Story Sans Design Information
6 April 2017
Story Sans is a new font family designed for Trade Me — a screen-first, grotesk typeface aligned to their brand, values and tone of voice. It was designed with Trade Me’s internal design team,¹ and is licensed exclusively for Trade Me; currently it’s in use on their preview and Ping sites.
Trade Me is a household name in New Zealand. Started in 1999 by Sam Morgan, it was “a novel concept; people sending money to sellers they’ve never met, for goods they’ve never seen”. The website accounts for a large chunk of New Zealand’s domestic internet traffic. What started as a site for buying and selling secondhand stuff has grown into a portfolio of businesses.
In 2015, Trade Me began a massive rebrand and redesign project. According to Trade Me:
Our brand had grown in a pretty organic way since Sam Morgan founded the company. Unfortunately this didn’t always result in an intentional and cohesive result across such a large company and multiple products. We wanted to develop our brand, make it more consistent, and make sure we’re protecting and nurturing it as best we can. We felt we needed to evolve to better reflect the contemporary Trade Me and where we’re headed next.
As part of their new direction they wanted a new custom typeface to represent the Trade Me family into the future.
We started talking about the typeface in June 2016. The brief that came out of these informal discussions detailed the screen-first technical and functional requirements: a sans serif that works well at small sizes, looks good at large sizes, has clear numerals and matches system fallback fonts. It also opened with: “The typeface should embody both our Trade Me brand tone of voice and brand personality.” This posed a fascinating question — what typeface is Trade Me?
The history of typefaces is rich and varied: there’s a smorgasbord of genres, styles, and letterforms to choose from. The brief narrowed the selection to sans serif. It’s a solid, logical choice. Sans serif is one of the oldest forms of lettering, but paradoxically one of the newest forms of printing type. A sans serif still feels modern.
I started with a careful analysis of Trade Me’s brief, values and a selection of typeface examples the Trade Me team liked.² I narrowed down their selection into three sans-serif subgenres, and chose an archetypal typeface to represent each:
- Grotesk — Akzidenz-Grotesk
- Geometric — Futura
- Neo-Grotesk — Helvetica
We then examined the history and use of each (below) to determine the best match for Trade Me’s brand.
The first sans serif printing type was Caslon’s Two Lines English in 1816. It was in uppercase only; it took nearly two decades for a sans-serif lowercase to be designed. Most of the development was happening in America and Germany.
To contemporary eyes these are clearly different; however, combining relatively different typefaces into a set wasn’t an unusual strategy at the time. What we now know as Akzidenz-Grotesk was one of the first set of fonts marketed as a “type family”. It is actually a collection of individual typefaces, cut across a range of sizes by largely anonymous punch-cutters.
In the printing trade »Akzidenzen« meant occasional printed matter — everyday things like business and greeting cards, flyers, posters, handbills, timetables and forms. Akzidenz-Grotesk was a humble typeface used for everyday needs.Jan Tschichold, in his 1928 book Die neue Typography, wrote:
Among all the types that are available, the so-called “Grotesque” is the only one in spiritual accordance with our time.
He liked the genuine, original grotesks like Akzidenz-Grotesk. Geometric sans serifs (like Futura) were too “designed” for his eye.
Futura was designed by Paul Renner in 1927. According to Bauer Type Foundry marketing, it was »die Schrift unserer Zeit« — “the typeface of our time”. But what was actually going on during the 1920s? Change was blowing through the nascent profession of graphic design. Rationality, order and grids had become fashionable. Influential designers and design schools like the Bauhaus fixated on the supposed purity of geometry, specifically the most elemental of forms: the circle, square and triangle.
Herbert Bayer made this lettering (above) in the early 1920s. It was a fairly typical approach for the time, and clearly illustrates the problems designers run into when they try to impose hard geometry onto soft letterforms. The result is a charming but clunky set of compromised type, perfectly illustrating the adage:
A typeface is a beautiful collection of letters, not a collection of beautiful letters.
For such a rational typeface, however, many compromises were made with Futura. The sharp points of the A, M, and N have to be blunt in the bolder weights to stop them clogging up. The terminal treatment of the c, g, and s is irrationally inconsistent. Renner also had to bow to the necessary optical corrections in letterforms; it’s been said before but bears repeating: Futura’s O is not a perfect circle.
The typeface could have been rushed, but Renner and Hartmann were not content until many trial versions had been rejected in the interests of achieving the subtle design features that gave the appearance of true geometric letterforms.— Paul Renner: The Art of Typography.
The keyword in Renner’s quote is “appearance”. Geometric typefaces are all about the facade of geometry. It’s the same with other famous geometrics in later decades, like ITC Bauhaus and Herb Lubalin’s Avant Garde — geometry is simply an aesthetic. No matter how hard type designers try to rationalise a letterform, they still have to take human needs into consideration.
The sharpness of geometric types can be shrill; the geometry professes to be Euclidean but has to be organic. It’s always false. Geometry is merely a style, not a method of construction. Geometric typefaces are favoured for fashion for that reason — they supposedly possess qualities of purity and rationality that companies like Calvin Klein exploit. But these aren’t necessarily real.
Tschichold instinctively knew this about geometrics and wrote influential polemics about it. And Bayer, despite his attempts at making geometric letters, turned to Grotesks for his commercial design work. These bank notes, commissioned during a time of German economic hyperinflation, are a perfect example of Bayer turning to a grotesk instead of a geometric typeface.
In the 1950s, Akzidenz-Grotesk enjoyed an enormous second wave of popularity, largely due to the rise of the Swiss “International Style”. It was the preferred typeface among typographers and graphic designers; so much so that all major European type foundries issued a comparable typeface: Deberny & Peignot with Univers, Bauer with Folio, and Haas with Helvetica.
In 1957, Eduard Hoffman was the director of the Haas type foundry in Switzerland. He enlisted the help of his top sales rep, Max Meidinger, to design a new typeface. Meidinger was a good salesman; he knew his customers and what they were using: Akzidenz-Grotesk.
Helvetica Forever shows Meidinger’s notebooks. During nearly every step of the process Haas and Meidinger contrasted and compared their developmental version of Helvetica to the original grotesk: Akzidenz.
Since its release, Helvetica has become a typographic behemoth, favoured by enormous, faceless corporations with top-down governance. It’s everywhere, and it’s boring. It’s extremely hard for a contemporary neogrotesk to break away from these associations and feel fresh and vibrant.
For the Trade Me typeface, we focused on Helvetica’s concept of related weights and matching details, but more importantly the regularity of its letterforms. A large part of Helvetica’s power comes from the normalisation of the widths of upper and lowercase.
Trade Me’s tone of voice
Once we had investigated and established the “typographic values” of Akzidenz-Grotesk, Futura and Helvetica, we considered which might best align with the values, personality and tone of voice of Trade Me. To assess this, we used the six key phrases with which Trade Me’s master brand defines their tone of voice.
We take what we do, and what you do seriously. But we’re never afraid to have a good time doing it. We speak with wit and a healthy dose of humour.
There is no fun in Helvetica, or even Futura. Decades of corporate service has sucked the spirit and joy from Helvetica; and the faux geometric seriousness of Futura renders it humourless. Grotesks are serious and hardworking when necessary, but they are not mere drudges — there is a vital essence to their forms.
We’re an organisation with heart. Our words reflect our passion for our members and the New Zealand community. We speak out for what we believe is right.
Helvetica and Futura have come to reflect top-down corporate governance and fashion, respectively. These are not community-driven typefaces. Conversely, Grotesks have been designed and used with heart by the international typographic community.
We may be large, but we have the spirit of a rebellious underdog. We convey a sense of restless drive for continual improvement. We are excited for what’s happening on Trade Me.
There is nothing rebellious about neogrotesks or geometrics. Whatever avant garde spirit they once had has long gone. For good reason, grotesks still retain their underdog spirit. They’re enormously useful and it’s a breath of fresh air when they’re used at such a high branding level. Virtually every company involved in tech falls into the neogrotesk trap and overuses them.
We reflect life in New Zealand. Our language is up-to-date. We share our vision for the future. Then, armed with insight and ambition, we set out to build it.
If the New Zealand DIY spirit could be reflected in any typeface style, it would the grotesk: normal, useful, hardworking, yet also interesting.
We don’t bullshit. We front up. We’re transparent, down-to- earth and empathetic. Straight-forward and respectful, we speak in a one-to-one way.
The neogrotesk corporate typographic landscape is awash with bullshit. The geometric typographic fashion world is the opposite of down-to-earth and empathetic. The only straightforward typeface is a grotesk.
We’re a company built by people for people. We acknowledge the hard work of all the people who make Trade Me what it is. Our members are the heroes of Trade Me, and we speak in a way that reflects that.
This is the most important underlying aspect of the grotesk. It pre-dates all the other sans-serif genres, it was made by many hands and used for the most quotidian types of work. It’s unpretentious, hardworking. It’s humble and human.
It was quite clear — once we’d reviewed the typographic values of the three example typefaces alongside Trade Me’s tone of voice — that Trade Me is a grotesk. And that is exactly what they got, in Story Sans — a humble, modern, human grotesk.
1. The Trade Me design team was lead by Roxy Huntington and Duncan Forbes, with enthusiastic help from Kendyl Bird, Alister Coyne, Denny Ford, Matthew Kerr, Mark McIntosh, Sean van Oossanen, Rachel Radford, Gili Sharrock, Zac Sanderson-Harris and Angela Watkins. Story Sans was named by Logan Mudge from the Trade Me comm’s team.
3. “Renner’s pride in Futura was evident, and he still maintained that it was a ‘serifless roman’, and not a grotesk.” — pp 196, Paul Renner: The Art of Typography. It’s been a decade since I read this quote and it still spins me out. Such delicious cognitive dissonance.