Is Archer’s Use on Target?
When type foundry Hoefler & Frere-Jones released its typeface Archer two years ago, it was an instant hit among designers. Multiple corporate giants quickly swept it up for their redesigns. Smaller companies followed suit. Online, Archer became the subject of numerous blogs, with everyone from website designers to scrapbookers granting their approval. No one seemed to have anything bad to say about the slab serif and its elegant and functional, yet subtly quirky forms. But Archer's instant stardom raises questions about its appropriateness. Can a font with such a defined character properly suit so many purposes?
Examples of the various styles of Archer, the slab serif typeface designed by Hoefler & Frere-Jones.
Archer was originally commissioned by Martha Stewart Living magazine in 2000. Hoefler & Frere-Jones combined elements of two opposing type styles: the plainness of antique serifs and the modernity of geometrics. Archer uses ball terminals in both the lower and uppercase forms, creating “a font that's friendly without being silly, and attractive without being flashy…well-mannered, easy to work with, and inviting to read,” according to its designers. Archer is the ideal typeface for a magazine that serves all who aspire to a do-it-yourself lifestyle of perfection.
When Archer was publicly released in February 2008, several other companies also rebranded themselves with the slab serif. Suddenly, you would see the typeface on paraphernalia for financial institution Wells Fargo and its subsidiary Wachovia. Does Archer's inherent charm fit with something so rational and serious as a bank?
In May 2008, Newsweek hired the prestigious design firm Number 17 to make over the magazine. But the adoption of Archer for its interior type resulted in some public skepticism of its use. Andrew Boardman, designer and writer of the blog Deckchairs on the Titanic, echoed common complaints when he wrote that Archer “is so over-used and inelegantly styled [in Newsweek] that reading the magazine is an exercise in futility.” He became so focused on the slabs and dots of the typeface that it became “like reading a garden.” Boardman admitted that Archer is a “great display face, but it doesn't work for Newsweek.”
Newsweek wasn't the only journal to pick up the typeface. In February 2009, The San Francisco Chronicle also began using Archer for its mastheads. Giant white titles now pop against various colored rectangles, creating a rainbow of headlines. Matt Petty, senior art director at the paper, says Archer “offered a bit of whimsy to a very formatted redesign.” His design team appreciated both the range of weights and the “little rounded surprises” that appear in some of the letters. The Chronicle received similar flack to Newsweek, but to a lesser degree since the main content maintained a traditional serif font.
Now Archer is everywhere. A simple Google search finds the font being used for a Mexican restaurant, political news blog, church conference catalog, ski resort, file-sharing website, marketing company, charity race poster and digital scrapbook, to name a few of the 234,000 hits. Need more evidence? There's an entire blog documenting Archer's omnipresence. Not all of these implementations are conceptually inappropriate, and most are even aesthetically pleasing. But what is it about Archer that is so alluring? Why now?
Archer boomed right when the U.S. economy went bust. With unemployment continuing to soar and businesses declaring bankruptcy, with newspapers and magazines folding and personal savings accounts shrinking, Americans, more than ever, crave trust, comfort, friendliness and other fuzzy feelings. Companies are responding, and Archer may be part of the solution.
Before adopting Archer, Wells Fargo's equivalent typeface was Myriad, a sans serif font known for its precision and readability. Myriad worked fine until culture shifted. Banks needed bailouts and society needed reassurance—Archer to the rescue. Colorful posters with warm images of families and phrases rendered in Archer now adorn each bank. Wells Fargo's brand agency was attracted to Archer's “contemporary personable style” that was both “down-to-earth and confident,” complementing the bank's brand. It wants to be associated with Archer's graceful gestures, secure angles, and playful ball terminals. With similar logic, Newsweek isn't the boring bearer of bad news, it's your friendly next-door neighbor.
But not everyone needs a facelift—the aforementioned ski resort certainly isn't struggling with a waning perception of trust like so many American banks. And the typeface isn't exactly free of charge. The smallest package of font weights costs $149, and it takes $399 to buy the whole family. This brings us to “Most Common Reasons for Using Archer,” number two: it's pretty. The truth is, Archer is an exquisitely designed typeface, and people recognize that. If you use it, maybe your brand will look well designed too. But an elegant typeface doesn't simply translate to universal functionality. Perhaps Typographica reviewer David John Earls said it best: “Archer succeeds where others falter. I only hope that in its use out in the wild…people give it the same level of thought.”