After its famous 1984 Super Bowl commercial, Apple officially unveiled the Macintosh 128k, the “.” The Mac revolutionized personal computing. And it was Apple designer Susan Kare’s job to create digital fonts and icons to usher in this new age.
“I was a typical customer that they were trying to attract, someone for whom the graphical side of it would have been attractive,” Kare told a technology historian in 2000. “I didn’t really have much computer experience, but even then I found the rudimentary Mac more appealing to me than the Apple II.”
Compared to most personal computers at the time — which used command-line interfaces that were too technical for many users to understand— the Mac adopted a much more user-friendly graphical interface (GUI). It featured plenty of things that even the most novice computer user today understands intuitively — pointers, menus, scroll bars, windows, icons, and typefaces.
Before the Mac, letters took up the same amount of room on a computer screen, like on a typewriter. But with the new screen and interface, letters such as “i” and “w” could take up different widths. For the first time, designers like Kare were able to create typefaces with natural proportions, which made them easier to read.
With those new abilities, Kare designed Mac’s first set of proprietary typefaces. That includes Chicago, the quintessential Apple typeface that debuted with the first Mac, retired in 1997 with Mac OS 8, and resurfaced in the 2000s with the early generation iPods.
Chicago’s dark, bold strokes were designed to improve legibility on low-resolution screens — a testament to Mac’s user-friendly ethos. But when combined with its jagged, stair-like aesthetics, Chicago became a hallmark of Apple’s early brand image. As Chicago Magazine noted in 2018, it was “a typographic premonition of Apple’s future: a highly visible company that would be known for consistently reaching new heights.”
A combination of technological advancements, functional needs, and branding considerations made Chicago possible — and popular. Those same factors are why tech companies design custom typefaces today, says designer and brand strategist Ksenya Samarskaya.
New tech, new typefaces
The 2010s saw a resurgence in the adoption of custom typefaces by big tech companies. Apple debuted its first in-house font in more than 20 years with San Francisco in 2015. Google introduced Product Sans in 2015, Roboto for Android in 2011, and Youtube Sans for YouTube in 2017. Then there are Netflix Sans, Airbnb Cereal, Samsung One, and Uber Move.
Samarskaya told me tech companies’ growing interest in custom typefaces is partly related to the evolution of display technology.
When Kare designed Chicago for Apple back in the ’80s, it was displayed on some of the earliest pixel-based screens. Designers at tech companies today, on the other hand, work with much more sophisticated displays.
As screens gain resolution, designers gain ways to address functional and branding needs on smaller displays. For instance, Apple debuted San Francisco in 2015 — now used across iOS, OS, and tvOS — with the Apple Watch’s small screen in mind.
“When screens were all low-resolution, you couldn’t really tell the difference between typefaces as much, and so you were much more limited in terms of what you could do design-wise,” Samarskaya told me. “But now, we have more people using high-density screens, and all of a sudden, there’s a finer canvas with which to play and express yourself and communicate.”
But technology didn’t just expand design options for typographers; it also expanded their audience. With the evolution of mobile technology and the internet also came globalization, and the need to cater to global audiences.
For companies such as Apple, Google, and Facebook, which operate around the world, legibility in English is no longer the only functional concern.
“When you’re dealing with this kind of global landscape, you get into localization concerns,” Samarskaya said. “If this country is operating in Thailand, or Georgia, or wherever else, all of a sudden you also have to support all those additional scripts.”
As companies expand to serve users globally, font licensing fees also become a cause for concern, Samarskaya told me. For example, before Netflix transitioned to its custom typeface in 2018, it had been paying type design agency Hoefler & Co. millions of dollars a year to use Gotham — the same typeface used by Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.
This is in part because these agencies, too, are responding to technological developments. As advertising follows a younger audience to online platforms, agencies increasingly monetize their typefaces based on the number of times they’re displayed digitally, Netflix’s brand design lead Noah Nathan told design blog It’s Nice That in 2018.
Typefaces convey emotions
Samarskaya noted that the tech companies I mentioned to her created their custom typefaces with speed and ease of processing in mind amid a landscape of similar typefaces.
“They want to fit into the groove of ‘what works,'” she said.
But, she added, there is an emotional appeal to typefaces, too.
For a New Yorker, for instance, Helvetica may feel familiar because it’s associated with the subway.
Samarskaya speaks of the “invisible” power of typefaces — the subtle, primal ways they make an impression on people in their everyday lives. For a New Yorker, for instance, Helvetica may feel familiar because it’s associated with the subway. Likewise, Comic Sans may bring up memories from elementary school.
That means the typefaces used by brands come with cultural implications — for better or worse.
“Typefaces kind of act like a sponge, and all the connotations — when it was made and what companies it was used for — get absorbed by them,” Samarskaya said. “It makes sense that all these companies are coming up with their own. They want to have control to craft their own narratives.”
That’s why Facebook, the company, designed a custom typeface for a new logo to differentiate itself from Facebook, the social network, as the latter increasingly faces scrutiny over antitrust concerns.
But for the most part, custom typefaces are used to amplify and reinforce a company’s identity.
For example, Youtube said it made YouTube Sans “quirky, expressive, simple and bold, just like the platform it calls home.” Similarly, Google said Product Sans combines the “childlike simplicity of schoolbook letter printing” and “the mathematical purity of geometric forms” to become “Googly” — a symbol of the company’s playful, experimental personality and technological finesse.
Then there is Airbnb, who said it designed Cereal with an overall roundness to convey the feeling that it is “friendly and approachable” — ideal characteristics for a vacation rental company.
But ultimately, Samarskaya says typography is a “living, evolving culture” that develops alongside technology, and as a result, globalization.