What a change in font says about the future of malls in America

August 30, 2014

The existing Tysons Galleria sign, with a blend of fonts. (Fairfax County Department of Planning and Zoning)

The proposed redesign, which features sleek, sans serif font. (Fairfax County Department of Planning and Zoning)

The letters are clean and smooth, no extra frills or flares, just basic, readable type.

You might see them while reading your favorite online magazine or scrolling through your Twitter feed. Or maybe, when you’re pulling into the mall parking lot.

That’s because the Internet has changed everything. Even the signs at the mall.

At least that’s what font and design experts are saying about the proposed redesign at Tysons Galleria, the upscale shopping mall in Tysons Corner. The mall’s logo is set to change from a discombobulated arrangement of uppercase and lowercase, thick and thin, block-like and swirly letters to a sleek, all-capital sans serif that its marketing team calls “clean, sophisticated, identifiable.”

It looks a lot like something you might see online, where quirky fonts have gone out of fashion in favor of white space, simple navigation and a swath of sans serifs.

“Because we are constantly in that space, it has an effect on how we perceive what is modern,” said Geoff Halber, co-founder of Everything-Type Center, a graphic design company in New York. “We expect to see the principles of function we see on Web sites which are based on grids, order and logic.”

The logo is just one change in the rapidly growing Tysons Corner area, where the arrival of the Silver Line and the constant construction of hotels and residences are all part of a measured effort by businesses to make the suburb “America’s Next Great City.

The new logo, which will appear on 12 signs once it’s approved by the Fairfax County Planning Commission, is composed of all capitalized, silver and black letters. The font, designers say, is Futura, “a staple of graphic communication,” according to Allan Haley, director of words and letters at font technology company Monotype. Although it was created in the 1920s, Futura has regained popularity in the past two decades.

“While some fonts set out to create a mood or a brand, Futura just provides information,” Haley said.

The color palette is also subdued. “Black and silver is associated with elegance, wedding invites or black-tie formals,” said Corcoran School of the Arts and Design professor Antonio Alcalá.

In advertising, all of this subtlety has an added benefit: It makes you skim over the mall logo and focus on the products.

“They’re communicating these messages without somebody having to ponder them,” Alcalá said. You’re not supposed to notice the design; you’re supposed to want to shop.

Simple logos that can be shrunk to fit neatly on Twitter icons or corners of advertisements were also used in last year’s rebrand of the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. The new logo is colorful, but it can also be minimized to simple white text on a black background. Joe Duffy, the lead designer, said the idea is to make people focus on the experiences they want at the mall, like shopping and dining, instead of the idea of going to the mall itself.

“Fifteen, 20 years ago, malls were looked at as this great, diverse kind of shopping experience. But the attitude toward malls today is that they sort of all blend together,” Duffy said.

Many malls haven’t survived that shift. A viral BuzzFeed post called “Completely Surreal Photos Of America’s Abandoned Malls” showed a congested map of the “dead malls” of America. Concentrated in the Midwest, the photos showed broken furniture, dead plants and no-smoking signs scattered among dust-covered escalators and food courts. The hauntingly empty spaces closed down months, sometimes years before. They’ll likely soon be demolished, the same fate as Landover Mall in Prince George’s County. Springfield Mall in Northern Virginia was torn down to be replaced by Springfield Town Center, an open-air format, scheduled for completion in the next few months; developers of Montgomery County’s White Flint Mall are planning the same kind of transition.

Tysons Galleria is nowhere close to meeting such a demise. (The high-end Galleria brought in $973 in sales per square foot during the first half of last year, according to ratings agency Morningstar.) The arrival of the Silver Line is expected to increase business for the Galleria and the mall across the street, Tysons Corner Center. Unsurprisingly, the latter is also going through a redesign. Expected revenue aside, both must make conscious efforts to stay relevant in, as the designer for the Mall of America branding sees it, an America that now prefers boutiques and online shopping.

The Galleria’s rebrand has already rolled out on the mall’s Web site and social media feeds. Assuming plans are approved at a Sept. 11 hearing, the new signs will be the next — barely noticeable — step in continuing that effort.

Jessica Contrera is a staff writer at the Washington Post.
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