Can choosing the wrong font affect the bottom line?
March 11, 2006 12:28 AM   Subscribe

How might choosing the wrong font for its customer communications adversely affect a company?

Let's say company X, formerly owned by company Y, has been acquired by company Z. As a consequence, X wants to redesign the bills and statements it sends to its ca. 1 million customers. Inexplicably, even though Z has a custom-designed corporate typeface that its other branches use for such communications, X has decided that its bills and statements should henceforth be printed using the Arial font. Could someone working for X, who sees this as an astoundingly bad choice, point to cases where similar design decisions have had real-life negative consequences for a company’s bottom line? Or would such a person be worrying himself over nothing, & does the choice of font really not matter that much, pragmatically speaking, provided it is legible enough?
posted by misteraitch to Work & Money (21 answers total)
From a purely design and typographical standpoint, you are right, it would be a very poor decision. Even the smallest things such as what face is used in body-copy reflects on the company as a whole. For example, take a look at Apple. For a long time, Apple has paid very close attention to using good typography, and it has become part of their image. If suddenly "iPod showed up in, lets say, Caslon, that would be a huge hit to the iPod image. However, I think it would be very difficult for anyone to provide substantial evidence that choice of body copy typefaces has directly hurt a company's business.
posted by dantekgeek at 12:53 AM on March 11, 2006

Forgot to add:

Most all corporations have design standards that carry over to everything they do, from letterheads to product packaging. An important part of these standards are what faces can and can't be used. To gauge the importance of these standards, consider that the design standards for HP comes in a 4 inch 3-ring binder.
posted by dantekgeek at 12:56 AM on March 11, 2006

Thanks dantekgeek—in this case company Z does indeed have a design manual, which X simply seems intent on ignoring in this instance.
posted by misteraitch at 1:00 AM on March 11, 2006

I think it would be appropriate for our "hypothetical" person to go to the in-house design team of company Z, or the marketing department of company Z, and bring up your point. It seems that since company Z owns company X, it would have the final say in this decision, and it would certainly be in Z's best interest to keep to the design manual (and corresponding brand identity).
posted by dantekgeek at 1:04 AM on March 11, 2006

Depends what kind of company it is, what it sells, who its selling to, etc. If its a company selling necessities to customers who purchase almost entirely based on price and/or product attributes (ie manufacturer of a component part to a manufacturer of the larger product; or selling copy paper to a big corporation), then it probably doesn't matter. It also doesn't matter, if say, your sending cable tv bills to my grandma, who doesn't give a crap about branding or image or style.

Of course, if the font is very much tied to Corporation Y's branding, then it definitely makes sense to switch fonts, especially if Company Z is actively trying to reinforce the new ownership. Although using arial does seem kinda lazy though. Its also possible that they want to use it because they think it might transmit some sort of feelings of low-tech comfort, due to its familiarity. Depending on the branding, that could make sense. Or, again: just lazy.
posted by Kololo at 1:08 AM on March 11, 2006

Hmmmm.... thinking no, don't go.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:08 AM on March 11, 2006

After Bell Atlantic changed their name to Verizon, I didn't pay my bill for several months. I assumed all the letters from Verizon were unsolicited advertisements, and threw them away.
posted by orthogonality at 1:15 AM on March 11, 2006

Kololo—it’s a cellphone telco with a broad customer base which does however include a larger proportion of corporate customers than its immediate competitors. The current fonts on the bills, etc., are relics from the time before company Y acquired X in the first place and aren’t associated with any of the companies’ brands. Arial is actually much more like the Helvetica variants used in Y's branding, than it is to Z's brand…
posted by misteraitch at 1:30 AM on March 11, 2006

It's also worth noting that if the company actually uses Arial - a font available on every computer worth thinking about - then it makes it much easier for miscreants and neer-do-wells to forge "official-looking" documents.

Unique design, high quality paper, and better-than-homemade printing are all ways to give customers clues that documents from Company X are really from Company X, not from Butthead B With An Inkjet Printer.
posted by mdeatherage at 2:22 AM on March 11, 2006

It's really difficult to tie brand consistency directly back to the bottom line. Costs are easier. What is the overall cost of maintaining a separate design manual for X now that it's been acquired by Z?

Of course, that would mean that rationally, the design people in Company X should merge with the team of Company Z, and redundant positions should be eliminated. Corporate politics may be more important than any hard business points you could make. To win the argument, you may have to focus less on the good of the company and more on the benefits to the specific people you're dealing with.

If the design people from Company X are trying to preserve their autonomy in order to save their jobs, you might try recommending to them that they use a less generic typeface in order to be able to claim later on that X has its own distinct identity that should not be subsumed into Z's.
posted by fuzz at 5:37 AM on March 11, 2006

1. If the company keeps making ad-hoc (and bad, but that's another story) decisions about the look of its printed material, sooner or later, it's going to have a real mess on its hands, and they'll need to call in some kind of designer SWAT team to bring consistency to it. So why even start down that road?

2. If you want to redesign something, have a designer handle it (designers would never willingly spec Arial, so I know they haven't been involved here). That's what they're good at, and you should get a better, more usable document as a result.

Did the order to switch to Arial came down just because that's a font on the boss' computer?
posted by adamrice at 6:04 AM on March 11, 2006

If they have Helvetica “variants” in-house already, use those. Nothing screams “I don’t know anything about type” more loudly than using Arial. Ask them if they want their bills to look like posters for a lost cat.
posted by joeclark at 6:40 AM on March 11, 2006

I think mdeatherage makes the best point so far. It can be very difficult to tie branding to performance, so make connections to other reasons to meet the brand standards of Company Z. I think fraud is a fantastic way to do this. Part of the reason Company Z has designed it's own font is so it stands out, to be distinctive. Another reason it might be beneficial to be more tied in with Company Z's brand is prestige -- among customers, vendors, employees, etc. If you give the appearance of being a part of Company Z, you may get the better treatment that such a large provider/client/employer can get.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:53 AM on March 11, 2006

adamrice—I wasn’t privy to the decision-making process, but it was certainly rushed and ad-hoc, as last week the new font was going to be something else (Verdana). From the second-hand info I’m hearing, it seems that X’s marketing people are advocating Arial because they think it has the best ‘look and feel,’ of the fonts they had considered! There are time & technical constraints at play here too, but nothing that would make using Arial any easier than any other font. In fact, it would be quicker and cheaper for us to use plain Helvetica. Alas, as this guy puts it go to the bother of creating print material using Arial, and it will look like something your dad printed out from his PC.

I intend to take dantekgeek’s advice, and try to contact company Z’s design HQ directly: awkwardly, as it’s a very fresh acquisition, there are no established channels of communication. Plus, I’m an IT guy, not a designer or a marketer…
posted by misteraitch at 8:01 AM on March 11, 2006

More generally, there's the MegaFlicks example.

I remember when a company I worked for got a new look. Putting the new default font on people's PCs was going to cost A$500 a machine. $25,000 total. The punchline being that it was so similar to Arial/Helvetica that the cheaper printers would substitute one of those two anyway.
posted by krisjohn at 2:37 PM on March 11, 2006

Thank you all for your replies, which have strengthened my resolve to try to fix this thing!
posted by misteraitch at 12:04 AM on March 12, 2006

Ask them if they want their bills to look like posters for a lost cat.
No - those posters would be in Comic Sans, the favorite of 'creative' PC owners.

My opinion is that 90% of 'branding' efforts are a pork-barrel for graphic designers. Most in-house fonts are indistinguishable from one or another of the public domain fonts to most people, usually excepting the special characters used in the company logo. I have worked at large companies that went through the throes of rebranding every few years, at a cost of millions of dollars and enormous quantities of time wasted while people struggled to make the new fonts not look like crap in onscreen displays. A very common response is to try to ignore the whole thing and continue using known and workable font families. No one outside the company actually gives a shit what font you use, except for the 'rebranding service' providers, of course. As long as the text is easily readable wherever it appears, no one will complain. And there's nothing wrong with Arial.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 2:55 AM on March 12, 2006

Kirth Gerson—by the same token there’s nothing really wrong with the fonts that X are using at the moment: in fact these probably have the edge over Arial (and perhaps even Z's corporate font) in terms of basic legibility, in that a sans-serif font is used for headings & summaries, and a serif font is used for the larger areas of text. Ignoring design & branding considerations, surely the most cost-effective solution would be to keep these fonts the same & just print on paper with a different letterhead.
posted by misteraitch at 2:19 AM on March 13, 2006

posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:09 AM on March 13, 2006

$500 a machine for a font site license? Try $1/machine from any reputable wholesaler, like FontShop.
posted by joeclark at 4:26 PM on March 18, 2006

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