Speaking the Language of Type
Unless you’ve been living under a rock all summer long, you’ve probably already binged through the Netflix original series “Stranger Things,” and/or you’ve been inundated with enough clips, links, memes, images, et cetera, to effectively the same end. But now that the first hints of fall air have cooled the hype down to a more palatable temperature, I thought it would be safe to stoke the embers a bit and expound on the impactful typography used by the show.
Since half of all living humans now have this spooky red outlined logotype permanently laser-etched into their brains, it’s interesting to step back a bit and think about how just a simple, well-executed typographical lockup took the world by storm this summer and consider that power in the sphere of branding and (non-Hollywood) design. After all, the opening credits of the show and the logotype they were based upon are purely typographical, which is a very rare thing to find in the era of Photoshop-inspired video overlays and textures. Yet, we culturally (AKA the internet) latched onto it, and affectionately twisted and parodied it into super-memedom, earning Netflix an astronomical amount of free publicity or earned media.
But what gave the logotype of Stranger things the magical power to unwittingly turn millions of non-designer folks into rabid type lovers? For one, the hype and excitement of a big pop-culture phenomenon certainly goes a long way, but ideally anytime you’re coming up with a brand for a business, product, campaign, etc, you would hope there would be some relative hype and excitement behind it. I would argue that the designers of this logotype spoke the secret language of type so well as to pair the exact typeface / letterforms / treatment with the intended effect and audience that the show was trying to reach.
Cinematically, Stranger Things didn’t bring anything new to the table; it was genre-worship, pure and simple, and the same goes for the logotype. Yet there are many, many different ways that the shape of some letters can say “’80s sci-fi” or “nostalgic retro throwback” between their lines.
This great video piece by Vox Media takes a nice, deep dive into some of these other equally authentic-feeling genre ripoffs that came before the now-famous ITC Benguiat logotype in early drafts of the opening credits. From a glance, each of these discarded logo concepts effectively nails the same time period and genre reference, but they each do so in a subtly different way. Those differences, subtle and subjective as they may be, are the whole reason they only ended up seeing the light of day as b-roll in an online video about the making of the opening title sequence.
In the same way, if you were to open, say, a French bistro, or start a children’s clothing blog, or run for political office, there are myriad typefaces already out there that you could employ in a logo to communicate those characteristics to your audience: European, classic, sophisticated in the case of the restaurant; mom-friendly, affordable, hip, wholesome in the case of the online clothing store; strong, trustworthy, likable in the case of the political candidate. Yet, your project isn’t just like all the others that came before it. There are specific characteristics and complexities that make yours unique, and thus make some typefaces right for your exact set of circumstances in this particular point in time.
While critiquing logo concepts at Block Club, someone on the creative team will almost always throw out a hilarious reference that is personally resonating with them for whatever reason. For example: “I really like the script face two from the bottom, but I worry that it’s crossing the line into heart-shaped box of chocolates from the drugstore,” or “Now that you added that 3D type treatment, it’s suddenly giving me a county fair carnival ride that will make you vomit kind of vibe,” or “When it’s blue it feels like it lives a sad life in a cubicle pushing paperwork, but when it’s green, it feels like the most popular kid in school” (…and so goes the hilarious life of the professional graphic designer…). However, goofy as they may be, those implications have to be weighed and carefully examined when designing an identity since that’s kind of how they work for non-designers, too.
Those kinds of ambiguous “vibes” are why I think the “Stranger Things” logo was so successful; it communicates all of the right feelings to the viewer loud and clear by way of stylistic reference, cultural and historical allusion, etc. These subconscious genre identifiers resonate in perfect harmony with an audience of people just the right age to recognize them from when they were growing up. Yet the execution was unique enough that you aren’t able to point your finger at an exact singular source—just like a certain show I watched this summer.