A story about visual communication, coffee, why design details matter and why ‘handwriting’ fonts make me sick.

There is a Starbucks coffee stand in the grocery store across the street from the Hoverstate offices in Encino, California. We end up there several times a week. I also visit the establishment far too often at many locations so I get exposed to their marketing all the time. Sometimes they do really creative stuff. It’s not unusual for things to catch my eye but this time it was different.

Starbucks recently switched out the holiday work to a new campaign. It feels like this new campaign is meant to re-establish the Starbucks brand as experts in making coffee rather than milkshakes and desserts (I’m looking at you Frappuccino–on both counts). It’s promoting simple drinks that taste like coffee. I’m sure there is a business case for this but my personal case is that I’m tired of waiting for 30 blended drinks to finish before I get an americano. Of course, this gives me time to observe and look around, so really they win either way. It’s during that wait that I snapped the photo for this post and got to thinking.

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A little primer: I hate “handwriting” fonts. Most of them anyway.

A little primer: I hate “handwriting” fonts. Most of them anyway. I think they are like the uncanny valley of design work. I feel like someone is trying to trick me (think direct mail that looks like a hand addressed card) but they aren’t doing a very good job. There is an inherent falseness about them with, in my opinion, a clear cause: consistency and repetition.

Fonts are made up of sets of characters. There are a finite number of variations included of a lowercase ‘a’, for example, and usually it’s just one. For a handwriting font there may be two but most people don’t use them. When a designer uses these fonts the hand-written-lie (not to be dramatic) is felt even if it’s not noted. Humans are very, very adept at recognizing pattern. It’s in our nature to sort and categorize things. We also don’t like it when something isn’t what it seems; we’re wary of it. These are basic, hard-wired things (think choosing a mate or avoiding a camouflaged predator). I think that “um, I dunno about that…” feeling can be triggered by all kinds of things. I hate handwriting fonts and maybe that accidental-lie is the reason why.

Admittedly, thanks to my chosen profession, I notice this stuff. My supposition is that everyone does but there is a difference between “noticing” and “taking note of.” Little details can make-or-break a design. I’ve seen it happen (it’s happened to me) and I’m not just talking about a consistent lack of proofreading.

Back to my story… With blenders humming I turned to look at a sign that had been behind me. The headline and subheadline were good-sized, at eye-level, and look hand made–and oddly I didn’t dislike them. Perhaps out of habit or expectation I thought “They did a nice job faking that but I still probably wouldn’t go that way.” I kept looking and I realized that I not only didn’t hate it, but I actively liked it. I had to figure out why.

I kept looking and I realized that I not only didn’t hate it, but I actively liked it. I had to figure out why.

I started to compare all the repeated letters and discovered, to my delight, not a single one was identical. The differences between each letter are notable but not too overdone. The imperfection was carefully executed and never got sloppy. There is dust and build up from the chalk or pencil used to write them, guidelines that the letters inconsistently overlap a little. Regardless of how it was achieved the finished product looks hand done, imperfect and artisan. Suddenly the McDonald’s of coffee felt a little bit more personal even in the context of a massive and bustling supermarket. Whoa.

I began to think about what the design was communicating. The message was obvious thanks to the copy, but how was the design reinforcing that idea? Why hand-lettered? My supposition: it looks like someone at that coffee shop, who is ‘crafting’ my drink, took the time to craft this sign so well that even a handwriting-font hater like myself feels like I am in good hands. At least that’s why I would have done it. Did I mention I really liked it?

A hand-lettered style font is used for the rest of the signage, menus, etc but it’s clearly not drawn by hand; it’s more like outlined helvetica lettering filled in with chalk. Smooth, clean edges make it clear that they aren’t trying to fool anyone, it’s typeset and meant to be attractive and legible at many sizes. It’s not to say that the headline hand-lettered awesomeness is not just a font with tons of variations for each letter but, if that is the case, then it’s an extremely good execution and it’s that kind of detail that makes a huge difference. Even when it’s not noted, it’s still noticed.

So I say to the art department at Starbucks: well played.

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