This is the third installment of our Brand Everywhere series highlighting excellent executions of typographic consistency across various kinds of media.
For many campers, hikers, climbers, kayakers, runners, skiers, and other outdoors enthusiasts, Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI) is the first stop in preparation for their next adventure. Founded in 1938, the Seattle-based company is one the most well-respected corporations in the world, due in large part to its unusual setup as a “consumer cooperative”, in which the customers own and run the show. It’s the largest such organization in the US, with over 5.1 million active members.
Under the helm of Creative Director Jason Sutherland, REI’s visual identity has grown as solid as is its reputation. The look is grounded in two strong, American-made typefaces: the bolder weights of Rockwell, which has long been part of the company’s identity, and more recently, Interstate, a straightforward, workaday sans that sits well atop REI’s heavy slab foundation. Clarendon is also part of the brand’s legacy, found on store exteriors and other branding.
Interstate was introduced to the brand a few years ago, with the goals of readability and utility in mind, but Sutherland also sought to build on REI’s unique qualities and heritage. “Because Interstate is a modern adaptation of the highway fonts developed from around REI’s founding era, it had what I was looking for in terms of readability, history, and authority,” Sutherland says. “In terms of quick read for headlines, nothing beats a font designed to be read from a speeding car! I also thought that the unconscious association with highway signs everywhere would encourage more spontaneous road trips of cars packed full of camping gear and good friends.”
Sutherland also reminds us of the diverse personalities that a typeface can reveal depending on how it’s set. “I liked the way Interstate balanced history with modernity, with those characteristics expressing themselves differently between uppercase and lowercase uses of the type.” This versatility manifests itself in Interstate’s various weights, as well. A loosely-spaced lowercase Regular can instantly evoke vintage road signs, while the hefty all-caps Black (as used on REI’s homepage and in the printed catalog below) is decisively modern, effectively promoting the latest helmet cam or hi-tech running shoe.
Beyond typography, REI’s core branding elements include a refined and limited color palette and excellent nature photography, but another key component is the tone of their communication. Sutherland says his primary mission is to recreate the great experiences customers have in REI stores. “Because these experiences are based on person-to-person interactions, our tone is conversational, friendly, and imparting the knowledge of the outdoors. Language is very important to us.”
That sense of membership and community is echoed throughout the company’s materials, and even back to the stores themselves where the walls sometimes feature snapshots of members at play in the great outdoors.
Photo by Callison, the firm responsible for the SoHo, NYC store.
Despite the informal, scrapbook style of this display, the REI brand is still apparent. A deft touch of all-caps Interstate is all that’s needed. This balance of humanity and professionalism demonstrates the effort Sutherland and the designers at REI have put into their corporate identity.
Retail Signage & Displays
The REI retail experience is perhaps at its best at two of their landmark locations: the flagship in Seattle, and the historical restoration that recently opened its doors in SoHo, New York. We stopped by these locations and took some photos that show how Interstate promotes, informs, and points the way throughout the stores.
REI prides itself not just on selling stuff, but also on providing guidance on the increasingly complex array of recreational gear. Product info sheets are available in the stores to help members make more informed purchase decisions. Their design naturally mirrors the look of the in-store displays, for a cohesive shopping experience that instills confidence in REI’s expertise.
And that sense of continuity holds for every printed piece in the store, including this credit card offer for members.
REI doesn’t send a lot of direct mail (they are, after all, as environmentally conscious as retailers get), but when members receive their occasional catalogs the familiar typographic tone immediately reminds them of their last trip to the store. Color cues are cohesive too: in the REI brand vocabulary, red means “you’re going to save some money”. Just as red banners call out the clearance section in the retail space, catalogs (like the one below) with red accents highlight sales. Discounted percentages and prices are all set in crimson Interstate.
REI’s YouTube channel is replete with engaging coverage of their travel programs, product tips, member stories, and short company culture documentaries. Over the last year or so, the videos invariably use Interstate for titles and captions. The type is always white, with just enough subdued drop shadow to separate it from the background.
REI.com is undergoing an iterative transformation to adopt all the elements of the branding guidelines. Until recently, implementing the corporate typefaces on the website was a complicated matter, requiring images or font replacement hacks. Webtype is helping to bring REI’s online presence in line with the rest of their identity by serving Interstate for homepage features and other headlines. Now that these bits of text are truly text — not images — they are much easier for the REI production team to edit and scale.
Note the green bar at the bottom of the main image, echoing the in-store displays. Even the “Clearance” label matches the retail store look.
Some of REI’s minisites are fully integrated with Webtype. The REI 1440 Project, a place for members to share photos of the outdoors, is a particularly eye-catching example. Webfonts are critical in this environment where the page needs to work at any size, all the way up to fullscreen.
The remarkable consistency throughout this broad range of material shows just how effective a strong typographic identity can be when it’s well defined and executed. With its direct and deliberate design approach, tempered by a sincere love of nature, REI makes us want to grab some gear and get outside.