All Change At VW in the Font Department

I am not an expert in graphic design which means the very subtle differences in sans-serif fonts often elude me, especially when the font is a version of Helvetica.

2015 VAG font change
For graphic designers such differences are as clear to them as the difference between an Audi A6 and an Audi A4 is to me. Thus it is with some bemusement I note VW has elected to change their corporate font to something very slightly different. If you look closely you notice the “a” has changed the most and the letters seem slightly different.

Car Design News reports VW’s change with a straight face: “The carmaker says that its new typeface is inspired by “its distinctive vehicle design,” and that it’s “more contemporary, less geometric, and features more dynamic contrast” than the outgoing font, which is a customized version of the Bauhaus-inspired Futura.” Jalopnik are more critical, correctly identifying the part about dynamic contrast as being PR nonsense. You get the feeling that the writer wanted to say three things but could only think of two good things and the third was an act of desperation.

Why is this interesting? I suppose becuase this kind of change is driven by people really focused on their work who can see small changes in the way ordinary people can’t. And while this is sometimes good – that’s the expert’s insight – sometimes this level of detail awareness is destructive. Someone in the graphic department at some point began to get worked up over the previous font and saw it as an “issue”. A succession of meetings resulted in passionate explanations of why the old font was destroying VW and a new one would save it as certainly as pennicilin saves you from blood poisoning.

The reality is that there is not a single person on planet earth who would not consider a VW car on the basis of the font used to sell it, not in the sense that they’d notice the previous font which was essentially generic. In a way this is analagous to the very tiny changes made from model to model that only the designer notices. Such changes add nothing to the car but cost and seem to me to be only there because someone is trying to justify their job.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

12 thoughts on “All Change At VW in the Font Department”

  1. That’s a perfect case for “evolution”, if the term is used meaning these kinds of – for the occasional observer – subconscious changes.
    Although I tend to the conservative side in this particular case, without these small, incremental, piecemeal steps that no one other than the experts notices, we’d still live in caves eating millet gruel with our bare hands.

  2. As you point out, the official explanation is PR flummery. The new typeface has been chosen purely to improve readability on devices. The old face likely also lacked an international version for those all important foreign markets. Style wise however this is a retrograde step; they might as well have used Verdana from MS Office.

    1. That’s exactly my point: Take together 20 such steps in a period of, say, 50 years. On each of those single steps you could argue over there being progress or not. The differences are minor.
      But the difference between the initial and the final state is significant.
      What is progress, then?

    2. Is it only progress when it comes in giant portions? Most progress is a matter of long time work and small, tedious steps.

    3. (Not that I consider the step we discuss here an especially tedious one.)

  3. I actually find the difference quite marked, but then I also have a lot of interest in fonts (not that I’m a professional in this area). If it’s a progress I fibd hard to tell. On one hand, Futura is not only a Bauhaus font, but has also been used a lot in the 1960/70s. Thus it’s strongly anchored in certain times and has a retro flavour therefore. On the other hand, it speaks simplicity and rationalism and so is more “modern” than many things that came afterwards.
    Maybe we should look at it as Chris suggests and rate it as a progress as it’s an adaptation to the technologies that we use today. So, it’s a technical one but not necessarily a creative one.

  4. I respect anyone who can see the difference between VW’s two fonts. That said, I feel the change is really small and not something consumers demanded. It seems like change for its own sake, driven by people out of touch with customers’ perceptions. Will it make sales? I doubt it.

  5. I can see the difference, but I don’t think it is a positive one. The change has served to highlight something actually quite distinctive about the font that VW has been using. There is something quite utilitarian, functional but well engineered about it that, for me, has said something about VWs. My thoughts about VW are probably as out of date as their script, but that does not make either wrong about what’s good for the marque. Obviously VW is just not Audi enough nowadays …

  6. On reflection, I think the best PR approach to this matter would have been to say nothing. I accept that perhaps a case could be made for greater legibility or ease of use across media but this is really a technical and not a design matter. The strategic error was to think that telling the world about the change in terms of design made VW look more stupid than it is. Such a change is in the same catagory of changing paint supplier or getting a new logistics programme. We didn´t need to be told. Had someone noticed and asked the short answer ought to have been “Oh, the font. Yes, it´s different. We tweaked it a little for practical reasons. Thanks for your interest.” . I ought not to have reported it!

  7. Typography is often dismissed as the concern of navel gazing Graphic Designers. In practice, each typeface has a character of its own (so to speak) connoting ideals that even a layperson is aware of, even if only subliminally. VW used Futura because it appeared clean and modern, ideals to which the brand aspired. Where Futura suffers is in readability at smaller sizes. In Typography terms, the X Height is low compared to the Cap Height, which emphasizes the interlinear space and makes lines of lowercase text look vertically compressed and dense. There was no reason why VW could not have commissioned their own body text version of Futura to mitigate this; after all, VW is a company whose reputation has been forged with the diligent iteration of familiar shapes.

  8. Thanks for that explanation. It confirms my idea that the font change was not something to have been treated to a PR spin. A lot of detail design is like this. It matters but not in a way amenable marketing communication methods. I think language is not up to the job of dignifying these micro-quantitative choices.

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