Why are tech companies making custom typefaces?

The words ‘unique typeface’ written in a series of similar typefaces

During my research process, I noted down the keywords used to describe some of the typefaces. As I read through the list, the same words kept coming up over and over: friendly, modern, clean, simple, human. It’s like everyone wants something that they can use to define their brand, yet they really just want a slightly different version of what everyone has.

Source: Why are tech companies making custom typefaces?

Sainsbury’s packaging archive

When I was growing up, my family shopped at Sainsbury’s. I later worked there for a few years when studying for my A Levels and between university semesters. The brand is fairly well ingrained in me, so I have just spent rather too long browsing the packaging section of the Sainsbury’s archive:

Packaging from Sainsbury’s cheese and onion crisps, 1970s-1980s
Packaging from Sainsbury’s cheese and onion crisps, 1970s-1980s
Packaging from Sainsbury’s table salt, c. 1978
Packaging from Sainsbury’s table salt, c. 1978
Packaging from Sainsbury’s spaghetti rings and pork sausages, 1998
Packaging from Sainsbury’s spaghetti rings and pork sausages, 1998

I started working there in 1998 which—coincidentally, I hope—seems to be the point where the strong, simple and consistent brand identity visible in the first two images started to erode, replaced by more individualistic oddities like the bottom image.

The entire site is very interesting, occupying a position somewhere between corporate story-telling and social history. See also The typography of John Lewis.

Brutalist web design guidelines

Don’t tell anyone, but the Brutalist web design guidelines are simply guidelines for intuitive, usable web design:

  • Content is readable on all reasonable screens and devices.
  • Only hyperlinks and buttons respond to clicks.
  • Hyperlinks are underlined and buttons look like buttons.
  • The back button works as expected.
  • View content by scrolling.
  • Decoration when needed and no unrelated content.
  • Performance is a feature.

Source: Brutalist Web Design

Don’t Skype Me: How Microsoft Turned Consumers Against a Beloved Brand

I was interviewed by Nate Lanxon from Bloomberg about Skype, specifically its confusing UX history and what it means to ‘Skype’ someone. A whole sentence of that conversation made it into the piece linked below:

Don’t Skype Me: How Microsoft Turned Consumers Against a Beloved Brand – Bloomberg

Here are my full comments for posterity:

Looking back 15 years, it’s almost hard to believe how well Skype did the difficult bit. They brought a groundbreaking technology—video calling—into any home or office that wanted it. The Skype app did one thing well, and it changed the way we communicate on the internet.

‘To Skype’ started to become a common phrase as the app enjoyed the same first mover or category leader status occupied by products like Google’s search engine and Adobe’s Photoshop. Yet as it grew, we saw the beginnings of an identity crisis. The middle period of its history, when it was acquired first by eBay and then Microsoft, saw multiple redesigns, each adding more ‘social’ features. This could only lead to confusion about the appearance and disappearance of different interface elements—particularly from the less tech-savvy users who were urged to install and use the app by family members wanting to keep in touch.

Skype 4.0 saw the return of video calls as the primary feature, but not for long. The launch of Skype 5.0 in 2014 gave a ‘Metro’ or Windows Phone-style UX to its iOS and Android apps. 6.0, released in 2015, ditched that in favour of a combination of iOS gestures and Android’s Material Design look. Meanwhile, Windows users on tablet, desktop and laptop have had to endure different app versions as Microsoft deals with a fragmented operating system base. 2017’s controversial redesign was broader in scope, with bold colour gradients, prominent emoji reactions and above all a renewed focus on messaging. This generated lots of negative feedback with users complaining of significant usability issues. Microsoft eventually backtracked over some of these changes.

In 2018 Skype is by most standards a mature app. Yet it still isn’t sure what it wants to be, and complexity and confusion reign. When I log in, I’m encouraged to update my temporary status with an ‘Highlights’ image. I can open a conversation with a brand’s automated customer service bot. I’m prompted to start group chats with my contacts. The app’s original core features are now widely available in other messaging and social apps and baked into mobile and desktop operating systems for even easier use. These apps and platforms have leveraged their huge install bases by adding video calling to their existing text-based chat, and it feels a natural extension of those services. For Skype to repeatedly try to retrofit an entire messaging infrastructure into their app feels unwieldy and is confusing for users.

There’s an old Saturday Night Live sketch with a couple arguing over a new product—is it a floor wax, or a dessert topping? Company man Chevy Chase reassures them: don’t worry, it’s both! And that’s what it feels like with Skype—in the face of huge competition, it tries to be all things to all people, and almost all those things are executed better elsewhere.

## 2. Bit more detail on Skype as a verb

Since it launched, ‘to Skype’ has become a phrase that means ‘to start a video call with someone’. Skype joined the likes of Google, Photoshop, Xerox, Hoover and many other companies and products for whom their brand name has become a generic name, which stands in for similar products and services in that category.

This is a double edged sword. Your name gets out beyond your existing customer base and there’s a sense that you’ve ‘made it’. You’re automatically seen as the category leader—the ones that did it first, and perhaps the best. But it’s not all great news. There are lots of companies—Adobe is a great example—that don’t like you using their product names as verbs. Their legal teams worry that this process of ‘genericisation’ will lead to ‘genericide’, a huge problem where it becomes harder to renew their trademarks if a product name is too widely used.

But perhaps Microsoft shouldn’t be worried. With so many newer features that take the product away from its original core service, it’s less obvious what it means to ‘Skype’ someone. Users of Apple products are more likely to say “I’ll FaceTime you” to each other when they mean to start a video call. Millions of people around the world are comfortable saying “I’ll WhatsApp you” when they want to start a text chat. If Microsoft aren’t careful, ‘to Skype’ might end up meaning ‘to confuse someone’.

Nate had a couple of follow up questions, to which I responded:

Currently, users fire up Skype for two main purposes. One is contact-centric: for ongoing, intermittent conversation that’s typically text-based and either one-to-one or one-to-many. The other is task-centric: one-off, focused communication, such as a video call with another user or group. These are very different types of intent and communication.

Skype’s current UX is very contact-centric. You’re presented with a prominent list of people—”who do you want to communicate with?”—then you decide which of these communication types you want to happen. This is fine for users who primarily want to use Skype as a messaging tool and is well executed. All the features you would expect from such an app are present and it’s easy and intuitive to use. It serves the first purpose and works well on mobile, where users are more likely to dip in and out.

But many power users—e.g. businesses, podcasters, the sorts of people who’d gladly pay money for a robust service that’s dedicated to their needs—think in a more task-based way, considering the communication type first—”what do you want to do?”. Typically they’ll be using the desktop version. Their need is to start a video call with person x, for example, or start an audio call with persons y and z. For this type of user, the current UX is problematic. There are too many features and UI elements that they don’t need or want, and they’re all in the way.

All of this means that the app as it stands is squarely in competition with WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and other apps which already have a loyal group of dedicated users. For successful group messaging, all participants need to be intimately familiar with the service and its UX. I wouldn’t be comfortable asking a group of my friends to start a Skype chat. Despite it’s UX similarities with its competitors, many of my friends won’t be familiar with the interface and, once they are, I fear that it will change again, leading to confusion within the group.

These different user needs are subtly incompatible. Skype’s identity crisis has lead them to an UX dilemma that interface adustments alone can’t solve, and another major redesign is the last thing its users want.

Designing page previews for Wikipedia 

Wikipedia recently launched page previews for their content—hover over an internal link (i.e. from one Wikipedia entry to another) and you’ll reveal a pop-up with summary information about the destination page.

The link at the bottom of this post summarises some of the design and UX work that went into the new feature. But why so much thought? It’s a simple, straightforward new feature, right? Well:

  • Nearly ~28 percent of Wikipedia’s traffic comes from clicking on internal blue links. a.k.a going down the rabbit hole
  • Blue links account for ~230 million page views per month
  • ~2 million links get hovered per minute across all Wikipedias

In other words, blue links are the most frequently-used interactive elements on Wikipedia. This makes messing with or changing any feature related to blue links a bit more… delicate and challenging.

Not only that, but not every destination page has the same content. They can have long or short titles or descriptions; images of any size or aspect ratio; differing licence information; or other textual formats such as mathematical formulae or musical notation. The post gives a good idea of the challenges and how the feature might develop from here.

Source: How we designed page previews for Wikipedia — and what could be done with them in the future – Wikimedia Blog

W. E. B. Du Bois’ hand-drawn infographics of African-American life

William Edward Burghardt “W. E. B.” Du Bois — sociologist, historian, activist, Pan-Africanist, and prolific author — had also, it turns out, a mighty fine eye for graphic design. Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in 1868, Du Bois studied at Fisk University, Humboldt University in Berlin, and Harvard (where he was the first African American to earn a doctorate), and in 1897 he became a professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University. Two years later he published his first major academic work The Philadelphia Negro (1899), a detailed and comprehensive sociological study of the African-American people of Philadelphia, based on his earlier field work. The following year, along with collaborators Thomas J. Calloway and Daniel Murray, Du Bois travelled to Europe, firstly to the First Pan-African Conference held in London, and then to the Paris Exposition to present a groundbreaking exhibition on the state of African-American life — “The Exhibit of American Negroes” — which, according to Du Bois, attempted to show “(a) The history of the American Negro. (b) His present condition. (c) His education. (d) His literature.”

Source: W. E. B. Du Bois’ Hand-Drawn Infographics of African-American Life (1900) – The Public Domain Review

On a type walk we will go

What advice would you give to a designer who’s looking to embark on her or his first type walk?

Look up! But also look down! Take your camera with you, and always, always, take a picture if you see something worthy—it might be gone tomorrow. If it is still there the next day, you can go back with your good camera and lens.

Perambulate. There is no need to go to a particular place. Repeat places—you might see something new each time. Just open your eyes and start reading the city. Books on basic architecture and local history could be good starting points. Most importantly, enjoy it.

On a Type Walk We Will Go | Communication Arts

Designer Elena Veguillas discusses the decline of ‘vernacular lettering’: “lettering on manholes, pipes, posts, etc. They are particular to and enrich each city or area, even if we don’t notice them at first.”

Emoji as modern gargoyles

James Vincent for The Verge:

Emoji are going to be some of the most recognizable icons of the 21st century, says architect Changiz Tehrani, which is why he decided to cast 22 of them in concrete and use them as decoration for a building in the Dutch city of Amersfoort.

“In classical architecture they used heads of the king or whatever, and they put that on the façade,” Tehrani told The Verge. “So we were thinking, what can we use as an ornament so when you look at this building in 10 or 20 years you can say ‘hey this is from that year!’” The answer was obvious: emoji.

Eastern Bloc matchbox labels

The Instagram account @matchbloc collects 1950s and 60s Eastern European matchbox labels:

View this post on Instagram

Seasons. (Czechoslovakia)

A post shared by @ matchbloc on

The account is run by Jane McDevitt, Partner at Maraid Design, and Neal Whittington of Present & Correct—both based some 1,000+ miles away in the UK.

From Jane’s 2007 post on the topic:

My interest in matchbox labels lies primarily in the design but also the concept that these small images can communicate to a large number of people.

1950s and 60s Eastern European labels captivate me most. Why did this area of the world embrace modern design and imagery when many countries, including Britain, still preferred the Victorian aesthetic?

Subject matter is also fascinating. As with advertisers, governments were quick to realise the potential of these far reaching messages. Propaganda was popular but so too was public service announcements including fire safety, hygiene, money saving, alcohol abuse and road safety.

This combination of subject and design has left behind an invaluable archive of its time.

A post on It’s Nice That suggests that a book is on its way.