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

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

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