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Southwest Sans: A Typeface Ready for Takeoff

When you’re in an industry as cut-throat as commercial aviation, anything you can do to differentiate yourself from the competition is vital, and freshening up your type can play a key role in doing that. Just ask Dan Rhatigan, type director for Monotype, a global provider of typefaces.

Monotype was commissioned by Lippincott, an agency working on a brand redesign for Southwest Airlines, to create a typographic style that would convey the right message about the carrier. Since Lippincott had worked with Monotype in the past, says Rhatigan, “they already understood what we could bring to the typographic part of the branding.”

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A Blend of Bold and Subtle
It’s a mistake to underestimate the role that a typeface can play, he cautions.

“Typefaces do each have a personality, and consciously or not people react to those. Sometimes that personality and the associated reactions can add to a brand experience, and sometimes they can distract.”

Depending on the nature of the typeface, it can also have a very immediate, bold impact, or it can add a subtle layer of overall refinement, he maintains. In the case of Monotype’s creation, Southwest Sans, “the typeface did both.”

The airline wanted its customers to associate them with friendliness and loyalty, simplicity, approachability, with a conversational rather than authoritative tone.

“The typeface and its use feeds into all of these,” says Rhatigan. “A mix of simple, but not unsophisticated, shapes to give a sense of modernity and warmth; open shapes for clarity; and proportions good for messages that don’t shout.”

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Crafting the Right Message
The typeface needed to have a cross-media appeal – to represent Southwest on everything from the signage for the airline’s desks at the airport to the company’s advertising.

“Lippincott developed the Southwest word mark themselves, and that established many of the visual cues — the informality of setting, the simplicity of the letter shapes, the mix of soft and crisp details,” Rhatigan explains. “They had been using some off-the-shelf faces like FF Kievit and Mundo Sans to explore the overall typographic program, but didn’t feel like these were successful matches for the tone and the details of the items they were designing.”

When Monotype began talking about a custom solution, the new word mark was a natural start to get a sense of weight and proportion and personality.

“In practice, the new typeface had to have a few more distinct details in the letter shapes to make text easier to read,” Rhatigan says. “Most times the type would be used at lighter weights than the word mark, so we had to explore just what weights were appropriate.”

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They also considered how Southwest would be using the typeface. For example, numbers were made more distinct so they would stand out on fare and scheduling information. In addition, Monotype included symbols such as arrows for wayfinding.

Scale and spacing were also important. “The new fonts would be used for display ads and signage as well as fine print and text on the Web, so we had to identify a sweet spot in the middle of that range that could work pretty well in terms of spacing and the clarity of letter shapes.”

From Ho-hum to Custom
Before the rebranding, Southwest primarily used the typeface Helvetica. While that worked well for the airline in the past, the fact that Helvetica is so widely used can take away from the uniqueness of the brand.

That’s where custom typefaces come in. When brands use custom type successfully, their message and tone can be conveyed in their own terms, “rather than inheriting too many of the associations people may already have with existing typefaces,” Rhatigan says.

Another reason it made sense for Southwest to move away from the use of Helvetica was the fact that its design is not as neutral as many people like to think, he says. “It has its own personality, which tends to be crisp, static and clear but not necessarily friendly.”

Since Southwest wanted to be seen as approachable and more distinctive, adjusting the typeface made sense.

In total, the project took about four months to complete, although time was spent before that preparing a proposal negotiating the terms. “During that time, we were very lucky to have a very engaged client of our own — Lippincott — who in turn had a very engaged client in Southwest,” Rhatigan says.

One of the biggest lessons learned was how fruitful a collaboration like that could be. Understanding Lippincott’s goals for Southwest “helped us create the right typographic tool for the job,” he adds. “And their trust in our abilities allowed them to get a more refined and appropriate solution than they would have from just picking something that was already designed.”

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Author: Tamara E. Holmes

Tamara E. Holmes is a freelance writer and editor who has written extensively about business, careers and success for such publications as Working Mother, Real Simple, and AARP Bulletin.

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