The changing nature of typefaces

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This week the BBC and Twitter have both launched new typefaces to mixed reviews. So what is the thinking that goes into changing a typeface?

On Tuesday, many Twitter users were surprised to see the unannounced change in its typeface. It was considered dramatic by some, with many complaining that the new style was too small.

User Mark Johnson tweeted: "Twitter, you've made a huge tiny mistake."

On Thursday the BBC Sport website revealed the broadcaster's new typeface called Reith, named after the corporation's first director general.

Eventually it will replace the use of Gill Sans, Arial and Neue Helvetica across the corporation. The new typeface is thought to be more readable on smaller screens and mobile devices.

Through tablets and mobile devices, people are using more apps and websites with their own distinct styles.

Typographer Tom Foley helped produce the BBC's new in-house typeface.

The creative director of typography foundry Dalton Maag said: "[Typefaces] are very fundamental aspects of visual communication.

"When you are familiar with a typeface, a change in textures on the screen creates a different reading rhythm," Mr Foley said.

Different typefaces perform slightly different tasks.

The many faces of type

Times New Roman was commissioned by the Times of London in 1931 after designer Stanley Morison criticised the legibility of the newspaper. It was first used in the paper in 1932.

Gill Sans was made by designer Eric Gill in 1928, and is a British example of a sans serif typeface. The typographer drew inspiration from his tutor Edward Johnston, who designed the London Underground alphabet.

Comic Sans was created for Microsoft by Vincent Connare in 1994. The designer was inspired by comic book lettering.

Helvetica was originally named Neue Haas Grotesk and was created by two Swiss designers in 1957. A variation of it is currently used on the BBC website.

Helvetica - one of the world's most used typefaces - is often used in airports and on the New York subway as it is clear, bold, and easy to read.

But that does not mean it is universally popular. Previously, Dalton Maag founder Bruno Maag has compared the font to a "cheap, nasty" ice cream.

Mr Maag and Mr Foley both worked on the development of BBC Reith.

The broadcaster's chief design officer, Colin Burns, said: "The existing fonts that the BBC uses were developed last century and work well in print - but they're not always clear enough when they appear in small, digital, spaces, and we're all reading and watching far more on screens and mobiles these days."

Image caption,
The BBC's new Reith typeface is already being used on the broadcaster's sport website

The new look Reith typeface has debuted on the BBC Sport website, and views are mixed.

One reader commented: "It appears infantile and it uses TOO MUCH BOLD?"

Another commented: "The new font is terrible, it looks amateurish. I thought I was on a spoof site when I opened BBC Sport, that's exactly what it looks like now."

But one person said: "Don't usually like change... But I make an exception in this case: this change works for me."

Another wrote: "Love it."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Although the BBC is adopting a new typeface, its iconic sign will continue to use Gill Sans

The changes made to the BBC Sport website will eventually be rolled out to all programmes and the whole of the website.

But the iconic BBC blocks - which use Gill Sans - will remain the same.

The BBC is not the only media organisation to design its own typeface. Times New Roman, a staple of any users of Microsoft Word, was created in 1932 for the Times of London.

When the Guardian was resized and redesigned in 2005 it gave birth to its own typeface, called Guardian Egyptian.

Transport for London also has its own dedicated typeface called Johnston, which has been used since 1916.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Transport for London commissioned its own typeface called Johnston, created by Edward Johnston. It is not licensed for public use

As well as the new font being easier to read on smaller screens, the BBC intends to save money through having its own font.

Currently the organisation has to pay a licence to use Gill Sans, Arial, and Neue Helvetica.

The designer of a font, or foundries, gets a commission from companies, publishers and organisations that use it.

Mr Foley said: "Even when you use typefaces in Microsoft Word, part of the cost of that computer will go to licensing the typeface.

"It might be a small amount but it all adds up."

Graphic designer David Airey said: "Generally costs of licensing depend on how many unique website hits you get a month. Depending on the number of hits the costs for the BBC could be enormous.

"An organisation could pay a one-off fee for longer periods, but that's going to be a massive fee."

The BBC would not say how much money it currently spends on licensing typefaces but said it would be making "substantial savings" as a result of its in-house style.