Typographic Issues with Brand Signatures

A. Michael Shumate

A. Michael Shumate

For our purposes, we’ve defined a signature as the company name written in a particular font, with minimal or no design adjustments. As was stated before, this is the least value-added design and has been used historically mostly for identities of consumer products. Signatures are not as suitable for other kinds of identities.

Interestingly, in recent years some companies, even in the consumer product arena, have redesigned their identities to be more than just a signature, or to add a logo to their existing signatures. Apparently they have found that a signature wasn’t enough by itself. Beyond that, many consumer brands are using custom hand-rendered wordmarks (like the Barbie signature shown here) instead of merely employing a particular font.

Having said all of that, it is still the normal practice to have a signature accompany a logo or a monogram. In that case, the signature follows our original definition: the company’s functional name printed in a particular font. So even if a signature alone will not suffice, it is still part of an identity except for wordmarks (and even most of those start out as signatures before the integration of unique design elements).

These companies used to have plain typographic signatures but have redesigned them by adding another graphic element or adding a proper logo. Mazda had its wordmark in 1975 and added its current logo in 1995. BASF added its logo in 2004. Olympus has had its signature since 1970 and added its elongated diamond in 2000. Knorr has had ist signature since 1938 and added its current containment shape in 2019. Barbie had a more typographic signature but opted in 2009 to go back to its more hand-drawn identity.

Trendy vs. Timeless
Many designers will want to use a distinctive font in a signature. It’s natural that we don’t want our signature to look like so many others. But that’s not what we see in the best identities. Why? Because you don’t want your signature type to look passé in a few years. So if you use the latest “in” font, chances are it will look tired before long. Many companies have learned this the hard way. We should learn it the easy way, by benefiting from their experience.

Remember, the more personality a font has, the more likely it is to become dated and look tired. Many companies that used the more idiosyncratic fonts have had to redesign their identities to look contemporary. Unfortunately, looking contemporary is what led them to that problem in the first place. What is needed instead is a look that is timeless.

Ask yourself, “Will this font stand the test of time?” That is what a good signature should do.

Each of these signatures has been redesigned to use type that will look less dated in a few years. Not all of them have succeeded.

Legibility Above All
Some designers think it’s leading edge to be ultra-modern or even cryptic with their signature designs. But it is just bleeding edge, not leading edge—rather like gluing thumbtacks point-up on a saddle, thinking they will keep the rider from falling off. For the public, the effort to decipher these signatures becomes painful and may not be worth the bother.

The absolute first requirement of a signature font is clarity. One might conceive of a seesaw with clarity on one end and personality on the other. If personality goes up, clarity most often goes down. Scripts, for instance, are among the most difficult font groups to read instantly. There is a reason we see so few “fancy” fonts used in identity design. Typically, the fancier the font, the lower the readability.

Another reason to opt for type with less personality is that you don’t want the signature vying with the logo or monogram for attention. The logo should attract and engage the eye, while the signature identifies whose logo it is. If the signature has too much personality, there will be a tug-of-war for the viewer’s attention.

What were these designers thinking? Did they imagine that people wanted to play a guessing game? The last two samples on the right are not totally illegible, but neither has their treatment promoted instant readability, which should be the goal.

Signature Weight
Since clarity is essential if an identity is to do its most basic job, there are real drawbacks to a signature with no mass (see Deadly Sin of Logo Design #2: Lack of Mass). When signatures with no mass are used in a small space, the signature’s legibility will be compromised. Even worse, when (not if) an identity is used in reverse, the signature’s letterforms will fill in, no matter what kind of printing is used. While signage in cut vinyl will not fill in when reversed, it is usually viewed at a distance, which will have the same visual effect.

This issue does not go away on the Web. Because there are only 72 pixels per inch (nominally) on the Web, very fine strokes don’t show up as solid black (or white when reversed). This can mean that none of the pixels of a uniform-stroke typeface (as in Dax Light) or a thick-and-thin-stroke typeface (as in Bodoni) will show up as black or white respectively.

Signatures are easier to read at a distance or at small sizes if the type has some mass. Fonts with both thick and very thin strokes also suffer especially when printed in reverse. This problem does not go away on the web, where thin strokes are so small that the pixels making them are neither the pure foreground nor background color.

Even though a signature with a logo or monogram is just type set in a particular font, you can’t use it without perfect kerning. Kerning means adjusting the spaces between letters so that they appear uniform. While this is not done for body copy text, it becomes extremely important in identity signatures. These words will be seen at all different sizes and over a long period of time, and clumsy spacing can become quite noticeable, even irksome, if proper kerning is not done.

One simple way to discover where kerning is most needed is to look at words upside-down. Even better, look at them upside-down and backwards, perhaps through a piece of paper. Instead of noticing the letters, you then should notice any uneven spaces between them. To achieve good kerning, it is often acceptable to let two letters touch. Indeed, many signatures have tight letter spacing to begin with, so that all or most of the letters touch anyway.

If you are inexperienced at kerning, you can try printing your proposed signature in larger and very small sizes. Notice whether there are any kerning issues.

Much will depend on the particular letter combinations. Capital Ws and Ts, for instance, may have other letters nestling under their overhanging parts. Capital Ls naturally make a large void on the right and are prime candidates for joined ligatures with the next letter (see Visual Technique #6: Ligatures, Swashes and Flourishes). The possible combinations and needs for kerning are as varied as the words in our language.

Examples of poor kerning are all about us. Sometimes over-kerning can be a problem, as seen in the two disastrous samples in the lower right. Here the better solution to the problem of capital L’s could have been easily solved by using upper and lower case letters instead of all caps.

Signatures and Extra Letter-spacing
It has become trendy to add extra letter-spacing to signatures (called tracking in most graphics software). Generally speaking, this is a counter-productive design decision, for two reasons:

  1. Extra letter-spacing makes a word read less naturally, visually speaking. The words don’t hold together as well.
  2. Extra letter-spacing makes the signature type smaller in the same horizontal space than it would have been with normal or even tight tracking.

Graphic design always has space limitations: page size, ad widths, column widths, and so on. To ignore this fact of our profession is absurd. It is equally unrealistic to think that size doesn’t matter, at least as far as legibility is concerned. If signature type is smaller than it needs to be, it will, therefore, become illegible sooner than a signature with normal tracking.

The length of a signature has a direct bearing on the danger of extra letter-spacing. As you can see, more tracking merely weakens a medium-size signature but can be disastrous for long signatures. In the end, only short signatures survive this treatment, (there are many successful ones in use now), but that doesn’t mean it improves readability.

Extra tracking is more harmful to medium and longer signatures than to shorter ones.
Here we have a word set with natural letterspacing, then with typical extra letterspacing, which widens out the horizontal space it requires. Third we have reduced the word with the extra letterspacing to fit in the same horizontal space as the original word. Type with extra tracking or extra letterspacing will be much shorter vertically in the same horizontal space, and therefore harder to read than when using natural letterspacing.

Extended, Regular or Condensed Type?
A separate but related issue is type width. Any font will have an overall aspect. Either it is inherently condensed, regular or extended.

Very long signatures will work better if set in more condensed fonts. If set in regular width fonts they will be shorter for their width. If set in extended fonts they tend to be very short for their width.

As we have already established, when a signature is wider than it needs to be horizontally, it will also be shorter vertically, and accordingly, harder to read. Therefore, long signatures benefit most from condensed fonts and benefit least from extended fonts.

Here is the same word set in the same weight but in different widths. The extended version is much shorter for the width than the regular or condensed versions. Therefore, condensed fonts should be considered for long signatures while extended fonts should be avoided.

On the other hand, shorter signatures have the flexibility to use fonts of any aspect. Medium-length signatures are less flexible, but successful signatures are possible with all three width aspects of fonts.

All Caps vs. Upper and Lower Case
Many studies have been done on the relative legibility of all capital letters versus upper and lower case. These studies measured instant recognition of words on highway billboards, where a viewer might be able to spare a mere second or less to look while driving. The studies showed that words in upper and lower case were easier to read than those in all caps.

Does this have implications for identity design?

Given that instant recognition is a fundamental goal of any identity design, it should. Consider also that some difficult kerning issues (L followed by A, W followed by Y, etc.) are lessened or not an issue at all in lower case.

Does this mean that all caps are unsuitable for signature design? No. Many fine and successful signatures are in all caps. But it does mean that if a given word poses difficulties, a designer should always consider upper and lower case.

What about using all lower case?
In our Western culture we capitalize first letters of proper names, and a signature is definitely the proper name of a company, so the first inclination would be to use upper case for the first letter. Too often, new designers choose all lower case “just to be different.” As we have discussed earlier, that is an immature reason if it doesn’t make the design stronger.

Besides that, using all lower-case letters can make a name seem less worthy of respect. That is not to say that all lower-case signatures should never be done, but they should be done for esthetic reasons, not in an attempt to be trendy or avant garde.

Adapted from Logo Design Theory: How Branding Design Really Works

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