A few months ago, I found myself oddly transfixed by an advertisement on the train for a mattress company called Allswell. At first, I couldn’t tell what made the ads stand out from the dozens plastered across the trains and platforms at any given time. After several train rides spent staring up at the unnaturally bright smiles of models happily perched on mattresses, I realized: it wasn’t the ads themselves that stood out to me, but rather, their typography.
The Allswell logo uses Caslon Graphique, a striking, elegant font that lends an air of luxury and sophistication to a relatively young brand. Caslon Graphique belongs to a category of fonts known as Didones. Didones are serif fonts, meaning that, unlike the font that you’re currently reading, the strokes of letters have little feet at the ends. A Didone is characterized by long, narrow serifs, as well as a strong contrast between thick and thin strokes (see the difference in the curve and the crossbar of the ‘e’ in Allswell). Together, these elements give a Didone font a certain, unmistakably refined quality that is often absent from sans serifs or even more traditional serifs such as Times New Roman.
Didones first came into fashion around the turn of the nineteenth century, when printers and type designers began experimenting with alterations to the more traditional serif fonts that had defined newsprint and advertisements throughout the 1700s. Firmin Didot of France and Giambattista Bodoni of Italy were the founding fathers of the style, which was then called “Modern.” “Didone,” coined long after their deaths, is a portmanteau of “Didot” and “Bodoni,” which are also the names of two long-enduring Didones still used today.
Over the past year or so, Didones have covertly crept to the foreground of visual branding design for new companies and startups. There’s Winc, the millennial-targeted wine club; Dame, the sex toy company; Everspring, Target’s ecofriendly line of cleaning products; Welly, which makes first aid products; the list goes on, all with sleek, Didone logos are at the center of their brands. It’s a trend, but it’s also much more than that: the sudden insurgence of Didones represents a rejection of the typography and aesthetics that have come to define the 2010s, and an attempt to carve out a new aesthetic space, just in time for the beginning of a new decade.
In order to comprehend the significance of the budding Didone empire, one must understand what has happened to typography in the past ten years or so. At the beginning of the 2010s, geometric sans serifs — those without serifs or contrast in stroke width, and whose letters are built around simple shapes like circles and squares — experienced a dramatic uptick in popularity within web and digital design. As the geometric sans serifs rose to prominence, elements such as drop shadows, gradients, background textures, and bevels began to fall away, leaving behind the flat, minimalist digital aesthetic you might see on Facebook, Airbnb, or Postmates. Many designers cited a desire for increased legibility on low-resolution screens as reason for the shift; the desire for increased page-load speeds likely also played a role.
By 2015, when Google and Facebook pivoted to geometric sans serif logos within a few months of each other, geometric sans serif typography and minimalist aesthetics had reached a saturation point, both online and off. Among Peak Minimalism’s alleged merits were its implication of transparency: the spareness of brands stripped of clutter and ornament felt trustworthy, as if excesses in style were a middleman between consumer and company that had been stripped away. In the later half of the 2010s, however, oversaturation led geometric sans serifs to grow somewhat stale. The same attributes that once signalled approachability and friendliness began to read as sterile and impersonal as they grew more and more ubiquitous, particularly among large corporations and tech companies.
Didones represent a complete about-face from the design ethos of Peak Minimalism. On a technical level, Didones and geometric sans serifs are more or less total opposites: serif versus sans serif, intense stroke contrast versus none at all, tall ascenders (letters like “h” and “t”) versus short ones. But there’s also a more extensive rejection of the 2010s aesthetic at play. Against the no-frills, cheerfully pared-down look of Google et al, the use of Didones in the context of marketing feels downright luxurious, whether that sense of luxury is applied to a mattress or a vibrator or even a first aid kit. It’s worth noting that in addition to the clear generational dynamics at play — the majority of these brands appear to be marketing towards young people primarily — the new Didones seem to appear most often alongside brands that market towards women, be it Dame, Modcloth (a women’s clothing retailer), Flesh (a shade-inclusive makeup brand), or Kirsten Gillibrand’s brief presidential bid.
Earlier this year, Eliza Brooks suggested in an article for Vox that the return of serifs more broadly represents a retreat into the past, specifically, to the groovy aesthetic of the 1970s. This influence is more obvious in typography such as that of Buffy, a comforter startup which uses Cooper Black for its logo and branding, or Chobani, which opted for a chunky new text in 2015. Perhaps the change isn’t so much a retreat to the aesthetic of a particular historical period, but rather, the inevitable swing of a pendulum of which one side has consistently been some form of minimalism, be it the Swiss modernism of the 1950s or the flat design of the 2010s.
The internet has changed the conditions of graphic design in ways that are less subject to passing whims than typography. The need for cohesion across print and digital platforms — for your company’s ads in the subway to look like its ads on Instagram — has led to a minimalist zeitgeist that isn’t going away any time soon. Within the broader minimalist framework, however, ornate flourishes such as that of the Didones sate their viewers’ need for a reprieve from the visual austerity of the past decade, and the political austerity for which it has served as the default style. Sitting on the train, I found myself captivated by an advertisement for mattresses I can’t afford, of all things, simply because its typography injected a moment of beauty into a day spent being bombarded by advertisements that, with rare exceptions, look more or less the same.
That Didones represent a break from design homogeneity right now doesn’t mean that we might not face a new, Didone-centered homogeneity in ten years or so. It’s too early to tell what the visual language of the 2020s will look like more broadly, whether it will resemble the 2010s but with different typography, or if the Didones will helm an entirely new style. In any event, it seems that our relationship to typography and design is at the precipice of a transformation, and I, for one, am excited to see what it brings.
Rachel Hawley is a freelance writer and graphic designer based in Chicago.