How did 'hipster sans serif' become the defining font of 2014?

The spindly upper-case scrawl has been embraced to death by marketing folk to appeal to Young People and adorns everything from paperbacks to salad bags

Simon Usborne
Thursday 04 December 2014 22:50 GMT

If you haven't spotted it on a film poster you've probably seen it on a magazine cover, or a book jacket, a bottle of nail polish, a canvas tote, a bag of organic salad, a café menu, a Spotify playlist, or some lame motivational quote on Instagram. It is the font of 2014, or a family of typefaces that have been embraced to death by marketing folk to appeal to Young People. If these fonts had a collective name it would probably be HIPSTER (sans serif).

You know the type – tall, spindly, always upper case. A loud but warm, modest, smiley scrawl with a hand-drawn aesthetic that is betrayed by perfect kerning and the identical appearance of the lobes and descenders (Google "typeface anatomy" like I did). It is Comic Sans, but if it were cool and designed for the 21st century.

One such type appeared yesterday on the Asos website, on a poster to advertise a Christmas sale ("20 per cent off big-time brands including River Island, Monki and Vero Moda"), as well as a cloying picture message of the sort so frequently now shared on Instagram. "Normality is a paved road," offered Sarah Harding of Girls Aloud fame. "It's comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it."

Detective work reveals that the font used in both cases is Brain Flower, designed last year by a student from the Philippines who describes herself on her website as "a twenty-something artist, vinyl enthusiast, moonchild, happy soul, and all around good guy". But there are countless variants with names such as Skinny and Ride My Bike. Company magazine uses them liberally to puff its stuff (see also Condé Nast Traveller) and they have become the go-to type for self-plagiarising book jacket designers. Perhaps most notably, no novel by John Green, the author of The Fault in Our Stars (which got recent movie treatment, font included) is complete without a hipster scrawl.

Like Asos (and Urban Outfitters etc), Topshop have gone nuts for them, too, self-consciously labelling their own-brand nail polish with the word NAILS, as if it were applied by a teenage girl with a crayon.

What does it all mean? "It's part of a bigger backlash against globalisation and super-branding," suggests Simon Garfield, the author of the font book, Just My Type. "It's an emotional trend that gives a feeling that, underneath it all, we're not part of the machine – there's a young, human spirit in whatever it is we want you to buy. It's the mildest form of visual teenage rebellion you could imagine."

"Young kids are rebelling against growing up with computers," says Vincent Connare, who designed the often ridiculed Comic Sans font in 1993 while working for Microsoft. Looking at the Asos poster at his South London studio, the American typographer says: "They're obviously making it look like someone just drew this up like a pub sign with chalk. 'Twenty per cent off – boom, we just released this now and wrote it up for you, come and get it'."

Connare, who is from Boston, agrees that his font, which was inspired by the comic book writing of Dave Gibbons, shares DNA with the new generation of artisanal scripts. Earlier this year, James H. Goldberg, a satirical design collective, highlighted that link by creating "Comic Spurs", a hipster update that it used in a series of parody ads for jeans and tattoos. Moustaches featured, too. But, like all bogus trends, none of this is new. The hipster font family goes back all the way to 1964 and Dr Strangelove, Stanley Kubrik's black comedy that featured titles drawn by Pablo Ferro, the renowned Cuban American graphic artist.

The "new" types' ubiquity also now breaches the young people market. Peter Dyer, a renowned book jacket designer at Profile Books, used a typical font called Pisak on the cover of Different Every Time, a new biography of Robert Wyatt, the bearded, 69-year-old drummer. "It has a warm, friendly, human feel without being childish which compliments the power of the photo," Dyer explains in an email. "I also thought it echoed Robert's wispy beard."

Andy Leek, a young London designer, finds a similar aesthetic in the inimitable handwriting of the British artist David Shrigley. "I can definitely see the influence but this is also just a trend," he says. "A certain look gets popular and everyone follows it." Two years ago Leek paid Shrigley a compliment by turning his handwriting into a free font. Tens of thousands of people have since downloaded it, he says. The 28-year-old also points to the decline of old-school handwriting: "My elderly auntie writes beautifully in joined-up writing. If I try and do that it gets pretty scribbly fast so I now rarely even write in lower case."

But the appearance of fonts of this sort on salad bags and yoghurt pots tells Garfield that overuse by marketing folk in their 40s might soon strike through a typographic boom. "These scripts are definitely hip at the moment but when you start seeing them in supermarkets it's clear that they have become as much of a brand as anything else," he says.

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