figuratively, if not literally) more so than the consistent font itself, an important consideration for a corporate logo. Of course, if your kerning and tracking are lacking then it’s all for naught, as Mega Flicks and Kids Exchange found out, among others. https://www.boredpanda.com/funny-letter-spacing-fails

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for the Boredpanda share, Jeffrey. It reminds me that, while corporate typography may tend to be blander, the mega-fails usually come at the LLC level. And some of the most clever typographical branding is still coming from publicly listed companies: it took me years to see the arrow in the FedEx logo, but boy was I impressed once I found it. (Or, to be more accurately, someone steered me to look for it.)

      As for the mom-and-pops, I’ve only begun to skim through the offerings you sent me, but I can’t help but wonder if, in some cases, they hired graphic design agencies that were trolling them, or if they simply designed it themselves and had no training whatsoever. I mean, Example #2 is almost a double-entendre squared!

      Reply
  3. Jerry

    Your blog followers need to know that you didn’t learn about typography from your parents. You recognized dozens of corporate logos long before you were 3.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Guilty as charged! I guess the fact that some of my first words were “Visa”, “MasterCard”, and “American Express” is just a testament to what a red-blooded American I really am.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. You are not required to sign in. Anonymous posting is just fine.

Verified by MonsterInsights