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2019 Was the Year of the Serif

After years of sleek, hyper-minimalist food branding, the pendulum is swinging back toward a softer, rounder, more human vibe

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It peaked with a bougie wellness drink. Minna, a “lightly brewed sparkling tea” that launched earlier this year, managed to compress several 2019 trends into one colorful can: bubbles; a vague no-sweetener, no-sugar sheen of wellness; Henri Matisse-like amorphous blobs and pastel colors; and dark green leaf shapes that hint at millennials’ collective favorite new hobby. But what made the Minna can stand out was how much it looked like a Kirkus Prize-nominated novelette’s book cover — how “Lightly Brewed Sparkling Tea,” printed on its side, was rendered in a pleasing serif font. The letters’ hearty vertical strokes melted at the bottom into little flourishes that jutted out slightly, like sloping Roman columns; where strokes met within the letter, they tapered into elegant tips. The font somehow seems to encompass the ideas of “light” and “sparkling.” And when it comes to how brands will look in the near future, the font is the trend that’s here to stay.

In typography, a serif is an extra line or embellishment at the end of the main strokes of a letter. Times New Roman, named for the British newspaper that commissioned its design, is a popular serif; Helvetica, the modernist font that inspired a documentary, is the sans serif font of choice in subway systems across the U.S., including the New York City MTA. When modernism became the dominant aesthetic during the mid-20th century, its sleeker-looking, sans serif fonts came to symbolize ideas of a contemporary cutting edge. According to the typeface library Monotype, “industries experiencing breakthroughs leaned heavily on this new sleek look. Sans serifs connoted progress and emphasized the future… And with the rise and proliferation of tech companies now, sans fonts continue to dominate for the same reason.”

More recently, brands — especially startups — used sans serifs to signal they were not only innovative and forward-thinking, but also admirably minimalist: so focused on a functioning product that their logos screamed simplicity. In the food space, those sans serif signposts weren’t just used by straightforwardly forward-looking products like the food antimatter Soylent and meat-killing Beyond Meat, but a whole range of brands: Blue Bottle, RX Bars, Dirty Lemon, Blueprint Juice, Perfect Keto, and an untold number of buzzy new seltzers and canned cocktails. The look became so prevalent it started to signal a certain kind of “lifestyle” brand, one that attracted people looking to optimize their lives with better stuff. What the “stuff” was barely seemed to matter.

Minna can.
The extremely stylish Minna can

Sans serifs still dominate, but the detractors are starting to stand out, particularly when they’re used alongside comforting, pastel colors. In 2019’s ocean of canned sparkling beverages, only Minna, designed by Brooklyn-based agency Gander to have an indecipherable logo paired with starkly stacked serif descriptors, made me pause for a closer look. Spindrift, which, to many, has taken the seltzer crown from LaCroix this year, also has a standout logo, a serif font with a lot of personality. Great Jones, the line of direct-to-consumer cookware, differentiates itself from its competitors with, among other things, bright colors and a swooping serif logo. As Eliza Brooke points out in The Goods, Chobani’s 2017 rebranding, which earned it a lot of press, saw its logo change from a sans serif font that its creative executive director called “very cold” into a serif with friendly flourishes, all the better to sell Greek yogurt in a marketplace now inundated with, sigh, yogurt disruptors.

The ’70s-inspired serifs of Great Jones and Chobani, as Brooke writes, have a nostalgic pull, recalling the vibe of a softer, rounder, “easier” time in America (for some, anyway). They work in direct opposition to the minimalist look of the startup lifestyle brands, whose endless sans serifs often went beyond the “cold” of the old Chobani logo and more into the realm of the sinister: so austere as to feel sterile, and by extension, actually untrustworthy.

After years of sans serifs signaling high-tech and forward-thinking, serif logos more generally also convey a sense of rootedness to humanity that’s particularly appealing right now — the reappearance of the hand of the artist. Serif fonts, many designed for the moveable type printing press, retain reminders of the manual labor required to operate one. They recall the tactile process that creates most of the serifs we encounter today: the pressing of ink to paper, a process that’s been repeated endless times over hundreds of years. Unlike their digital-friendly sans serif counterparts, they gently signal that there’s a human element at work — and behind a brand.

The signal isn’t necessarily toward the sometimes-problematic handmade/artisan label that’s been misapplied all over food; brands employ it in a way that’s actually even simpler, which speaks to how many people feel disconnected from humanity. Products that use serif logos are suggesting to customers they’re not here to optimize your day. Rather, they’re just here, something made by a fellow human who cared enough to make that thing. It’s no surprise to me that direct-to-consumer non-brand Brandless uses san serifs, while the Kickstarter-originating cookware brand the Field Company does.

It feels silly to admit that I buy into these signifiers from what, at the end of the day, are corporations pulling whatever emotional strings necessary to get me to part with my money. But I actually enjoy the lie. There’s a comfort in seeing serif fonts deployed in unexpected ways, and when it comes to brands, I hope we’ll see more of them — at least, until that tipping point where everything once again starts to look the same. Design trends are cyclical, and 10 years from now sans serif fonts will give consumers something else they want to see. Until then, I’ll be here — likely in a pink velvet armchair, surrounded by palm fronds, and sipping on Minna — comforted by the lie that my favorite brands (and their fonts) love me.

Nick Iluzada is a designer and snack enthusiast in Los Angeles.