Type Trends: Hipster Design

Hipster design seeks to predate itself, reintroducing elements from simpler times and arranging them into marks and compositions that have a certain matter-of-factness about them. The application of hipster design to a brand favors the function of general design elements applied generally, rather than specific marks applied consistently. The information presented is pithy, often set at intersecting right angles about a central mark. To give some visual evidence right off – here’s an example of the kind of work I see inspiring this particular design movement.

This well-restored sign hangs on Howard Street in San Francisco. It’s clear. Hand-rendered in a strong all-caps sans serif alphabet (to borrow a sign painter’s term) with complementing commercial script, the piece has generous margins, and a well defined visual hierarchy. The proportions of its letterforms, and their spacing, isn’t perfect, but its imperfection is also one of its greatest assets. What I see in the larger hipster (for lack of a better term) design and branding movement is a call to appreciate the flexibility and even inconsistency of our graphic design past.

When in 1952 The Dahl-Beck Electric Company needed a sign for their new location, they didn’t approach a graphic design firm. They went to a sign shop. When they needed letterhead or business cards printed, they went to a printer. Did the marks match? No. Was that a problem? Good question. I think practitioners of hipster design would argue no. When a company’s design consistency is a lesser priority, it’s sometimes a sign that other things take higher priority, like showing up to the job site on time, performing reliable service, creating a great product, etc..  There was likely little discussion of “visual concept” with any of these pieces. The execution was the concept.

So in an attempt to appear established, perhaps winking at the irony created by the freshness of their look, small businesses today sign off on the work of graphic designers whose aim is to present them as having existed before design as we now know it. To point out someone who does it well, I turn to New York’s Best Made Company, a manufacturer and retailer of camping supplies best known for their handmade axes.

The typefaces used range from Christopher Rogers’s custom Indicator to Monaco, Rockwell and Didot, with cameos from stamped machinist letters and what appears to be custom inline router work. To those capable of perceiving it, this kind of ‘I don’t care’ attitude toward branding can be quite appealing. The idea that a brand is strong enough to carry diverse products devoid of consistent marking helps get us thinking differently about how brands are built.

That is more or less the story behind hipster branding as I see it. But of course no movement exists without leaving a trail of pieces created in the image of the popular look. Out here one sees work of a decidedly linear quality, lots of type reversed out of solid geometric shapes, physical process-related texture, an inordinate amount of generously letterspaced Futura BoldAlternate Gothic, Univers Compressed & Ultra Condensed, Depression-era constructed caps, faces linear in nature like ATF’s Hellenic Wide, a variety of script faces, and lettering – mostly digital, mostly mediocre, some decent.

If I could make a few recommendations for type I’d like to see used within the genre, check out these squares: Sweet Square, Stratum, the 60’s era Filmotype’s “G” Series, the Depression-era caps of Solano Gothic, Refrigerator (experimenting with its stylistic sets), and Amboy, and Commercial scripts like Dynascript, Filmotype scripts Kitten, La Salle & Lucky, and of course, Hipster Script.

The above ad is Sudtipos’s play on the theme, set in their own Hipster Script and Grover. I suppose I could mention here that Instagram fits perfectly into the discussion, using modern means to give physical characteristics to digital photography. And lastly, I leave without comment a few additional beautifully conceived pieces that inspire the genre, from Christian Annyas’s collection of rail line logos. The Type Trends series continues here next Thursday.


  1. Posted October 11, 2012 at 8:44 PM | Permalink

    I pointed out a similar/related trend a while back in a comment on Fonts In Use. I refer to as “Hip Traditional”.

  2. Posted October 12, 2012 at 1:33 AM | Permalink

    Great shot of that sign, David. Here it is at night:

  3. Posted October 12, 2012 at 12:52 PM | Permalink

    Dahl-Beck Neon Sign

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