In today’s branding circles, there are the image geeks and the type geeks—the latter of whom frequently extol the virtuous presence of a perfectly crisp finial or manual kerning. For an increasingly visual reader demographic, typography can speak louder than the words it treats to convey the more elusive essentialities of a brand—personality, tone, age. But too often in this space, form trumps function; beauty rules purpose. It’s rare to see a typeface that is as lovely as it is legible—it’s even more rare to see a typeface that is lovely, legible, utilitarian, and on-brand. It’s this reality that makes the story of the Castledown font—created for students learning to read and write at the Castledown Primary School in East Sussex, England—all the more unusual.
Neil Small, a former teacher-turned-headmaster of Castledown Primary, was frustrated by a not-uncommon concern in our era of universal design: standard library fonts used in workbooks were dull and hard to read for students with dyslexia. When he first contacted Colophon Foundry, a London type studio, he had a clean typeface in mind— one shaped closely to young learners’ natural writing patterns. His request came with an extra layer of complexity and seeming impossibility: Small believed that the right font could be a learning tool in and of itself—a scaffold that would improve all students’ reading and writing practices.
Colophon designers Edd Harrington and Anthony Sheret spent a month with Castledown students, immersed in observing the minute details of their letter placement, pressure points, licks and type preferences as they traced out their letters and first words—contextualizing their findings against accessible design tenets. The namesake custom design they unveiled has now been in use at the primary school for a year. And beyond making it indeed easier for all students to trace, replicate, and read without issue, the Castledown typeface has become the school brand —its friendly curves and inclusive feel extended to a whole new audience of readers via the Castledown Primary website and print collateral.
While a month-long, audience deep dive isn’t always possible in type design, attention to the subtlety of real-life “typography” is and should be. The otherwise unnoticed oscillations of a pencil, or the intrinsic, human patterns of letter formation are precisely what make for designs that go beyond brand, legibility, and utility to refreshingly personal intimacy—the kind that translates across workbooks, mediums, and audiences. In this case, the story of one primary school’s pursuit of a deeper purpose through workbook type design provides an inspired lesson in visual communication—the kind that all true type geeks and branding experts can get behind.
On Wednesday the Obama administration announced a new website created with data visualization tools to make it easier for Americans to see the effects of climate change on their communities ( www.climate.data.gov ). True to a government made website, Climate.data is very clugey to use, but after a bit of tinkering I was able to find an interesting mapping tool that showed the likely impact of sea level rise on coastal communities. But why pick just ANY coastal community to visualize? I zeroed in on the location for billionaire Bill Koch’s sixteen million dollar waterfront compound estate on the toney island of Oyster Harbors in Cape Cod. Koch, who made his money in the fossil fuel industry, thinks climate change is a liberal fiction, and will do whatever he can to stall the adoption of clean energy in America.
Well, I have bad news for you, Bill. According to the latest projections, sea level rise is happening even faster than scientists previously thought. Along the Massachusetts coastline projections show between a 3 and 6 foot rise between now and the end of this century. Using the data visualization tool, your estate is in serious jeopardy of being under water. I’m not talking about a mortgage being underwater – the kind of problem that hits regular folks. I’m saying your whole estate will very likely be under the Atlantic ocean, a kind of billionaire Atlantis. I make this point not only because I strongly disagree with Mr. Koch’s climate change-denying beliefs, but also because the Climate.Data website needs to make it much easier for people to see how the un-checked changes hitting our atmosphere will affect us personally. Our houses, not just our regions or towns. It would work like Zillow.com just enter your address and see if you’re property will be under water. An interactive map of this nature would be relatively easy to make, and would go a long way towards making climate change a real and urgent issue for more Americans. Maybe even Mr. Koch – although I doubt he’ll believe in climate change even with the waves are lapping at his leather armchair.
Check out what sea level rise could do to the Koch estate:
Mean Sea-level Rise | Boston, MA
Projected Sea-level Rise | Boston, MA
Even in the age of real-time customer service, where crucial contacts and tips are shelled out—en masse and by the second—across Facebook, Twitter, and 24/7 chat lines to resolve issues, it’s always a bit dazzling when the head honcho of a major brand reaches out to address a singular customer (and arguably, more so when the interaction prompts a discernible pivot in brand strategy). Those are the moments in which it seems that the two-way conversation goes analog—as though to remind us all that no company is faceless and every solution is borne of two (or more) living, breathing people just hashing it out.
Today, we have another proof point for the content marketing binder, c/o of Jenni Avins for New York Magazine. Last summer, Avins, a freelance journalist, authored an impassioned open letter in The Cut to Jenna Lyons, President of J. Crew, requesting a re-release of her favorite J. Crew scoop back swimsuit from the 1990s. Influential channel and J. Crew’s reputation for great customer interaction aside, an email response from Prez Lyons came two days later. Paraphrased, Lyons suggested in her prompt and personal missive that Avins’ letter was the request that tipped the scale on the re-release of the suit.
A year later, the scoop-back that millennial dreams are made of has been reissued for sale, with print advertisements featuring a handwritten note from Lyons to Avins. Nice brand play for J. Crew, but an even better lesson for all content creators out there.
A customer request—distributed via the right channels and touching on a canny audience pain point—can move brand strategy, define new markets, re-launch a product and even make for a personalized response or two from a president (or THE President). Today, we all have voices. Make sure yours is heard loud and clear above the fracas, and your wish can very well become a brand’s command.