Familiar Type: The Trend of Bespoke Typefaces

Fonts. Whether you hold the title of designer or belong to an altogether different industry, you can’t deny the importance of them in your day-to-day life. Aside from being a vital part of how you communicate – from the texts you send to the countless emails that fly by your fingertips every day – fonts are also important to how you perceive and absorb much of the world around you.

You could argue that how you use fonts doesn’t ultimately affect you (or that I’m too much of a self-proclaimed font nerd for my own good, but we can talk about that another time), but it might be worth a second thought. Less than 10 years ago, a New Zealand accountant was fired for companywide emails she sent in all-caps formatting. You could argue in this case that there was more to the story or that times have changed since then, but others might argue that it is more necessary than ever to take special care when it comes to formatting and design. This is especially important now that we live in a time when a picture or video can become a meme and then a viral trend that sweeps the Internet.

With this and many other considerations in mind, larger companies have opted to design their own fonts, frequently referred to as bespoke fonts, for use in advertising materials and consumer interfaces. One of the bigger announcements came from YouTube, which partnered with a firm called Saffron to develop YouTube Sans, a font which made its debut on YouTube TV. With a very familiar character, YouTube Sans may seem like a normal sans-serif font. A deeper look reveals many important details, such as the echoing of the angles from YouTube’s iconic “play button” logo, which aim to symbolize the quirky aspects of its brand.

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Photo by Saffron.

Netflix, PayPal, Airbnb, Coca-Cola and a hearty handful of other companies have followed the same path, either to lower the cost of licensing specific fonts for the many employees who need them every day (which has saved companies like Netflix and IBM millions of dollars) or as a means to grow their brands and speak to the history they are proud of (the case with Coca-Cola and its font, TCCC Unity). In a time when most people are avoiding the empty calories and sugar associated with a bottle of Coke for something healthier, the soda giant decided to use this as an opportunity to rebrand. Some sources admired their attempt, while others (such as Fast Company Design) saw it as something much like a Band-Aid on a sinking ship, aiming to save the company in the form of a font that doesn’t differ much in personality from the most popular fonts these days. This seems to be a common trend for most bespoke fonts emerging over the past few years, with a number of designers insisting that these companies are just commissioning their own version of Helvetica.

Many companies have taken this path as a means to make a serious statement or for the sake of profit, though that isn’t always the case. Some have used this as a form of marketing simply to get people talking. An announcement by Arby’s on Twitter regarding its new creation this past May is a strong example of this. Was it a sandwich? Nope. Was it a new sauce? Warmer.


Tweet by Arby’s.

Attached to its tweet was a link to a font of its own making, called Saucy_AF (yes, you read that correctly), following the ever-popular trend of creating lettering from food. It’s a font anyone can download for free. Most designers wouldn’t welcome such a font with open arms into their font library or technically label it a bespoke font, but you can’t deny that it was bold, generating quite a bit of buzz across the Internet. If you too would like to “say it in sauce,” you can download it here: https://arbys.com/saucy_af. I won’t judge you. OK, I will, but only completely.

However, more often than not, companies that take on the ambitious task of creating their own typographic systems tend to follow the predictable route of echoing their predecessors instead of trying to break new ground. If the decision is made to labor over something as expressive as a typeface, it should be done thoughtfully and delicately. With that, a typeface can expand a brand and give it layers, rather than lumping it in with countless lookalikes. It can also strengthen brand recognition and perceptions – an impossible task for a font that can pass for five others in a lineup. I’m a firm believer that taking inspiration is vital for growth, but it should be a steppingstone and not a destination. To quote William Bernbach: “Rules are what the artist breaks; the memorable never emerged from a formula.”

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Six Degrees
Six Degrees uses psycho-sensory tools and techniques to build more successful national and global brands. Brands are rooted in human perception. And our psycho-sensory approach is designed to identify deeper and richer insights from human perception and then develop brand communications that change suboptimal perceptions or reinforce the right perceptions. More than 80 percent of the information humans process is nonverbal, making it essential that brands manage the sensory signals they send out. Our people are passionate branding experts wielding powerful psycho-sensory tools to build stronger and more successful brands across the globe.

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