And some takeaways on design as a differentiation

A company announcing they’ve designed a new typeface is rarely big news.

In the case of Netflix, the investment in a custom typeface offers some insight into how design, brand assets, and yes, typefaces, affect core business.

The development of Netflix Sans gives us some insight into what Netflix has been doing since the company started in 1997: consistently find new ways to differentiate themselves in a growingly competitive market.

Graphic via Netflix and Dalton Maag: Netflix Sans

Function and Elegance

In the case of Netflix, legibility is especially important. Movie titles, descriptions, and UI components have to be legible at a wide variety of sizes, on every device, at every distance. It’s surely no time to get experimental with how the typeface is crafted. However, Netflix Sans walks the fine line between function and form swimmingly, providing just enough customization without sacrificing legibility. Considering the entire digital experience takes place on a dark background — whether it be browsing for shows to watch or streaming movies — Netflix Sans subtly emphasizes geometry while slightly expanding character spacing to give the font a modern feel.

Netflix Sans is a lot like Claire — smart, fierce, and packs a punch.

Uniqueness Elevates Differentiation

In branding, differentiation is often a big motivator. Companies need to be memorable, need to stand-out among competitors, and need to be a the top of their customers’ minds to ensure the brand is a key component to business growth. We often think of advertising or the design of exceptional experiences as big opportunities for differentiation, but rarely get into the weeds, tackling something as specific as creating a typeface (many designers will probably disagree here, I dream for one day having a Superform Sans). With Netflix, the bulk of the customer experience happens in one place: the device screen.. Apart from offering a high-quality library of content, there are few opportunities to differentiate from the likes of Amazon or Hulu (not going to get sidetracked here, but Hulu’s UI is…😹). The development of a custom typeface is directly in-line with Netflix’s long-term investment in their brand. The distinct look — black-and-red everything — with a movie-going feel — has been a continual evolution of brand differentiation, and they’ve done a great job, especially in a crowded market landscape.

Although a typeface alone won’t completely alter how consumers interface with brands (unless you’re using Comic Sans or Papyrus), like many other components, it plays a key role in establishing a cohesive, memorable brand.

The Accountants are Happy

“Developing this typeface not only created an ownable and unique element for the brand’s aesthetic…but saves the company millions of dollars a year as foundries move towards impression-based licensing for their typefaces in many digital advertising spaces.” — Noah Nathan

Most startups and small businesses consider paying for typefaces a luxury, but when you’re at the scale of Netflix, and paying for licenses (which scale up with user traffic) can get expensive. Like millions-of-dollars expensive. 💸

The decision to create a custom typeface, in the case of Netflix, is an investment. The design, testing, and deployment of a new typeface is a huge undertaking, spanning wide across any company, from products to marketing materials to ads. However, the strategic decision to invest in a custom typeface is a temporary cost that facilitates long-term returns, by investing in and owning intellectual property.

If you’re a small business, paying six-figures for a custom typeface is probably a terrible investment. However, one key takeaway from Netflix’s brand strategy is: differentiating your brand starts with understanding your offering, customers, and the competitive landscape, and asking: Where can you leverage design to differentiate?

What new, attainable, impactful investments can you make to spur growth?