If there is one style of corporate branding that defines the 2010s, it is this: sans-serif lettering, neatly presented in black, white, and ultra-flat colors. Cobalt, for example. Its goal is noise reduction, accomplished by banishing gradients, funky fonts, and drop shadows, and by relegating all-caps to little “BUY” buttons. The abundance of white space around words, photos, and playful doodles exudes a friendly calm. You’ll find the information you need in seconds, and what a pleasing few seconds they will be.
Sans-serif typefaces have been in circulation since at least the 18th century. (Serifs are the little lines that decorate the ends of letters in fonts. Sans serifs omit them.) Minimalist design in marketing isn’t new either, but this genre of branding has become especially, almost predictably, concentrated among venture-backed lifestyle startups like Outdoor Voices, Bonobos, Frank And Oak, Lyst, AYR, Reformation, Glossier, Allbirds, and Thinx. Some use it for nearly everything on their websites but the logo, and some use it for nearly everything, including the logo.
One of the remarkable features of startup minimalism is its flexibility. It can sell anything.
At a new Brooklyn bookstore called Books Are Magic, it sells books. At the Brooklyn Bread Lab, a bakery tucked into a row of warehouses on a litter-strewn street in Bushwick, it sells bread. Versions of startup minimalism appear on the covers of cookbooks like Everything I Want to Eat: Sqirl and the New California Cooking and Salad for President, and in the pages of Rosé All Day: The Essential Guide to Your New Favorite Wine. When Airbnb rebranded in 2014, it replaced its bubbly, three-dimensional novelty script with a lowercase, sans-serif logo rendered in white and coral. The British rain boot company Hunter, which was founded in 1856, has its classic logo at the top of its website, followed by a wave of sans serifs encouraging us to shop “new colors” and “Slide Through Summer” (by purchasing plastic slides).
Rather than being descriptive of the product itself, startup minimalism indicates how that product will be purchased and delivered to the shopper: digitally, easily, inexpensively, and with a smile. It promises no bullshit and no imposition on your busy schedule.
The more you see branding like this, the more the individual data points seem to coalesce into a single mass. To graphic-design aficionados, though, there are notable, carefully considered distinctions within that cluster.
OV Gothic is the signature typeface of Outdoor Voices, a laid-back activewear brand that launched in 2013 just as the concept of “athleisure” clothing was gaining momentum. According to Benjamin Critton, the typographer and graphic designer who created OV Gothic, it began as a tongue-in-cheek sendup of another classic American sportswear brand: Nike.
Nike’s high-impact logo is a bold, italic, condensed, all-caps version of Futura. Critton riffed on Futura’s upright (not-italicized), regular weight over the course of three months, drawing inspiration from designer Larissa Kasper’s earlier experiments with the typeface. Eventually, he reworked it into something that represented the lighthearted approach to exercise that Outdoor Voices endorses.
“It’s very clean and modern, but it’s a little offbeat. You can sense that there’s some humor in it,” says Outdoor Voices art director Alejandra Ferreyros of OV Gothic. She took over from Critton when, after a year and a half spent designing everything from garment labels and packaging to tote bags and advertising, he left the company to move to LA.
“I think it has to do with the geometric roundness of it, compared to some other sans-serif faces that have really pointy Vs or As,” she says. “There’s something friendly about roundness. The V is cut off at the bottom, so it’s not this sharp, angular V.”
Startup minimalism has deeper roots in the Dutch de Stijl movement, now a century old, which reduced artistic expression to abstract geometric shapes, clean lines, and primary colors. (Think of Piet Mondrian’s grid-like paintings filled with red, yellow, blue, and black rectangles.) More overtly, contemporary startups draw on International Typographic Style, also known as Swiss Style, a genre of graphic design developed in Switzerland that proliferated in the 1950s. It emphasized clarity and objectivity through the use of grid layouts and sans-serif typefaces like Akzidenz-Grotesk and the now-famous Helvetica, created in 1957.
When the Montreal-based clothing brand Frank And Oak replaced serifs with sans serifs in its logo last year, Swiss design was front and center on its inspiration board. “It’s a design approach that confidently stays out of the way when it needs to,” writes creative director Edmund Lam in an email. For clothing brands, photographs are frequently more important than words.
In graphic design, as in fashion, style is cyclical and tastes are often a kickback against what came just before. The ’90s were a time of funky typography and chaotic layering of words, images, and shapes, a look embodied by the influential Emigre magazine. It had the effect of “contesting values of legibility and order,” Cooper Hewitt design curator Ellen Lupton wrote in 2009.
Beyond the world of professional graphic designers, weird logo design burst into the open during the dot-com bubble of the late ’90s and early ’00s.
According to Armin Vit, a graphic designer who also blogs about the discipline, businesses started zeroing in on the idea of establishing “corporate identities” during the ’50s and ’60s. For a long time, branding was limited by the available technology, meaning designs were drafted by hand and printed in one or two colors. Digital printing enabled brands to go crazy with full-color logos, though, and the internet completely blew away those restrictions. Entrepreneurs could make their companies as colorful and flashy as they wanted.
“People wanted to jump on the internet, and they created their logos themselves because now there were tools available online. It was like a weird Wild West,” says Vit. “Some of the uglier logos came out that era.”
(Go look up Pets.com and Kozmo.com.)
Of course, that bubble burst. By 2009, Lupton wrote, “a sense of order and sobriety” had taken over again.
Scott Barry, the creative director of the trendsetting LA restaurant Sqirl, was studying graphic design at CalArts in the early 2010s. Though he was inspired by his introduction to the ’90s look, professors who had watched the movement come and go were at that point teaching their students how to strip away the layers and extra decoration to convey a clear, sharp message through design. It could be playful — as Sqirl’s website is today — but it was humor rendered in simple forms.
As was the case with those early dot-com companies, digital technology has proven to be a potent influence on the look of e-commerce startups today. Brands don’t exist as individual (or physical) spaces anymore, and are instead tethered to the social platforms that popularize them and the devices that contain them. Phone screens are small, so web design can’t be too crowded.
“These brands look accessible and action-oriented, like an app on your phone,” writes Lupton in an email. “The fact that many of these clothing brands rely largely on internet sales, it works for them to have a brand so strongly identified with the language of user experience.”
Besides, if you stare at iMessage’s white sans serifs and blue speech bubbles all day, your subconscious might eventually conclude that this is just how communication looks.
Simple branding also reinforces many startups’ pitches, which go something like this: They’re making great-quality products and selling them straight to you at a low price, because they’ve cut out the retail markup. They offer at-home try-ons and free return shipping, with the label pre-printed and included in your delivery. Not only does pared-down branding mimic the straightforwardness of the customer experience, but, as Critton points out, it holds the brand responsible for the quality of its service. There are no trimmings to disguise a shoddy product or user experience — unless, of course, startup minimalism has become that very trimming.
Vit sees Airbnb’s 2014 rebranding as an inflection point in the spread of startup minimalism. Its sleek new look got a ton of media attention (bloggers couldn’t help but comment on its new logo’s resemblance to a vagina), and on top of that, it was actually doing well as a company. Cue a stampede.
Uncluttered design felt fresh and new a few years ago, but there will come a point when it no longer has the same specialness. Eventually, all that delicious, soothing nothing will just look like nothing. Brands will either have to undergo Airbnb-grade makeovers, or update aspects of their look.
“Design is a pendulum. I think there will be a shift to more ornate and maximalist design,” says Ferreyros. “I could see us experimenting with that in one off projects, like stickers or a line of graphic tees, and then being able to keep the foundation of our brand clean and modern and simple.”
At the same time that startup minimalism has entrenched itself in the e-commerce landscape, a handful of heavily stylized and arguably goofy fonts have become fashion memes. Bright-red, gothic lettering was front (and back) and center on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo tour merch, a hot-ticket clothing collection in its own right. The skateboarding magazine Thrasher’s flaming logo (a version of the Banco typeface) became an unexpected trend when teenage runway models, fashion editors, and Rihanna started wearing T-shirts and sweatshirts with its name across the chest. Forever21 inevitably knocked it off, to Thrasher’s not-at-all concealed irritation. Vetements, the rogue design collective that’s had the fashion industry in its thrall for the last few years, has co-opted DHL’s bulky logo, Metallica’s lightning bolts, and Champion’s nearly unreadable script, among others.
There’s a degree of irony at play here, but there’s also real excitement over fonts that are flagrant and unmistakable and silly in the way that nostalgia can be. Sometimes it feels good to scream. Maybe all those sans serifs make you want to scream.
At just five years old, Frank And Oak is already on its third logo. It started off with a sans serif in 2012. A year later, it wanted to communicate to shoppers that its product was more sophisticated than before, so it brought in a serif font, as well as a “Rue St-Viateur” signature. (As we know, everything sounds better in French. Or French-Canadian.) Last year, the team decided it wanted a cleaner, more modern look. A new sans serif was brought in.
“We’re always course correcting,” writes Lam, the creative director, in an email. “As a digital native company where this is possible, we can’t resist improving every chance we get.”