Typography maestro Bruno Maag discusses the future of fonts ⁠— and his new work for Rakuten

When asked to name the essential human needs, most people would suggest food, water and shelter. For typography designer Bruno Maag, there’s a fourth. “Fonts are as important as water,” he says. “You cannot imagine a world without letters.”

It seems Rakuten Chief Creative Director Kashiwa Sato supports his sentiment.

Rakuten and Sato recently commissioned Dalton Maag, founded by Maag in 1991, to create a family of four custom-made typefaces especially for Rakuten. Based on the lettering used in the Rakuten corporate logo, the new typefaces were launched on July 2 and will be used by Rakuten Group services in Japan and around the world on websites, apps and other content.

Four unique typefaces

The new typefaces are: Rakuten Sans, which is welcoming and accessible (and without “serifs,” the small lines extending from the top or bottom ends of the strokes of a letter); Rakuten Serif, which is elegantly endowed with serifs; Rakuten Rounded, for a fun and playful approach; and, Rakuten Condensed, for a bold, impactful impression. Each typeface consists of five fonts of differing weights, or thicknesses: light, regular, semibold, bold and black.

Why a corporate font?

While often lauded by designers, fonts don’t generally attract the limelight themselves. So why would a company need to commission its own set? In a recent discussion with Sato, Maag laid out three reasons: The first harks back to his water comparison. “Letters are the most important cultural invention for humanity,” he explained. “With fonts you can express love, as well. By shaping the characters in a certain way you can maybe be a little bit more strict, like a loving parent who has to make sure the children don’t do silly things, or being very soft and embracing and giving people a loving feeling.”

For Maag, when a message is conveyed visually, the font plays a crucial role – equally as important as color or the use of accompanying images. So every time a company delivers a message it is making a statement with the font it uses – just think how different the impression created would be if Times New Roman were used in bubble writing. As Maag said, the font “creates an identity” for the company.

The second and third reasons are more practical. Owning your own fonts means you control the intellectual property in that font – they become assets. And the third reason is financial. “For a large company, it is cheaper to have a custom font design than paying license fees for many, many years for a font,” he said.

Asked to name some of the corporate fonts that he respects the most, Maag mentioned the work his own company did for the BBC, for which they “managed to maintain a British feel but make it modern, 21st century,” and also the Guardian newspaper font, created by New York and UK-based company Commercial Type. “We didn’t design it, but I am very, very jealous. I think it is a wonderful design and it works,” he said.

Rakuten Chief Creative Director Kashiwa Sato inspects fonts at Rakuten's Crimson House headquarters in Tokyo.
Rakuten Chief Creative Director Kashiwa Sato (left) inspects new fonts at Rakuten’s Crimson House headquarters in Tokyo, 2019.

To serif or not

A key challenge for the new Rakuten fonts was to base them on the Rakuten logo, which had been designed several years earlier by Sato. Some of the characteristics of the logo that were retained in the fonts include large x-height (the height of a lower-case “x”) in relation to the capital letter height. This makes the fonts legible even when displayed at small sizes, like on a mobile phone. They also have what is known as “flared terminals,” where the ends of letters, for example in a capital S, are broadened slightly.

Maag was particularly happy with how these elements, which originated in the logo’s “sans serif” lettering, were carried through even to Rakuten Serif. “The Serif is very, very beautiful. You can still feel a connection with the sans serif, but it is something different. They are like two cousins, not brothers and sisters,” he said. Maag added that serif fonts have been creeping back into fashion in typographical circles recently. “You can see some trends to more serif design, some very contemporary takes on serif design,” he noted, before acknowledging the enduring popularity of sans serif, which people tend to think is more modern and clean, and which “works very well on… lower resolution devices because of the simplicity of the structures.”

The future of type

As the creative director of a cutting-edge technology company like Rakuten, Sato was keen to tap Maag’s thoughts on future typographical trends. As Maag explained, he is now spending much of his time thinking beyond the limitations of phone and computer screens, about typography in three-dimensional space.

 “I believe that the mobile phone is dead technology,” he said. “In five to ten years, we will all walk around with glasses and have our data displayed in front of us (on the lenses).”

He believes this will create challenges and opportunities for typographers, who have always designed fonts to be viewed from a perpendicular angle, 90 degrees from the surface of the paper or screen. Maag explains: “The moment you rotate [text] in space you get perspective distortion, so for example, if you rotate on a vertical axis all the vertical lines become shorter.”

Maag argues that a new font technology might be necessary for these kinds of three-dimensional applications – one that that can “dynamically maintain good aesthetics and, with good aesthetics, good legibility and therefore a much better user experience.” He has already started to work with one client on such a font.

As Rakuten itself continues to evolve to keep ahead of new technologies, fonts will no doubt continue to play an important role in defining the brand. And it seems the partnership with Bruno Maag and his team is destined to continue. “We look forward to exploring the possibilities of fonts with you in the future,” Sato said in wrapping up the discussion.

For more about Rakuten’s new fonts, visit here.

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