In Business

Ethics in the workplace: yours or mine?

Ethics in the workplace: yours or mine?

In this article we consider why workplace ethics are necessary, what they are, and how to introduce and run an ethics programme.

Are workplace ethics really necessary?

The first twelve years of my working life were for organisations which existed entirely for ethical purposes, were staffed by passionate people with strong consciences, and whose reputations were untarnished by accusations of underhand behaviour. Neither of them had a code of ethical conduct, ethics programmes or mandatory ethics training. They assumed that staff would act ethically, and staff assumed that they were required to.

That was then, and this is now. Since then we have had the Enron scandal, the banking scandal, and, this week, the Panama tax-haven scandal. Major clothing brands have been found to be sourcing through child labour, questions have been asked about the supply chains of the world’s biggest electronics brands, and even a healthcare contractor must now sign a commitment against bribery and corruption.

Ethical trade has been the backbone of British and later UK business since the industrial revolution. The non-conformist work ethic is widely credited with creating the conditions for successful commerce. Companies such as Cadbury and Rowntree invested heavily in worker welfare.

So what has changed? Why do we need ethical codes of conduct now, when we didn’t then?

What has changed is social media, turning everyone into a potential citizen journalist. In the past, the whole of society turned a blind eye to things which—today—would be viewed as deeply immoral. If someone wanted to get up a campaign, such as the abolition of slavery, it took a generation to get things to the point of legislation.

At the same time, people’s view of what is ethical is much more diverse than it ever was. According to the 2015 Ethics at Work survey, by the Institute of Business Ethics, awareness of ethical standards has risen from around 65% in 2005 to 86% today, but there is still a wide range of what people regard as ethical. 8% say that minor fiddling of travel expenses is acceptable, 90% say it isn’t. 21% say that favouring family or friends when recruiting or awarding contracts is acceptable, 76% say it isn’t. 25% say taking pencils and pens from work is acceptable, 74% say it isn’t. 39% say using the internet for personal use during work hours is acceptable, 59% say it isn’t.

Some of the disparity may be down to how respondents read the questions, but the 21% of people who favour family or friends when recruiting or awarding contracts, however, may passionately believe that it is their duty to do so when running their own company.

Who is right?

The answer is, in many cases it should depend on published company policy. Which is a problem when there isn’t a policy.

What should company ethics be?

Is it acceptable to take pens and pencils from work? This was the crunch question thirty years ago when workplace ethics was discussed. As someone who has distributed tens of thousands of branded pens and pencils in the workplace over the last twenty-five years, my answer would be: ‘yes, please, if we give you a branded writing implement, please take it home, use it, pass it on!’ On the other hand, when I discovered that someone had been using the corporate colour photocopier to print fake DVD covers (most likely for car boot sales) I was absolutely furious, and immediately had all the copiers pass coded and audited.

These, however, are trivial examples. If you have a company code of ethics that tries to specify when it is acceptable to take a pen home, when it is acceptable to make a personal call, and so on, then it will be so long and so detailed that no one will read it, and even people who do won’t be able to remember it.

When we opened up internet and intranet use in one of the organisations I worked for, we were anxious to encourage staff to improve their IT skills by using the web (it was the early 2000s). The policy we introduced—which I still think is a good one—and which we put on big stickers by all the hot-desk machines was ‘nothing illegal, unprofessional or offensive’. It helped us to develop an open culture, moving us from the bottom of the staff survey results to being the top of our peer group.

Internet usage can create dangers for an organisation, but the big dangers are not to do with what staff might do (it would take an awful lot of thefts of pencils to start eating into your profits), but what the organisation does, or allows to happen.

Consider the following scenarios:

  • You are a supermarket chain, and you receive a tip-off that your most popular brand of tuna is sourced through coerced labour in the Thai fishing fleet. The estimated cost of switching to another supplier is £780,000—and there are no guarantees that you won’t discover that supplier also has slave-caught fish in its supply chain.
  • You are a healthcare commissioning organisation. You are following official guidance in not providing a particular course of treatment. However, you are tipped off that the officially sanctioned treatment you do provide is less effective, and that there are ongoing questions of bribery relating to its approval.
  • A member of staff raises an accusation of bullying against a senior manager, on whom the organisation depends. Once investigated, you discover that there have been numerous allegations over the years which have not been properly dealt with. The organisation is going through a crucial phase of development, and it seems likely a scandal at this point could have grave consequences.

These, by the way, are all real, though anonymised, cases.

The question is not: ‘how do you deal with these?’, but rather, ‘do you have a framework in place that would ensure they were dealt with ethically and transparently?’ If you don’t, then you are relying on the consciences and good judgement of the people who come across them. Sometimes the most ethical people take the most unethical actions. For example, in one organisation I was in contact with, the chief executive sacked a bullying senior manager in a summary fashion. Though the accusations appeared well-founded and the charges grievous, the individual in question was not allowed due process to make their case. The resulting payout for unfair dismissal cost something in the region of £.75 million. In that case, moral outrage led the CEO to unethical action.

A company’s programme of ethics needs to include the following to withstand the very real moral dilemmas that are becoming all too frequent.

  • It must be based on a short list of easily remembered principles.
  • There must be a clear method for the wider principles to be applied to specific circumstances.
  • There must be a process for impartially investigating allegations—including reciprocal arrangements with other organisations where necessary.
  • There must be a mechanism for staff, customers, suppliers and the general public to raise ethical concerns confidentially, safely, and with the confidence that they will be properly investigated.
  • There must be clear authority for managers to make decisions which are ethically necessary, but which are costly.
  • The organisation must have an active programme of audit to uncover ethical issues which are not reported.
  • The organisation must publish its code of conduct, its processes, and the issues it has dealt with as part of its annual report.

Introducing and running an ethics programme

Many company ethics policies are introduced retrospectively—telling a member of staff that they have acted unethically after the event. It should not take a great deal of thought to realise that this is, in itself, unethical. Senior managers, in such circumstances, may be tempted to raise their hands to heaven and say ‘isn’t it obvious that that was unethical?’ Ethics begins where law stops. In today’s Britain, there are adherents of all five of the world’s major religions and hundreds of minor ones. There are secularists, atheists, humanists and people who are yet to decide on what they believe. There are at least six popular ethical systems in use. So, no, it is never obvious. Some things which you feel ethically compelled to do may be unspeakable in someone else’s moral framework.

Law, Ethics and Morality do not overlap, and there is an area between them of opinion


Workplace ethics are what we agree within the organisation will be our ethos. Law is what the law of the land requires. Morality is a person’s own moral beliefs. One of the biggest problems in workplace ethics is imagining that they overlap. There is no particular reason why they should, and there is also a gap between them which is the area of opinion. ‘My view is…’ may seem entirely reasonable and compelling to me, but it isn’t binding on anyone else, even if we share the same moral framework, the same ethical code and live under the same law.

We introduce company ethics precisely because they are not obvious.

Another common problem with ethics is programmes is the idea that if we only get everyone to sign a code of ethical conduct, our job is done. Enron had exactly such a code, and everyone had to sign it. The results speak for themselves.

Because ethics are not the same as morality, we cannot expect to engage someone’s conscience to enforce them. We need a proper programme of staff engagement to do it.

The process I would recommend—having implemented various versions of it in different organisations—is as follows:

  1. Audit of existing culture and practice
  2. Adoption by the Board of a Code of Business Ethics
  3. Creation of confidential mechanism for staff, suppliers and customers to raise concerns
  4. Internal communications campaign to raise awareness (events, newsletters, briefings, social media)
  5. Ethical behaviour incorporated into regular programme of staff meetings, training and appraisals
  6. Action taken and publicised when ethical issues are identified
  7. Inclusion of ethics section in Annual Report.

These are just the steps. Although they can be done quickly, and, in many cases, without great cost, they should not be done lightly. I have seen howls of derision by staff when given a copy of an organisation’s ethical code. An ill-advised ethics programme can be seen as ‘more red tape’, a new mechanism for sacking staff who get out of line, or as a temporary management fad.

A good code of conduct will be both give and take. Everyone is managed by someone, and there is often a tendency to draw the ‘us and them’ line just above one’s own level of authority (‘we are the workers, they are the managers’). The code needs to give something to the workers—strong protection if they raise a concern confidentially, guarantees of fair handling if they are accused of something—as well as including things which can be perceived as benefiting management, such as a clampdown on misuse of travel expenses. A good code should make people proud to work for the company, rather than make them think that they have to look over their shoulder. As well as give and take, the code should place the organisation in its wider role in society.

In writing such a code, someone with a good sense of humour needs to go through and strip out every phrase that sounds pompous. ‘We are committed to the highest ethical standards’ may sound great to the Board, but it is either trivial or meaningless, unless those standards are actually set out in writing. If they are, the phrase is redundant. Ethics jargon also needs to be deleted. ‘Transparency’ relates to light passing through materials. Committing your organisation to ‘transparency’ is far too vague to be of any help—unless you really mean to write every internal memo in plain English and post it on the web for all to see.

What is in it depends a lot on the kind of organisation you are, however, the following may help:

  1. The introduction should set out that the code is part of everyone’s contract, whether they have signed it or not.
  2. The introduction should specify that both staff and the organisation itself are being held to the same code.
  3. There should be a section setting out what business the organisation is in, and what business it will not engage in.
  4. There should be a section setting out the organisation’s aspirations in the wider community.
  5. There should be a section setting out what the organisation expects from its staff, and what it gives in return.
  6. There should be a section on ‘what to do if you have a concern‘.
  7. There should be a section on ‘what the organisation will do when a concern is raised‘, including fair dealing for the accused.
  8. There should be a section setting out what is confidential in the organisation.
  9. There should be a section setting out what the organisation will publish.
  10. There should be a section setting out how contracts and employment are awarded.
  11. There should be a section on ongoing audit.
  12. There should be a section on how results and ethical issues are published.

Ideally each of these sections should be one or two sentences long, so the whole thing fits onto a single side of A4. If this isn’t possible, there should be a memorable header sentence for each section which can be easily reproduced, preferably combining to make an easy-to-recall mnemonic. If your staff can’t recall what your ethical policy is when they make a decision, then you don’t actually have one.

With the code of conduct, publish a list of Frequently Asked Questions. This is where you cover the questions of ‘can I make personal calls on my free minutes?’, ‘can I use the internet in my lunch break?’, ‘can I claim mileage if I combine a work trip and a personal trip?’, ‘can I take promotional pencils home?’, and so on. This list can be as long as you like. As a way of promoting the ethical programme, you can ask staff to contribute their questions (anonymously, perhaps). My view is that you should be as liberal in these things as the law allows: the more freedoms you create, the more power you give to things you do want (and need) to enforce.


Ethical companies:

  • have clear policies which authorise staff to act ethically, even under pressure
  • build ethical behaviour into corporate culture, modelling it from senior leadership
  • have a plan for addressing ethical issues as soon as they arise
  • actively audit themselves to ensure that bad practice is neither condoned nor overlooked.

Ultimately, acting ethically is the best insurance against scandal. Everything else will out, in time.

Archetypefaces: how to choose the right font, without choosing the same fonts over and over

Archetypefaces: how to choose the right font, without choosing the same fonts over and over

At the age of fourteen I was given an art class assignment: design a typeface. I failed miserably (2/10). That began a lifetime struggle with understanding what typefaces were, how they worked, and how readers responded to them. Like everyone else with similar interests in those days, I bought the Letraset book and pored over the weird and wonderful typefaces like Odin and Galadriel. Like almost everyone else who has retained their typographic passion, over the years my interest in the wonderfully weird has faded. It is the hard-wearing, hard-working ‘bread and butter’ typefaces which we see thousands of times a day as body text which set their design stamp on our visual world.

However, over the last five years, I’ve run into a problem. It seems that there is no accepted theory of how to choose a typeface. There are some very useful classification systems, but just because a typeface is a uniform slab-serif geometric (such as Rockwell), this doesn’t mean that it will make readers respond in the same way as other uniform slab-serif geometrics, or differently from a transitional humanist serif, a didone or a Swiss sans serif. In other words, being able to categorise a font is useful for librarians, but not for designers.

Let me say at this point that you do not need to be a designer to be reading this. Every one of us faces font choices every day—something which could not be imagined even thirty years ago. The most universally derided font in the world is Comic Sans. However, every time that you see a document printed out or emailed in Comic Sans, it means that someone has made a deliberate (but entirely misguided) choice to use it rather than whatever their computer helpfully offered them.Hand-2

A few studies have been done into reader responses to a handful of typefaces. A newspaper article set in Baskerville, for example, comes across as more credible than one set in Georgia, Helvetica or Trebuchet. On the other hand, Arial and Times Roman appear to have no appreciable difference from each other in how readers respond, despite the fact that they look totally different.

In this article, I want to offer a method and a system, and I want to discuss 21 ‘archetypefaces’. These are archetypal in the sense that if you read about fonts at all, you will see these names coming up again and again, and they each represent a distinct kind of face and feel. Many familiar typefaces are not in the list: no Caslon, no Goudy, no Avant Garde Gothic, no Palatino, and so on. But those missing typefaces are each similar to one (but no more than one) of the archetypes I’m discussing.

I also want to suggest three essential tools for choosing fonts. I will look at these first.

The tools

The three tools I want to suggest are:

  1. A laser printer
  2. TypeDNA
  3. FontBook, the ultimate font catalogue, available as an iPad or iPhone app

You need a laser printer because print is still king. In fact, print is becoming more the king as the world digitalises. Things which are printed in black and white are becoming more powerful and more credible, whereas internet and email text is becoming more transitory and less credible. It is trivially easy to email ten thousand people, or to post something on Facebook, or edit an entry in Wikipedia. Something which is published in a printed newspaper, sent as a letter through the post, or in a book in a bookshop carries vastly more authority. To understand and choose typefaces, you have, at some point, to print them out and see how they appear on the page.

TypeDNA is a piece of software which scans all the fonts on your computer and tells you what is similar to what, and what goes with what. It works pretty well, as long as you are sensible and avoid its offers of ornate or display fonts for day-to-day work. It works on Mac or PC, and there’s a trial version. Google it.

FontBook lets you look quickly at pretty much every font there is, by category, period, use case, and so on. If you don’t have an iPad, you can do this on the web, but FontBook is quicker and generally more useful. Often, if you can understand what kind of font you are looking for, FontBook will help you find something that looks like that.

The archetypefaces

Full set-Jan 13 2016-67My archetypefaces are Garamond, Jenson, Walbaum, Bodoni, Baskerville, Clarendon, Friz Quadrata, Rockwell, Bembo, Cambria and  Caecilia (serifs), with Franklin Gothic, Futura, Gill Sans, Helvetica, Univers, DIN Mittelschrift, Eurostile, Frutiger, Optima and Avenir (sans-serifs).

The notion: Intrinsic + Implicit + Association

So, my notion is that how we respond to typefaces is based on three factors: Intrinsic, Implicit, and Associative.

Intrinsic factors are design universals. They are based on the shapes of the letters. We can argue about whether the Golden Section really is an intrinsic rule, or merely a Renaissance aesthetic read-back to the classical period, but we can certainly agree that factors such as negative space, leading lines, and all the other principles of composition play a role.

Implicit factors are the methods of production implied by the letter forms. A script font implies that it was written with a pen. Of course, everyone knows that it wasn’t, especially if it appears in sixty foot neon letters. Nonetheless, it carries implications. A narrow font with strong serifs may imply that it was carved in stone. Trajan, a font which appears ubiquitously on movie posters, was drawn from Trajan’s column. The implicit production value suggests permanence, authority and cost.

Associative factors are where we’ve seen that font before, or something like it. Why is Comic Sans so universally derided? For what it is, it isn’t bad: as the name implies, it’s derived from comic book writing. Intrinsically the letter forms are uninteresting, but the shapes imply that it is swiftly written with a marker pen, made to be consumed in small chunks of text next to an illustration. There are many marker fonts and comic fonts out there which are not intrinsically better, and which imply the same production. The problem is association. We have seen Comic Sans used inappropriately for everything. Office bosses use it to soften a message which can’t or shouldn’t be softened: “To all staff, John Wiggins will be leaving us today, following a disciplinary hearing.” People have received hospital letters in Comic Sans telling them they need a serious operation (one reason why the NHS is now so serious about using Frutiger, or, when not available, Arial). We’ve seen it used to advertise products which have no comic heritage, to invite us to black-tie parties, and as a ‘friendly’ font in hundreds of emails from people we’ve never met. Association with excessively bad font choices has ruined Comic Sans.

Fonts which call attention to themselves (always a bad choice for body text) attract associations much more quickly, which is one reason why Times New Roman and Arial are tolerable, whereas Comic Sans (or, for the only slightly more discerning, Papyrus) is derided. Actually, Times New Roman, which once had the associations of the most respected newspaper in the world, is generally regarded as low credibility. Why? Because, like Comic Sans, we’ve seen thousands of letters and other documents which should never have been set in a newspaper font, and whose content we disbelieved, or regarded as not entirely honest.

If you want to weight these factors, I would say that it’s 1 x intrinsic, plus 2 x implicit, plus 10 x association. Associations, of course, are different for different people, and they can change quickly with time. They are also a good reason to go slightly off the beaten path. If you’ve decided that Bembo is exactly the font you need, you might consider ITC Leawood. It does all the things Bembo does and more, but it isn’t Bembo, and so the chances that it will be suddenly associated with something you don’t want after someone else’s major marketing campaign are less.

In depth: intrinsics

Metal type at the Plantain Museum in Antwerp

Metal type at the Plantain Museum in Antwerp

The original type designers, from Gutenberg onwards, were not particularly concerned with intrinsic properties of design. As much as possible, they were trying to reproduce the look and feel of handwritten manuscripts. However, they were extremely responsive to the reading public—if noone bought they books, they went out of business—so the black letter manuscript forms gradually evolved towards greater legibility. This, too, was not just a public service. A more legible font can be set smaller and still read easily, which means less pages to set and less paper costs. Moveable type was an enormous innovation and made the widespread distribution of books (and hence literacy) dramatically cheaper and easier. Still, if you’ve ever actually tried to set metal type, you’ll know that each page takes a lot of skill and time. The page, once set, could not be stored, so a reprint required doing the whole thing over again.

Up to the end of the 19th century, type evolved according to universal design principles (better balance of positive and negative space, widening of the ‘m’ and ‘w’ to make them more legible, greater distinction of forms, and so on). At the beginning of the 20th century designers, especially from the Bauhaus, constructed entirely new forms based on their modernist design aesthetic. Until then, letters tended to be Classical, in the sense that they used the proportions of Greek and Roman stone cut letters, Uncial, in that they used the forms of mediaeval manuscripts, or Humanist, in the sense that they used proportions reflecting Leonardo’s drawings of the human proportions, and also the mathematical Golden Section. The 20th century brought us Geometrics, which used forms drawn with a ruler and compass. These intrinsically have a different set of properties from classical, uncial or humanist letter types.


Futura, a geometric

Intrinsics are not very useful when distinguishing between different kinds of good letter types, because in all of them, the intrinsics are essentially right, otherwise they would never have survived to the present day as body text. Where the intrinsics are poor, letters have often been used for display typefaces. Stencil, Broadway, Mistral, and every other weird and wonderful typeface has intrinsic qualities which make it hard to read—except when set large. There is a place for this, which we’ll look at in the third section.

In depth: implicits

Implicitly, things which look like they are written with a pen appear more personal. Things which look like they are carved in stone are more imposing. Things which look like they have come out of an early computer printer look more futuristic. Those are essentially the three technologies or methods of production which most people have some awareness of. Real connoisseurs of print production methods may be able to separate in their minds flexo, thermal, moveable type, hot metal type and digital, but, for the most part, it’s pen, stone or computer, with ‘printed’ being the neutral mean.

What does this mean, practically? All fonts either have uniform strokes or some deviation from uniform, and all fonts either have some kind of serif, or they don’t.

Cambria JensonAlthough it’s possible to have a non-uniform font which is not more pen-like, in practice you never see this in body text fonts. Most serif fonts have some pen-like variation in stroke. Cambria, a recent serif font, has quite strong variation, as would be made by a very flexible pen, such as a quill pen. Jenson, a much older font, still has variation, but is more uniform. Slight variation in weight gives a font a sense of humanness and personality. Strong variation gives a distinctively old fashioned feel, mainly because handwriting now is almost uniform, even when done with a fountain pen.

RockwellGarmaondOptimaFuturaSerifs—the little terminations at the end of strokes—appear in almost all Western stone carving, although runes, also designed to be carved in stone, were unserifed. As a rule, handwriting is unserifed. The more pronounced the serif, the stronger the association with stone carving, as in Cambria above. You can have fonts with heavy serifs like slabs, such as Rockwell, lighter serifs, such as Garamond, flares which imply serifs but aren’t, such as Optima, and no serif at all, such as Gill Sans. Fonts like Jenson, and Garamond give the strongest implication of stone carving, because they don’t have the strong pen-strokes of Cambria, and their serifs are true terminations. Glyphic fonts, such as Friz Quadrata, are designed to resemble stone-cut letters even more closely. The function of the terminations in stone carving was to stop the stone crumbling. Slab-serifs like Rockwell are ‘more stone than stone’—they give an almost cast-in-concrete feel. At the other end of the spectrum, sans-serifs such as Gill Sans, Helvetica, Univers, Futura, Frutiger, Franklin Gothic and Avenir are implicitly more human, in the sense that they reflect handwriting by not having any serifs at all.

OptimaPut the two together, and Optima is implicitly personal, because it has some variation in weight—like a pen—and no serifs. Univers is more personal than Helvetica, because, if you compare carefully, you will see slight changes of weight. Slight changes in the letter forms make for huge changes in the personality of the font when placed in body text on a page.

So, implicitly

  • heavy serifs suggest super-definiteness and authority
  • serifs suggest permanence, authority, prestige
  • sans-serifs suggest personal, human
  • strong variation in stroke-width implies calligraphy—prestigious, expensive, old but also human
  • weak variation in stroke-width implies handwriting—personal
  • no variation in stroke-width implies computer or machine production

In depth: association

Association is about what products, services, organisations, publications and contexts we associate with a font.

  • If you want to impress English-speaking committed Christians aged between 40 and 60, you could do a lot worse than set your text in Linotype Palatino. Why? Because the New International Version of the Bible, the most widely sold version (except among atheists, who prefer the King James Version) was originally set in Linotype Palatino. Under 30s will most likely have encountered one of the more recent reprints, but if 40s-60s is your target, and you want a Biblical level of authority, Palatino it is.
  • ClarendonWant to achieve the same thing, but for educated English speakers in the UK? Clarendon is your friend. Clarendon is the font in which the Oxford dictionaries have traditionally been set. It has a strong educational feel about it, which may come across as a little stuffy, but noone in the UK could doubt its authority. Go to the USA, where Webster’s dictionary was set in a ‘Scotch’ modern roman, not unlike Times New Roman, and Clarendon does not have this impact.
  • What do you think the ultimate heavy-metal font is, for loud music played by guitar bands? You might be thinking of something spiky, but the most photographed font in loud rock music, and the one you will see at most gigs, is the script letters used on the front of Marshall amplifiers. You can’t actually buy this font, and there appear to be no imitations available—perhaps there’s a reason for that.

There are—broadly speaking—two kinds of visual association which we make. We could call these ‘above the level of awareness‘ and ‘below the level of awareness‘. Above the level awareness tells us that Art Deco style fonts are reminiscent of the 1920s, brush style fonts are reminiscent of signwriting, stencil type fonts are reminiscent of the army. These types of fonts, which generally have poor legibility for the same reasons that make them distinctive, can be very useful for posters, as headers in ad hoc publications, and to instantly call up a particular sense. However, because they are above the level of awareness (we know we’re looking at an unusual font) they also lead us to question their credibility. An invitation to a 20’s style dance in Braggadocio might lead us to check just how 1920’s it really is: we would look for clues in other illustrations, perhaps cue words like ‘Charleston’, ‘Swing’, ‘Jazz’. The reason is that we’ve all seen that particular kind of font ‘misused’ by someone who just wanted to create a 20’s feeling to get your attention, before selling you tickets to the Freshers’ disco.

Below-the-level-of-awareness associations are much more powerful, especially when they are combined with colours, shapes and photography which all softly imply the same message.

Soft implications

Caecilia JensonThe most important soft implication is x-height, which is the proportionate height of the letter ‘x’ compared to the ascenders (‘h’,’l’,’f’,’t’,’b’,’d’,’k’) and the descenders (‘g’, ‘j’, ‘p’, ‘q’).  High x-height gives greater readability within the same point size, but this has only been discovered during the past fifty years. What this means is that the greater the x-height, the more modern the font appears. If you are looking for ‘modern’, look first for high x-heights, such as Cambria, Caecilia and Avenir. If you want to look more classic, consider a smaller x-height, such as Walbaum, Jenson or Bodoni, and most versions of Garamond.

BaskervilleMost books are printed with serif fonts, often of the Baskerville kind, with the leading set to 130% of the font size (in most print it is 120%). If you want people to settle down to read extended text, the associations of Baskerville and its ilk (especially with slightly more leading) are very helpful. This is the underlying reason why the famous study found Baskerville to be ‘more credible’ than Georgia, Helvetica or Trebuchet: we’ve seen lots of books printed with it.

Frutiger Din FuturaWant to give people instructions? Especially short instructions? DIN Mittelschrift, a version of which is now available as FF DIN, was the font on all the German motorways for decades. Frutiger was originally designed as the font for an airport. If you’re wondering where you saw it last, it is the official font of the NHS, used both in the NHS logo and also (supposedly) in all hospital and health centre signage. Railway stations in the UK are signed in Gill Sans, which was the official font of British Rail and remains the main font for Network Rail. It was based on an earlier font designed for London’s underground.

Helvetica UniversHelvetica is one of the most widely used fonts in the world, prized for its neutrality (after all, it is Swiss). It has perhaps thrived especially because it is subtly better drawn than Arial. While Arial was licensed on Windows computers, Helvetica came standard with design-focused Postscript printers, and with the Apple Macintosh, which, for years, was mainly used in creative industries. Result: you have seen a lot of good typography done in Helvetica, and a lot of very bad typography done in Arial. For something which isn’t Helvetica, but just very slightly more elegant and personal, you could look at Frutiger, but it would also be worth looking at Univers—it has slightly tapered strokes which imply a slightly more hand drawn, and therefore personal, origin.

It’s not possible to give a complete list of even the most common associations, nor is it necessary. If you are typesetting for a particular audience, just go out and look at the kinds of things they buy, use and experience. Want to reach teenagers between 13 and 17? Absolutely do not look through your font collection for a ‘teenage’ font. Whatever you think is teenage is probably identified with a previous era—eras lasting only five years in teen world. Go and buy some teenage magazines, wander round teenage sections of toy shops, look at some teenage websites, and look at the fonts on hit album covers. There’s no point asking a teenager to tell you what a ‘teen’ font is. You are looking for things below awareness, which, by definition, they aren’t if someone can point them out. Things above the level—display fonts, usually—are ‘old’ before they are even issued.

While you can search for a lot of this material on the internet, you can’t do a search for ‘what fonts are teenagers using’ (without getting a load of opinions from people fondly remembering their teenage years in the 80s and 90s), or ‘what font is good for selling pies at a football ground’. This is probably a good thing, because by it being a little more difficult, it slows the inevitable erosion of good typefaces used inappropriately by people trying to create a false impression. You need to go through at four steps—first, search for ‘top ten albums sold to teenagers in 2015’, then look up each album, and then use Fontedge (in TypeDNA) or ‘WhatTheFont’ (search for those exact words) to tell you what the font is. You can now do a search for ‘alternatives to…’.

All there is

type anatomyUltimately, there are only seven things which distinguish typefaces from each other:

  1. Letter shape — uncial, classical, humanist, geometric, square or ‘other’, in different forms and proportions
  2. Negative space — counters, being the ‘eye’ in the ‘e’, the ‘a’, the ‘o’, the ‘d’, ‘b’, ‘p’, ‘g’, and the negative space outside the letters.
  3. Stroke weight — from light to heavy and from uniform to strongly differentiated, possibly with some tapering, and possibly heavy at the bottom of the ‘e’ and some other letters.
  4. Proportions — letter width : descender height : x-height : ascender height
  5. Terminals — from slab serifs through different kinds of regular serifs to flared serifs to no serifs (ie, sans-serif)
  6. Ornaments — little additions, such as on the ‘e’ in Jenson, on the capital ‘Q’ in many fonts, lowercase ‘g’ (often)
  7. Flow and page colour — the look of the font across several lines of text

Garmaond BemboIf you know what is familiar for your target readers, you can analyse the letter-type you have found using these seven characteristics. What would happen if you changed one aspect? For example, you could be creating a magazine to rival one set in Avant-Garde Gothic. What would happen if you put a serif on that? The answer is you would get something like Lubalin Graph, similar to Rockwell (one of our archetypes). You would have an entirely distinctive look and feel, but it would also seem very familiar and appropriate.

Equally, imagine that you are updating a publication which has relied for years on Garamond, and is now feeling a little tired. You have a couple of choices here. You could move from the Garamond you are using (there are many variants) to ITC Garamond, which has a higher x-height and feels more modern (though many designers would disdain you, as ITC Garamond is widely considered to be an inferior version), or you could retain the same overall look but move to Bembo, which has a greater x-height, bigger counters, but the same stroke weight, approach to letter shapes (but with a better ‘a’) and general feel.

TypeDNA will help you to pair fonts, but, as a sanity check, it’s always worth looking through the set of characteristics. Two fonts which are more or less the same but one has a serif and the other doesn’t will probably work, if you set one of them in a heavy weight and the other in a book weight. Put them together in the same weight and it will look like a mistake: too similar, like putting 10 point text next to 11 point.

Finally, don’t be afraid to delve into FontBook to find exactly the font you need, rather than relying on the fonts that came with your computer or software (almost certainly overused, except for Franklin Gothic which always looks good) or on the free fonts from the web. If you are going to spend £5,000 on print over the next three years, it’s worth spending £500 (no, I mean, really) on getting exactly the right font, as opposed to one that is sort of right. If you’re spending £500,000 on print, you would be daft not to get exactly the right font. Even if your investment is your time, it’s still worth working out: what is that my readers are most familiar with in this context? Change one thing on that.

Why most business websites are not the business

(and how to fix them)

The year is 2016, which means that, as of this year, I will have been commissioning and constructing websites for twenty years. How time flies. Some of them have been tiny one page affairs, others have been extensive undertakings with hundreds or even thousands of pages, commercially commissioned video and a nine-person team working on the project.

As a social phenomenon, websites are not like any other piece of business communication. For everything else: brochure, business card, exhibition stand, ad campaign or mailing, the question is always asked: ‘what are we intending to achieve?’, followed by ‘how much will it cost?’ and ‘what will we get back?’ By contrast—and I’ve seen this in the private sector, the public sector, in voluntary organisations and charities, from one member of staff to 10,000—with websites, the project is self-justifying. Dare not to ask ‘why do we need a website?’ The only response is a withering stare. But the question is well worth asking, not to give the answer ‘we don’t need one, we’ll save the money’, but because the reason for its existence should determine what it is like.

Very high-end websites, of course, have all this sort of thing sorted. Apple promotes, sells and supports Apple products. Santander provides secure online banking. BBC iPlayer serves up BBC TV programmes. Facebook connects billions of people together, united in a fondness for pictures of cats and dinner.

For most small, medium, and even large enterprises, though, the website can be a mixed bag, a sort of uncurated museum where content created six years ago which relates to products no longer produced or services no longer sold is left to gather dust in a corner, until a tweak to Google’s search engine suddenly brings it thousands of hits. In the mean time, the front page is busy with product sliders, sporadically updated blogs, feeds taken straight from the newspapers without any kind of editing, and a procession of special offers which remind potential customers never to buy at the list price.

The technology paradox

Business websites started kicking off in the late nineties. They offered the prospect of endless amounts of free advertising, publicity without the cost of print and distribution, and a glossy, high-tech finish able to refresh even the tiredest brand. Many businesses set up sites simply because they did not want to be left behind. Techies were in the driving seat. In many ways, they still are. A trio of directors would be tasked to investigate the prospects for ‘one of those new world wide home pages’, and they would interview a string of tech-speakers, who could point to hundreds of thousands of hits on their nearest competitor’s site, could explain http, and how it differed from ftp, who knew about IP addresses, unique resource locators and could point to the weaknesses in ‘bandwidth’ which might mean the ‘servers’ would be ‘offline’. All of this, of course, is plain-speaking now, but, back then, it was unfathomable, ungraspable, for anyone who had not actually been down in the engine room, tying knots in strings and piping them to goodness-knows-where. And those people, like Danté, having gone down into the depths, could not return with any comprehensible report to the good business folk who were making the decision.

Fast forward twenty years, and we all know what websites do. However, even so, the techies have kept ahead of us. Plain HTML? No, it’s all CMS now, sir. Not WS3 standards compliant? Flash? Surely you jest. We’re on CSS3, AJAX, and HTML5 now. Not Responsive? How very old fashioned. There is a very simple rule for commissioning websites. If you ever reach the point where you think you have understood what it’s all about, you can be sure that all the standards have just evolved, the technology has been renewed, and what it is that you think you understand is actually something which was ‘deprecated’ three years ago.

The result is that the techies are still in the driving seat. I wouldn’t want to accuse any techy, ever, of attempting to take the commissioners for a ride, but the very simple interaction is that, once someone has sat and listened to talk of Bootstraps, Angular and Agile, their mind has been subtly reorientated towards regarding the website as a technology project which should produce something which looks very modern, gleams with interactivity, and which is at least a generation (i.e., 1.5 years) ahead of the new site the competitor is currently boasting about.

A better way

If you were commissioning an advertising campaign, you would not insist that all the very latest gimmicks in advertising were inserted into that one campaign. You would be looking for a big, strong, single idea which resonated with your customers. If you were looking to replace your fleet of Transit vans, you would not be pressing for the highest specification, most powerful and most technology driven. In each case, your focus would be on what would do the job. Certainly you would be interested in value-added benefits—built in Sat-Nav might save you thousands of pounds in fuel a year—but you would be carefully checking to see if the enhanced result was a good deal compared with the enhanced price.

What is it you really want?

The place to start is your business plan. What is it that a website could deliver for you better, or cheaper, or in parallel with your existing programmes? Is your website basically about marketing? Will you be selling online? Will you be directly providing services online? Are you, in fact, shifting a substantial part of your business from face-to-face to online?

The scale of your undertaking is going to be determined by the scale of your ambition. If you intend to move face-to-face services online, you will almost certainly need to do it in two stages, first with a beta-site where you can see how customers respond to the change, and then with a full-blown site once all the gremlins have been knocked out. Even then, phased delivery will be critical. Entire businesses have been lost because of an over-confident belief that online provides the answer.

Although many businesses do sell effectively online (though, often, this is actually by hooking into a larger set of sub-systems available from third-party providers), the vast majority looking to redevelop their websites (or who should be looking to it, given the non-fitness-for-purpose of their current offering) are essentially looking to promote their brand or market their products/services.

However, ‘marketing’ is a term that covers many things. Consider the classic marketing mix: Product, Place, Price, Promotion, or the extended mix for services including People, Physical Evidence and Processes. Which aspects of your marketing are you looking to boost through the web? What is the finish point? Do you want people to be able to quickly research your product/service online, conclude that it’s a good one, and put you into their shortlist of three? Do you want them to be able to check the specifications against a competitor and place an order? Do you want them to come off the web and get onto the phone?

A website, in principle, could replace a salesperson—either reducing your costs or broadening your reach. But will it? If your product/service requires an hour’s conversation with a customer for you to understand what their need is and how you should meet it, is the website ever going to be in a position to do that? Is the website actually there in order to facilitate a call to the salesperson—in which case your call to action is not ‘Buy now’ but ‘Ring now’ or ‘Book an appointment now’.

For whom?

Is your site really aimed at everyone? One of the great lures of the web is that you can now reach the entire world. Actually, in this way it is no better than the Yellow Pages. Twenty years ago publishing your phone number and type of business in the Yellow Pages would lead to a certain number of calls a month. Unless your business was general by nature (plumber, electrician, carpet fitter, holiday kennels), many of the calls would be disappointments. Notwithstanding a clear statement of ‘Dutch Translator’ (if that was you), most of the Yellow Pages calls would be from people who wanted to ask if you could do German, or French, or if you were prepared to do a couple of days work for free.

I have written elsewhere about the perils of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). There are lots of people who will be happy, for a fee, to raise your site in the rankings, but this is to no avail if your tea-cakes in Chipping Campden business is then inundated with requests from Oregon for shipments of soup.

A clear understanding of the profile of the customers you want to reach will fundamentally transform how you create your website. Are you selling video games to sixteen year olds? If so, sound-effects, moving elements, little puzzles and easter eggs and extensive video footage will be the order of the day. If you aren’t selling video games to sixteen year olds, you may actually be distancing yourself from your customers by including these kinds of things. Does your antique clocks and watches site really need a YouTube video of a watch ticking?

Not just the interactivity, but also the style will be determined by your target customers. Are you selling a premium product? Jaunty text and a cluttered page will make it look like a bargain-basement sale. Are your customers highly knowledgeable? They probably expect authoritative technical specifications and extensive support documentation.

What’s the message?

How often have you been on a website and can’t work out what the owner is trying to tell you. Aside from the obvious ‘here are the products, buy now’, many sites miss the opportunity to make their case to the viewer. This is not just for businesses. Charities, political parties, public services and clubs all have messages they need to get across. To know your message, you need first to understand your audience. If 90% of your visitors are casual enquirers encountering your organisation for the first time, you need to be able to tell them why they should stay interested in 18 characters or less—the typical reading length that goes into short-term memory.

It’s how I tell them

The audience, the message and the purpose together must determine the look and feel of your site.

This is more or less the opposite of the way most sites are constructed. For start-up businesses and casual site builders, it begins with surfing for a few themes or templates, or looking at other sites you like the look of. For enterprise level, the web-design team usually turns up at the first meeting with some concepts, based on their preliminary research. They do this because this is what clients generally want: they are embarking on a long and dark journey of web-development, and they are thrilled that the people they are commissioning to take them there already seem to have a map and a photograph of the destination.

Are you selling designer clothes to commercial buyers? If so, then you should treat them the way you would take them into your studio, showing one thing at a time, in ideal lighting conditions, with an opportunity to walk all round something and study the detail of fabric, stitching, cut and form, and perhaps to read a short ‘artist statement’ explaining how it is you came to this particular design.

Are you supplying industrial materials by the metre for the construction industry? In that case, an on-site calculator which can specify costs including delivery charges, and enables the customer to compare a range of different specifications will make life much easier for them, whereas nice photographs of your factory will be little more than… nice photographs.

Are you selling tickets to a theatre or cinema? People want to know what’s on, when it’s on, if there are tickets left, and how much they cost. Answer those questions in a way which subtly suggests the ambience and excitement of your venue, and you have won them over.

URL stands for Unique Resource Locator, but most URLs take you to a site which is anything but unique. The design is effectively the brand of the web-designer, with the site owner’s own logo more-or-less glued onto the top left hand corner. The photographs are either poorly executed shots of the staff, factory and products, or else they are impossibly glossy photographs from a stock website — many of which will have been used on thousands of other sites as well.

In most cases, a small investment in good quality photography of your team, your products/services and some people enjoying or using them will give your site a compelling unity. At that point, there is no need for sliders (which attempt to cover up the weaknesses in an image by using several), sporadic blogs, BBC news feeds, widgets giving out the time and the weather, and all the other things which clutter rather than enhance many sites.

The perfect website

If potential customers, service users or supporters arrive at your website and immediately feel that it is designed for them, with answers to the questions they have, pictures that they feel are right for what they want, and a written style that makes them feel at home, and if this leads them to the next step, be it placing an order, ringing a salesperson, making a donation or booking an appointment, and if it does this consistently whether they are using a smartphone, tablet or laptop, then you have the perfect website.

That’s all there is to it. Most sites, however, are far from perfect. However, your existing platform, be it Drupal, Concrete5, WordPress, flat HTML or cardboard boxes held together with sticky tape, is almost certainly capable of being tweaked so that it is.

As with all things web, content is king. Don’t be misled into thinking otherwise.

Britain’s most iconic brands, as one says farewell

Britain’s most iconic brands, as one says farewell

There are annual tables of the coolest, most profitable and most popular brands for the world, the UK, and even for market niches. The algorithms for each of the tables are proprietary, and secret (and may well involve a lot of jiggery pokery to produce the ‘right’ answer) but we seldom get lists of iconic brands.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that ‘iconic’ needs a bit of definition. The term is often used to mean ‘really, really, really very good and big and everything and like, well, so totally up there with the others’. It is naturally hard to quantify ‘iconic’ if it means that. The second is that iconicity is not particularly volatile. Iconic brands stay iconic for a generation. If they don’t, they aren’t iconic.

Actually, ‘iconic’ doesn’t mean that long sentence I mentioned. If we discount its usage for Russian religious paintings, the term refers to brands which are so widely understood that they can be used to represent other things without confusion. The ‘mail’ icon for your email programme works because it’s obvious (more or less) what it is.

With that in mind, it’s actually not at all difficult to quantify and track iconic brands. We just need to look at what writers are writing about. To the rescue, then, Google Ngram viewer — a way of searching the text of hundreds of thousands of books. Books are the way to go here, because they are much less susceptible to fads and trends, to PR and marketing, to deliberate product placement, and to reviews. If you tried the same exercise with the Internet as a whole, you would get a snapshot of how hard people are working to beat the system, using ‘Search Engine Optimisation’. Mercifully, no one has yet got a system for getting that into published books.

Because iconic brands change only on a generational basis, there isn’t a good time for publishing lists of them. Except for now. It’s fitting to mark some of the businesses or products which have become symbols in their own right because one of them will shortly be no more.

The UK top ten iconic brands

In order, the top ten brands are BBC, NHS, Post Office/Royal Mail, Land Rover, British Rail, Harrods, Lego, Rolls Royce, Marmite and Ronseal.

The UK top 10

The UK top 10

I should explain the jiggery-pokery here. All these are brands which, in Britain, are unique in their fields. Tesco is actually mentioned in writing more in 2008 than most of the others (excluding the BBC and the NHS, which dwarf everything), but Tesco is not iconic because it can’t be used as a representative type. John Lewis does nearly as well as Harrods, and is definitely on its way to iconicity, but it is not quite there yet. You can’t simply refer to ‘John Lewis’ in a piece of writing and expect everyone to know what set of ideas and feelings you are referring to. There are quite a few other candidates for iconicity which have a huge influence on our culture, but which generally only represent themselves. Cadbury vies with the Post Office for the number of times it’s mentioned, and it is clearly one of Britain’s best loved brands, but it represents a particular kind of confectionary, not confectionary as a whole.

You might argue that the BBC and the NHS only represent themselves, but they are used in such an all-encompassing fashion that it’s hard not to list them as iconic. Interestingly, they are almost opaque to non-Brits. My wife, being Dutch, cannot fathom the attachment to 1970s BBC children’s programmes for people of a certain age. The NHS, though known across the world, is misunderstood to a more or less maximum level by many Americans.

Number 3 iconic brand

Number 3 iconic brand: the Post Office

After the BBC and the NHS, the Post Office dwarfs the others— especially if you add in ‘Royal Mail’, which, on its own, does creditably.

I’ve broken out the numbers 4-10 separately, because this is the level at which you can see how things interrelate a bit more.

Brands 4-10

Brands 4-10

British Rail was abolished in 1997, and yet still manages to keep up with the others. Many people refer to British Rail as if it still existed. It may be a surprise that Land Rover is bigger than Harrods or Lego. More on that in a moment. I’ve included Lego because, although it’s a Danish company, it is iconic in its use in the UK. Meccano has the same kind of resonance, but it now languishes lower than Marmite.

Rolls Royce, of course, is the iconic brand of all iconic brands. The ‘Rolls Royce’ of any category is the premium, most sumptuous, most luxurious and most desirable thing in that category. I occasionally (rather mischievously) ask people to name the most premium brand of cars. ‘Mercedes’, ‘Audi’, ‘Ferrari’ are often mentioned, until I ask them about Rolls Royce. At that point, everyone agrees, The Rolls Royce of cars is… Rolls Royce.

Marmite has worked hard to leverage its iconicity to drive sales. I often wonder how Marmite makes a profit. I love Marmite, but a medium sized jar lasts us about a year. Who is buying all the Marmite? Someone clearly is. There was a marvellous Time Out ‘Overheard in London’ a couple of years ago: “My boyfriend says he’s so-so about Marmite. Now I can’t believe anything he says”.

Ronseal is an up and coming icon, but it is so universally used to describe other things that it deserves its place. When someone says ‘I’m the Ronseal of … — I do exactly what I say on the tin’, we all know what they mean. We also think they’re a bit of a wally for comparing themselves with varnish that dries in 30 minutes. Nonetheless, everyone knows what they’re talking about.

Apple is not on the list. Even if you subtract all the usages of the word ‘Apple’ with a capital A before the 1970s, when the company did not exist, it does very well—not competing with the NHS or the BBC, but very well. But Apple is not iconic in that sense. Apple means very different things to different people (just look at any internet discussion of it—it degenerates into a flame war pretty quickly).

The advantage of Iconicity

Iconicity can be a mixed blessing. If a brand isn’t careful, its Trade Mark degenerates into just a commonly used term, and everyone gets to use it. Public sector icons, like British Rail and the Post Office, become easier targets for sell-offs, while the BBC and the NHS are regularly kicked around as political footballs. For commercial products, though, iconic status can be a coveted prize. Many people who love cars would rather own a Morgan than a Rolls Royce, but it’s Rolls Royce which has the iconic status (if you have the money and want something which combines aspects of both, consider a Panther). Marmite’s monopoly on extremely strongly flavoured spreads is in the UK pretty much unbreakable. Marmite is banned from some countries because of its strength. In a world where modular toys are easy to manufacture, it is the Lego brand which has taught generations of parents to avoid the cheaper, off-brand brick-shaped toys and succumb to only buying Lego if it’s Lego that is asked for. Fake Lego is probably one of the biggest disappointments of any possible gifts.

One of the companies that has done the most with its iconic status in the last ten years is Jaguar Land Rover, and it is to part of that which we must now say farewell.

Goodbye Land Rover Defender


1982 Series III

The two millionth Land Rover rolled off the line in Coventry recently, and was sold at auction for £400,000 the Coventry Telegraph reported this week. Two million requires adding up all the Series I, II, III, Stage II and Defender models produced from 1947 to 2015—the classic ‘Land Rover’ shape. Production ends in January 2016. The successor has not yet been announced.

According to one claim, 80% of all the Land Rovers ever built are still in operation somewhere in the world. I have to say I’m slightly sceptical about that figure: there are parts from at least three Land Rovers in my 1982 Series III, and it’s the ability to cannibalise old Land Rovers for spares (as well as people’s penchant for fixing them with whatever happens to be around, including Meccano, that keeps them going. My particular vehicle was on Heathrow airport for most of its working life, which accounts for the yellow paint job and the white stripe.

Jaguar Land Rover has leveraged the rugged vehicle’s iconic status with exceptional skill over the last ten years, taking a car maker that was on its last legs to be a leading West Midlands, and, indeed, UK exporter, though it’s the posh Range Rover models which are the ones everyone wants to buy.

I’m hopeful, of course, that JLR will announce something which is more Land Rover than Land Rover when the Defenders come to an end. Even if they don’t, the lesson from British Rail is hopeful: as long as the concept exists in people’s minds, the brand will remain a British icon.

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