Welcome to Noticed, The Goods’ design trend column. You know that thing you’ve been seeing all over the place? Allow us to explain it.
What it is: Groovy, curvy, smooth typefaces used in startup and corporate branding. Does it make you think of the late 1960s and ’70s? That’s it.
Where it is: This style is used by young brands like Glossier Play (Glossier’s new collection of “dialed-up beauty extras”), the makeup line Flesh, the comforter startup Buffy, and the cookware brand Great Jones, as well as the women’s coworking space The Wing. (For an ever-so-unhinged cousin of Great Jones’s curly custom lettering, refer to the title of the TV show “At Home with Amy Sedaris.”) You’ll even find it in the refrigerated section of your local grocery store, on cups of Chobani yogurt.
Why you’re seeing it everywhere: Branding trends always exist in relation to what came immediately before; aesthetics are a powerful way for a company to stand out from its competitors, and once a particular look reaches oversaturation, it’s time to move on. Particularly in the startup space, the early 2010s were absolutely dominated by sans serifs and minimalist design, a trend that was itself a reaction to the chaotic typography of the 1990s. Now that the simple, utilitarian look has run its course, companies and branding agencies are turning to fonts with a more expressive, human feel.
Many of the typefaces that we associate with the ’60s and ’70s were actually created decades before, though they’re informing the present-day design landscape because of how they were used in the ’70s. Consider the typeface Windsor, which was crafted in 1905 and, according to the Font Review Journal, had its heyday between the 1960s and ’80s. It was famously used on the cover of the counterculture magazine the Whole Earth Catalog and in Woody Allen’s film titles, including 1977’s Annie Hall. Cooper Black was released in 1922, but in the ’60s and ’70s it made notable appearances on album covers from The Doors, Curtis Mayfield, and The Beatles.
“Stylistically, the ’70s were really exuberant and free, and also extremely diverse,” says Natasha Jen, a partner at the design firm Pentagram and the creator of Buffy’s custom logotype. It wasn’t all psychedelia and bubbly fonts: Herb Lubalin, a titan of 1970s graphic design, made looping, thick typefaces, but he also produced Avant Garde, a sharp, angular style recently used as the title card in Netflix’s Master of None.
Today’s movement toward fonts reminiscent of the ’70s is partly a matter of advancing technology, Jen says: As phone and TV screens have improved, designers don’t have to worry as much about pixelation when working with curves. But nostalgia is a powerful factor, too. Elizabeth Goodspeed, a graphic designer who works at the branding agency RoAndCo, believes that for many consumers, ’70s-esque fonts represent a safe retreat into the past — a safer retreat, importantly, than the one currently offered by midcentury Swiss Style, which inspired all of those minimalist startup logos with its grid layouts and sans serif fonts.
“It doesn’t seem surprising that when people [today] are trying to find something comforting, we don’t want something that feels Swiss, which can bleed into fascism,” says Goodspeed.
When the Buffy team was working on its brand identity, it looked at references like Whole Earth Catalog and the Ant Farm design group’s “Inflatocookbook,” also published in the early 1970s. Tapping into that aesthetic wasn’t about buying into a design trend, says Paul Shaked, Buffy’s brand vice president: With its mission to make “better products for the earth and for us” — its comforters are made of eucalyptus — the company has something of a “hippie product development lens.”
(Goodspeed believes that the ties between today’s wellness movement and 1970s approaches to health food and alternative medicine have partly led to the revived interest in the era’s design sensibility. By that logic, it makes perfect sense that a company dedicated to sleep products would seize on the ’70s.)
To capture the softness, fluffiness, and comfort of Buffy’s product, Jen suggested Cooper Black, one of a small number of fonts that was “puffy, round, kind of quirky, confident.” Her modifications to the shape of the letters made the original Cooper Black feel lighter and more elegant, Shaked says.
When Chobani undertook its 2017 rebrand, it wanted to stand out on grocery shelves, which had become crowded by competitors in recent years. Chobani executive creative director Lisa Smith describes its previous logo as “very cold,” so her team pursued a look that was warmer and more optimistic — one that communicated the joy of food. They looked at vintage cookbook typography, folk art, Matisse cutouts, and the work of Lubalin, as well as fonts like Windsor, Cooper Black, and Souvenir, a product of the early 20th century that came to be known as “the Comic Sans of the 1970s.”
“Chobani wound up going with a custom typeface by the designer Berton Hasebe, who had previously drawn a soft typeface that referenced Times. Working with the yogurt brand, Hasebe further tweaked this typeface to arrive at the friendly, rounded logo we see today.
There’s a real earnestness to today’s interest in ’70s fonts, but Jen points out a sad irony about it. That period was “a wonderful time” when all sorts of typographic styles coexisted, she says — a multi-voice, multi-identity, highly inclusive moment.
“Whereas now if you look at our time, the collective psychology is that we’re marching toward a more inclusive society, but then if you look at design, actually it says quite the opposite thing, because everything starts to look the same,” she says. “There’s this really interesting gap between what we’re thinking as a society and what we’re actually doing and producing.”
As brands are moving away from tidy sans serifs — away from the possibly fascist undertones of the grid layout — they’re moving in concert toward a ’70s look. At this moment in time, the design world is best characterized by its homogeneity. Jen attributes this sameness to the dominance of algorithms that shape our tastes by surfacing only what’s already popular in visual culture, entertainment, and news, simultaneously suppressing new ideas.
Paradoxically, maybe that’s one more reason why curvy fonts feel so right for right now: We’re pining for something that feels more handmade, more analog. Like it wasn’t made for us by an algorithm itself.
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