Logos carry a peculiar, almost paradoxical burden of both inspiring loyalty and conveying novelty. A good design stands the test of time, while maintaining the allure of the new; too new, and it risks a sense of betrayal.
Consider the City of New York’s recently announced, and widely panned, “We ❤️ NYC” logo, an update of “I ❤️ NY,” the beloved Milton Glaser design created in 1976. High-profile logo redesigns often incite emotional uproars — and increasingly, public discussions of the fashion of fonts.
When the British luxury brand Burberry introduced a new logo of its own last month, it seemed everyone in the fashion circuit had a hot take on typography trends.
Burberry joined two recently debuted serif logos from Ferragamo and Phoebe Philo, leading online followers to proclaim the era of serif typefaces in, and the era of “blanding” sans-serifs decidedly out.
For the uninitiated, serifs refer to the short marks, or “feet,” at the ends of a letter’s strokes (as seen in certain typefaces, such as the one used by The New York Times). A typeface that includes serifs is referred to as a serif, and one that does not, a sans-serif.
But for branding experts and design industry players whose daily work involves the detailed craft of custom typography and lettering, the hubbub was more a source of mild amusement.
“No one’s really having the conversation about whether the logos are actually well drawn or not,” said Grace Robinson-Leo, a founder and creative director at Decade, a branding studio that has consulted for Khaite, Banana Republic and Playboy.
According to Ellen Lupton, a design author and educator, the perceived binary of serif versus sans-serif is “really quite artificial” anyway. She noted that it “doesn’t exist in most other writing systems that are not Latin based.”
Michaël Amzalag, a founder of the art and design studio M/M Paris, described the fashion world’s preoccupation between serifs and sans-serifs as “a dichotomy established decades ago, since the 1940s,” pointing to the age-old rivals Chanel and Dior. His studio’s brand identity for the Spanish luxury house Loewe has stayed in use for a decade — a lifetime in internet years — and notably bucks fashion industry trends by pairing two contrasting styles: a stately serif along with an ornate, script-style letter L.
Broadly speaking, serifs evoke “a certain historicism,” said Michael Rock, a partner at the design consultancy 2×4, whose clients include Prada and Shanghai Tang. Serifs, as all typefaces, have always carried with them “the mark of a tool,” he said.
Originating in the Latin alphabet, serifs date back to Roman antiquity, when inscribers would first sketch then carve letters into stone, Mr. Rock said. As a matter of function, the serifs were added as a so-called stop cut to prevent the longer strokes of letters from chipping out, he explained.