A parallel universe

"Type has been my parallel universe for more than 20 years."

When was the last time you thought about what a typeface represents? Is “never” the word that comes to mind? You’re not alone. But even if you don’t think you pay attention to the typeface, or font, used by the companies that make your favorite products, you probably do.

“Asking why a typeface matters is like asking why a tie matters,” says Mike Abbink, executive creative director, IBM brand experience and design. “A gentleman can carefully choose a tie to reflect his personality and beliefs, to reflect his mood or the occasion. A typeface is that same kind of element. It’s used on packaging, events, user interfaces and apps. The words mean something on their own, but the spirit of the words is conveyed by the shapes of the letters that deliver them.”

Abbink, who created fonts for GE and NBCUniversal prior to joining IBM, says “type has been my parallel universe for more than 20 years.”

Mike Abbink smiling

Mike Abbink, IBM Distinguished Designer

The changing face of an evolving company

Since the 1960s, Helvetica had been the font “face” of IBM. Introduced in 1957, Abbink explains that Helvetica made sense for an IBM that was “snapping into modernism. You had the likes of Paul Rand and Elliot Noyes and all these like-minded designers helping to transform IBM into a modern enterprise.”

He notes that Helvetica was born at the beginning of the computer era, and purposely removed any “voice,” which made sense during the modernist movement. Machine standardization was the future, and Helvetica fit right in on an international level.

Today, Helvetica is the most widely used corporate typeface in the world. “At some point,” says Abbink, “You have to ask, ‘does it still fit the IBM brand personality in the context of the world as it is today, and the way IBM wants to express itself today?’

“The answer is, it probably doesn’t. Helvetica is a great typeface; it just wasn’t delivering the right story anymore for IBM. It’s a standard corporate typeface, and we’re not a standard corporation. We have a unique voice, a point of view about our place in the world, and we decided to build a typeface that would help tell that story.”

New font builds on the IBM story

“We thought long and hard about what our enduring themes are at IBM,” Abbink continues. “And what we came up with was man and machine. In everything we’ve made since the 1920s, we’ve worked to put technology and humanity together. So that was one theme.”

“Second, there’s IBM’s long history of typeface development, beginning with the IBM Selectric typewriter.”

The IBM Selectric heralded a new age of communication, with the introduction of interchangeable fonts — delivered via “the golfball.” Introduced in 1961, Abbink says “this typewriter allowed writers for the first time to change typefaces based on content, mood, personality or subject. You could express yourself with the font you chose to use.”

IBM was responsible for designing or commissioning a multitude of fonts for the Selectric, including Courier, which has gone on to become a favorite of developers and is used as a standard for screenwriters.

“The final theme that came into play was the IBM logo, one of the most widely recognized three-letter corporate logotypes in the world. It carries a distinct, unique nature that is very IBM.” First developed by Paul Rand as three solid letters in 1956, it was modified into the classic 8-bar in 1972.

“The shapes are extremely distinctive, with a unique nature to them,” says Abbink. “Even if you just saw the B alone, you would likely recognize it as the B from the IBM logo.

Image of 1960 server room

The birth of IBM Plex

The result of those musings — and more than two years of design work — is IBM Plex, a font family designed to convey the IBM identity on everything from product packaging to the ibm.com website to development code.

The brand identity conveyed by a distinctive typeface creates a consistent look and feel across a company’s landscape, evident in everything from advertising to corporate blog posts to developer code.

The typeface chosen to carry that identity has a big job to do. It has to be notable without being overwhelming, and flexible enough to satisfy the communication needs of a global company.

After coming up with the initial design concepts, Abbink worked with a team from the Dutch design firm Bold Monday to fine-tune everything. “It’s like trimming hair. There’s a lot of noodling, and a couple of little snips here and there make a big difference.”

The final font family comprises eight line weights, in homage to the eight-bar IBM logo. Each weight is available in serif, sans serif and mono-sans, a monospace font aimed at developers.

Appeal to developers

“Developers and engineers use monospace type, a holdover from typewriter days, where each letter takes up the same amount of space,” explains Abbink. “It provides a uniformity that they need for coding. Developers are a big part of our story, and we want to connect with them and encourage them to be creative with our technology.

“Some developers are real type nerds,” he adds. “If one or two discover a typeface they really like, they communicate that to the developer community. Why not give them a great IBM typeface to code with?”

Image of a Plex Mono type sample

Letterforms of the Plex Mono type face

Extending the reach of IBM Plex

Developers aren’t the only users who have free access to IBM Plex. The font family is available on Adobe and Google Fonts. It continues to be adapted for use in non-Latin scripts, including Cyrillic, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Devanagari, Korean (Hangul), Thai (Loopless) and Thai Looped, with others to come. 

“The Asian alphabets take a long time to do,” he explains. “In English, you’ve got the basic 26 characters. The Asian languages can have thousands.” To ensure the font’s integrity across the full range of sizes, a lot of manual adjustment is necessary. “It’s a boatload of work across all those letters.”

Abbink says there was much debate about keeping IBM Plex strictly for in-house use, “but we realized that to have Plex as part of all IBM experiences, we needed to make it an open-source typeface. If a shoe store or coffee shop decides to use the IBM typeface in their identity system, that’s a cool story. They’re tying their identity to ours. There’s nothing to be gained by hoarding it just for our use.”