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San-Serif or Sans-Sense?

One consequence of streetwear’s influence on Heritage fashion houses is that by the time a shiny new creative director has stepped through the door, plans have already been made to change everything.

Some changes are welcome, many are not; it is simple to distinguish between the two, since online reactions are imminent. Is the comment section exploding with excitement, or rage? In the case of Instagram and Twitter, followers hurry to share their opinions on ambassadors, collections, and crossovers. When actually, it is a new logo that is most telling of how their favourite brand will be behaving over the coming years.

Ricardo Tisci’s unveiling of the new Burberry logo was met with a less-than-optimistic response: ‘Thomas Burberry must be spinning in his grave’, replied one commenter. ‘It’s all marketing hype’, said another ‘When will brands stop picking dull Arial Bold fonts?’

I’m no graphic designer, but even I can tell that Ricardo Tisci’s choice to reimagine Burberry’s logo is all a bit arbitrary. Along with a monogram that Tisci has plastered over everything from London taxis to Chinese skyscrapers, the famous equestrian horse has been lost, and the wide spaced lettering converted to a flat san serif font. Tisci seems to be giving himself a premature pat on the back.

San serif fonts, according to type designer Jonathan Hoefler, work under the notion that they present ‘progress’, where serif fonts evoke ‘nostalgia’. This is why san serif has been traditionally used ‘for industries like aerospace, medicine and biotech’ ( Now it plays a large part in defining brands that market primarily to younger consumers.

You can imagine the creative team’s first meeting: ‘Something must be done about the logo’ Young, baseball-capped heads nod in unison.

‘Agreed. Knights are so outdated. Let’s drop the cuddly British thing, and do a Saint Laurent circa 2012. Make everything modern in time for our Supreme x Burberry trench coats. How much will it cost to make it all a bit more Arial?’ ‘£50,000’ ‘Great. Job done. Now let’s talk about bringing Burberry into the 21st Century. Sneaker drop anyone?’

Sadly, this may well have been how the discussion went. But what creative designers ought to understand is that you can’t just go around ‘san-serifying’ everything. I was curious to see whether I am alone on this, so I put the question on Instagram. ‘Heritage’ beat ‘New’ – 230 people to 8. In any other case, it may be different.

Some of those who preferred the san serif logo point to Saint Laurent in 2012. But prior to Hedi Slimane’s appointment as creative lead at YSL, the brand had lost much of its credibility as a luxury house. Slimane’s decision to use the Helvetica logo was a necessary breath of fresh air, and based on an archival logo from the 1960s.

Burberry on the other hand is already thriving, with shares soaring three-fold to £7billion over the past five years (thanks to the efforts of Christopher Bailey). Lest we forget, there was a time when the check pattern was the crest of Chav Couture. Positioning it as a quintessentially British fashion house has played a large part in its revival – especially for Chinese and American markets. So what reason does the brand have to shift away from heritage?

The same is happening over at German luggage manufacturer Rimowa, and the designers’ Diane von Furstenberg, Balenciaga, and Calvin Klein. While san serif logos can be attractive, the belief that one-glove-fits-all is short-sighted. In an attempt to capture the attention of millennials, Burberry has forgotten that not all young people want to wear streetwear.

Looking deeper, the decision to rebrand with san serif fonts reveals a lack of tactical creativity. In the case of Rimowa, the appointment of LMVH CEO Bernard Arnault’s 25-year-old son, Alexandre as CEO should be indicative of the lack of care taken to retain heritage. It was the young CEO’s idea to rebrand Rimowa, and to collaborate – quite predictably – with Supreme.

Like Burberry, feedback at Rimowa has been negative; the familiar ‘curved’ logo replaced by something resembling a Christopher Nolan film title. It is hard to feel anything in particular when looking at the new logo, and I’m assuming Arnault intended the opposite reaction. In the hunt for a clean aesthetic, it feels rather diluted; unimaginative at best.

Again, I am no graphic designer. But judging from the creative decisions already made, Tisci and Arnault could learn vital branding lessons when it comes to decision making in the following years:

The first is that ‘Heritage’ and ‘Old Fashioned’ do not mean the same thing.

Secondly, to remember who you are (in terms of brand) before declaring who you would like to be.

Lastly – and most applicable to this situation – to realise that brands thrive when the Creative Director compliments the history of the house, not the other way around.

Heritage and Hype are potent. But a brand cannot have it both ways. In Burberry’s case, the safest, surest route is former; and after 162 years of business as a British heritage brand, it seems they are making a move into uncharted waters. If the response to a simple san serif font is anything to go by, not everyone will be along for the trip.

Words by Chris COTONOU