The story behind IBM Plex reveals how typography can shape a corporation’s brand, both without and within.
IBM has always been a pioneer in the world of type. For instance, in 1955 it commissioned Courier–a typeface whose letters and spaces all have fixed widths–which became the official font of screenplays since writers can be certain that one page equals one minute of screen time. And IBM’s iconic Selectric typewriter, with its interchangeable font balls, liberated typewriter users from the monotony of single typefaces in the 1960s.
But oddly enough, while IBM itself had developed a strong visual brand through its logo, its architecture, and its products, it never had its own bespoke corporate typeface. In the past, the company’s default typeface was Helvetica Neue, “the font of science and the information age, with a precision and objectivity that commands respect,” as its previous style guide states. The revered typeface’s crisp, neutral look communicated a certain sensibility in the 20th century, but for where IBM wanted to go in the 21st century, it had outlived its usefulness.
Last week, the company finally debuted its own typeface: IBM Plex, which is designed to be used almost everywhere letters appear in the IBM universe. Think of it as the company’s “next” Helvetica.
IBM earned its stripes as the maker of physical “business machines”–mainframe computers, laptops, microprocessors, typewriters, and more. More recently, it’s invested billions in Watson, an artificial intelligence platform that it emphasizes is a tool to augment humans. When the company rebranded Watson a few years ago, it explored the idea of a cognitive typeface. Could Watson animate its speech–like humans do naturally–through typography to give it character, personality, and voice? The concept never moved past the idea phase, but it opened up a conversation about why IBM has never developed a custom corporate typeface to do the same.
“When I think about brand building, I always do a little test,” Todd Simmons–IBM’s VP of brand experience and design and a former creative director at Wolff Olins–tells Co.Design. “If you covered up the logo, would you still recognize [the brand] as IBM?” Since Helvetica is also the typeface of countless other brands, it wasn’t doing the heavy lifting it needed. IBM didn’t pass Simmons’s test.
IBM’s executive creative director Mike Abbink drew his inspiration from the company’s modernist roots but also designed Plex with an eye for where the company is heading in the future. The glyphs riff on the interplay of “engineered” hard edges and “humanist” curves, which is also found in Paul Rand’s iconic eight-bar logo. Abbink and IBM are working closely with the Dutch font foundry Bold Monday to build out the alphabets and symbols.
“The ‘IBMness’ comes through because it’s half man, half machine,” Simmons says of Plex’s design. “It’s the ideology of progress. There’s constant duality. That was a big influence for us.”
While the metaphor for IBM’s persona is there, Plex isn’t just a rich story and it’s definitely not about decoration; the typeface had to be a workhorse. Each glyph takes up less space, which helps with legibility in long, dense text–like print and digital instructional manuals, technical documents, and editorial–and also with readability on small screens. “It’s definitely digital first,” Simmons says. “Everything appears first and foremost on the screen and it has to be accessible.”
These details might be imperceptible at first, but they’re all in service of making sure you can read clearly. Compared to other fonts IBM has used in the past, “there is more contrast between thick and thin strokes to help in legibility,” Simmons explains. “Especially at the thin joints where curved strokes meet verticals like in the lower case ‘a, b, d, g, h, m, n, p, q’ for example. This helps make those letters crisp and clear at small sizes.”
Additionally, the typeface has to perform in a global context, meaning in different languages. Right now, IBM has drawn Plex in 110 different languages and is working on more like Hebrew, Greek, Cyrillic, Chinese, Hindi, Thai, and Arabic. The use of curved and hard-edged glyphs offer the typeface the flexibility to work in languages with special symbols–many of which derive from hand-drawn script–while retaining its identity.
“The languages will each have different translations of what we call the ‘Plexness,’” Simmons says. “In Greek and Cyrillic, those translations have similarities but nonetheless show up in different places and can have slightly different interpretations. There is logic to the placement of those details like the vertical interior counter walls against the round exterior or the tails with right angles on one side and a radius on the opposite side. These details coordinate with strokes or terminals and typically are found in the different languages as they all come from handwritten tools.”
Now with IBM Plex–which will appear on IBM’s website, apps, publications, signage, marketing materials, advertisements, and more–the company has the unified voice it was missing typographically. In addition to grander branding goals, developing Plex solves a number of practical problems. As Quartz reports, Helvetica’s expensive licensing fees meant that not all of IBM’s employees had access to the font. Now all 380,000 people will be able to use and see the same typeface. IBM is also making the font free for anyone in the world to download, but the final version won’t be released until early 2018.
“The more connected and the more understood IBM is in the technical terrain we’re moving toward affects our business,” Simmons says. “We’re on the front lines of new technologies that are going to transform the way we do things. That comes with a responsibility to make those things accessible and understood. If you translate that way back to the typeface, [IBM Plex] is friendlier than Helvetica. It’s got much more whimsy. It’s easier to read. Helvetica was designed to be neutral. IBM is not a neutral company; it’s an opinionated company.”