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A retrospective on the last 20 years in fonts

Fonts give text flair, identity and evoke emotion. They’ve impacted everything from political campaigns to widely used logo designs, and at times, have been discussed at length on social media.


But how did we get here? How did our connection to typography deepen over time? Let’s start with a short history of fonts, to ground us in what has transpired since we began this new millennium.


In short, the invention of the printing press in 1440 began the use of Blackletter typefaces. It took almost 300 years for printers to experiment with alterations, in 1734 with Old Style type from William Caslon, 1757 when John Baskerville creates Transitional typefaces and in the late 1780 we begin to see modern typefaces such as Bodoni and Didot. The 19th century brought about Slab Serifs and even Sans Serif typefaces.


But it wasn’t until the 20th century that things really took flight.




Enter the new millennium - 2000-2009


While the 90s marked the beginning of digital design for many art directors, it was inescapable during the 2000s. No longer was computer-aided typography an option, it became a necessity.


The first trending font of the new millennium (arguably) was Gotham.


Originally commissioned by GQ magazine, it is very much an American font in that its design was inspired by the lettering found on the architecture of New York City. (Gotham hits the roof when it is featured in the Obama 2008 election campaign materials).


As the 2000s progress, designers needed to craft layouts that work just as well on computer screens as they do on handheld devices like mobile phones. And just how quickly does this change? Consider this - in 2000 the average Americans begin sending 35 texts/month. Only 2 years later, the world sends 250 billion!


Google. Twitter. Facebook. Logo design is a major area of focus for many graphic designers, with many judging the future success or failure of a business from the quality of their brand design and typography.


Outside of the tech companies, other new brands were introduced to the world casting light onto typefaces that become a “go-to” for the decade. Co-founded in 2006 by U2’s Bono, Product Red raises funds to eliminate AIDS in Africa and begins to amplify the usage of Franklin Gothic.



The release of the first iPhone in 2007 marked the emergence of adaptive web design and the struggle to keep one identity online and offline.


2010-today

While the first web font was actually made in late 1997, it wasn’t until 2009 that the Web Open Font Format (WOFF) was developed and added to the W3C open web standards. It took another 4 years for all major browsers to adopt and support WOFF allowing to really customize websites as we could print pieces. As the second decade progressed, with it came a flood of geometric sans serifs - those without serifs or contrast in stroke width.



These fonts experienced a dramatic uptick in usage across web and digital design which began the minimalist design that featured in logos and creative elements of Facebook, Airbnb and many more. Even MasterCard jumped on the bandwagon in 2016 simplifying the logo it had used since the 90s.



Gradients, drop shadows and textures were left behind for increased legibility and the desire for pages to load quickly.


But as the decade aged – so did the minimalist look. The marketplace became oversaturated and the look so ubiquitous it was hard to tell a vitamin from a tech company. The return of serifs begins to emerge – along with a more extensive rejection of the no-frills Google-look. The growth and adoption of WOFF fonts allows for a cohesion with a brand’s print and digital platforms – so, a company’s Instagram ad and website can look like those in the subway or on TV.


This new serif (or rather old look) has been reborn into the branding and design for new companies such as Everspring, Target’s eco-friendly line of cleaning products; Welly, which makes first aid products and Modcloth, a woman’s clothing retailer, to name a few.












Design changes and evolves every day. It will be interesting to see if the rejection of geometric sans serif typography from the early part of the millennium will continue in an effort to carve out a look of its own. Will designers continue to turn to classical influences or other throwbacks such as Benguiat or the famous fonts of Herb Lubalin?


We’ll have to wait and see what this next decade has in store.



To learn more about the world of typographic classification (as in, what’s the real difference between Didones, Serifs, Grotesques and more) try this article: History and Evolution of Typography

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