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IBM's Quest To Design The 'New Helvetica' (fastcodesign.com) 172

IBM released its new bespoke typeface IBM Plex in beta this week. The company is hoping that the new typeface would become just as iconic as Helvetica in the years to come. From a Fast Co Design story: "When I came to IBM, it was a big discussion: Why does IBM not have a bespoke typeface? Why are we still clinging on to Helvetica?" Mike Abbink, the typeface's designer and IBM's executive creative director of brand experience and design said. To uncover what the typeface should express, Abbink and his team took a deep dive into IBM's archives. They were especially interested in the company's history in the postwar years, when its design-led business strategy first took shape and the legendary practitioner Paul Rand, who defined design as a system of relationships, created its famous eight-bar logo. In Rand's logo, Abbink and his team saw a contrast between hard edges -- the engineered, rational, and mechanical -- and curves -- the softer more humanistic elements. It's a reflection of the man-and-machine relationship that runs through the company's history -- a dynamic that is reflected in the final form of IBM Plex. The Plex family includes a sans serif, serif, and monospace versions. The designers also created a rigorous style guide that's akin to a digital standards manual and includes a type scale, which plays into responsive displays; eight different weights (a nod to how the IBM logo is composed of eight horizontally stacked bars); and usage guidelines, which dive into everything from information hierarchies to color and ragging. All together, it's easy to see Plex as a gentler, friendlier, more casual Helvetica for a broad range of uses both digital and print-based.
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IBM's Quest To Design The 'New Helvetica'

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  • Stupid (Score:5, Insightful)

    by aardvarkjoe ( 156801 ) on Thursday November 09, 2017 @01:57PM (#55520609)

    When I came to IBM, it was a big discussion: Why does IBM not have a bespoke typeface? Why are we still clinging on to Helvetica?

    This should tell you all you need to know about whether the "creative director of brand experience and design" adds any value to the company.

    • And yet, you were reading about IBM.
      • Re:Stupid (Score:5, Interesting)

        by RightwingNutjob ( 1302813 ) on Thursday November 09, 2017 @03:03PM (#55521183)
        Don't believe the old lie about there not being such a thing as bad publicity. What this tells me as an engineer is that IBM places lower priority on function than on form and what this tells me as an investor is that IBM's C-suite is wasting its time on logos instead of running the company.
        • That makes you a poor investor. Public image is one of the most critical aspects of a company. It doesn't matter how good your engineering is if the public thinks less of your company because of how they present their form. This is why companies are happy to invest in rebranding. e.g. Accenture spent $100m on rebranding themselves which among everything included lots of investment in the logo and a bespoke typeface, and for the most part this seems to have paid off with a far more wildly popular company, wi

      • by gtall ( 79522 )

        Not really, we came here to through some of the rocks back at IBM that they have been filling their employees Christmas stockings with. What goes around, comes around.

    • Re:Stupid (Score:5, Insightful)

      by MBGMorden ( 803437 ) on Thursday November 09, 2017 @02:13PM (#55520767)

      I have to agree. Too many people get wrapped up in the idea that "old is bad - change is a necessity". The world isn't that simplistic.

      Fonts and typefaces are not technology. THEY DO NOT BECOME OUTDATED. If Helvetica works, then it works. There's no need to create busy work to replace it.

      • Re:Stupid (Score:5, Insightful)

        by DontBeAMoran ( 4843879 ) on Thursday November 09, 2017 @02:16PM (#55520795)

        It's not about Helvetica working or not working.

        Apple has its fonts. Microsoft has its fonts. Adobe has its fonts. It's about IBM having it's own font, too.

        • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

          It's part of their branding, the same as having a logo out colour scheme.

        • Yes, except that Apple and Adobe and even Microsoft made the actual technology to display fonts on screens and solved a whole host of technical challenges associated with that. So there is technology. But IBM is late to the party on that by about 30 years. And now it's confusing aesthetics with tech. Not a good sign at all.
        • by Trongy ( 64652 )

          Adobe has its fonts because is practically the creator of digital typography. The Helvetica in the headline refer's to the Adobe font that was made famous by Apple. Later Apple developed TrueType. Microsoft has its fonts because it didn't want to pay license fees to Adobe and Apple licensed TrueType for free.

          IBM had their own fonts decades ago when they produced typewriters. In 2017 IBM is mostly a services company -they don't make any products that would benefit from a custom font.

        • having it's own font

          SO close. You properly used its/it's, until....

        • Those companies have their own fonts because of copyright issues. By creating their own font, they avoid having to pay the font owner license fees for tens or hundreds of millions of copies of their software that they're selling.

          Last time I checked, IBM doesn't sell tens of millions of copies of any software package.
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by tigersha ( 151319 )

        > Fonts and typefaces are not technology.

        You have no idea what you are talking about.

        > THEY DO NOT BECOME OUTDATED.

        Yes they bloody well do.

        If IBM wants to spend their money to enhance our artistic world, then that is their right and our privilege to enjoy the results. It is none of your business

        • Re:Stupid (Score:5, Insightful)

          by OrangeTide ( 124937 ) on Thursday November 09, 2017 @02:52PM (#55521101) Homepage Journal

          You have no idea what you are talking about.

          As solid of a rebuttal as I've seen. But typefaces are centuries old technology. It's a problem that has been solved and well studies. The problems that a typeface solves are not problems that change rapidly. A 19th century typeface can be considered quite readable and elegant to our modern eyes, and why shouldn't it, the 19th century is still well in the modern era.

          If IBM wants to spend their money to enhance our artistic world

          An astounding point of view on the craft of technical writing. And I strongly disagree that manuals are art. The expression of facts is philosophically different than artistic expression and has a different value to society at large.

          It is none of your business

          This is a web forum and we've established that this is the topic of conversation. Everyone gets to weigh in and play at armchair graphics designer.

          • by dwywit ( 1109409 )

            " A 19th century typeface can be considered quite readable and elegant to our modern eyes"

            A 19th century horse-drawn wagon can also be considered practical and elegant, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to improve it.

            Typefaces such as Times/Helvetica are designed to improve reader understanding/comprehension. As we discover more about how that happens, typeface design evolves to take advantage of that.

            It's also about branding. If I see Arial or Calibri, I deduce that someone has used a Microsoft produc

            • If I see Arial or Calibri, I deduce that someone has used a Microsoft product.

              Yeah, it's a good way of working out who's behind that Word or Excel or Powerpoint file you got by email.

          • Re:Stupid (Score:5, Insightful)

            by Martin Blank ( 154261 ) on Thursday November 09, 2017 @04:32PM (#55521697) Homepage Journal

            But typefaces are centuries old technology. It's a problem that has been solved and well studies. The problems that a typeface solves are not problems that change rapidly. A 19th century typeface can be considered quite readable and elegant to our modern eyes, and why shouldn't it, the 19th century is still well in the modern era.

            That's not as true as you think. The readability and legibility (two distinct attributes) of a font have many factors, and they haven't been studied to the degree that one might expect. What studies have been done are often decidedly mixed or even contradictory, but there does seem to be some consensus that the medium is one of the factors. For print, serif fonts like Times New Roman offer higher readability and legibility on average, while sans serif fonts are better for computer displays. However, some fonts that work well on CRTs can be hard to read on LCDs, and vice versa. This was a major factor behind the design of Calibri, which was built for LCDs, and I think also a factor in the design of the Liberation font family that is the default for Libre Office.

            While classic fonts (Arial, Helvetica, and Times New Roman) remain the go-to for many people (and most others just settle for whatever is the default in their word processor), there's still a lot of room for experimentation and expansion. Recent work on fonts for dyslexics has produced some interesting results, and I think they sometimes make documents easier to read, though the look can become tiring. That work may eventually find its way into mainstream fonts and make text in general easier to read for a wider set of the population, and it wouldn't happen if the issues surrounding readability and legibility of typefaces were, as you say, solved.

          • But typefaces are centuries old technology. It's a problem that has been solved and well studies. The problems that a typeface solves are not problems that change rapidly. A 19th century typeface can be considered quite readable and elegant to our modern eyes, and why shouldn't it, the 19th century is still well in the modern era.

            Most screens aren't retina displays, which means that fonts end up distorted in a way they wouldn't in print.

            Also, FFS, suggesting that we shouldn't develop new fonts because

            • is like suggesting we should stop writing fiction, making movies, drawing pictures, or making sculptures for the same reason.

              I think you've grasped the original point. There is always room for artistic interpretation or changes in aesthetics. But the functionality of type faces is something that isn't likely to be improved a recently developed font face. I think it's fair to assume that a company that has been in the business of Business Machines for about 100 years is looking for a functional typeface for manuals, clearly visible advertisements, etc. They should probably be considering a font suitable for road signs so they can

          • A 19th century typeface can be considered quite readable and elegant to our modern eyes, and why shouldn't it, the 19th century is still well in the modern era.

            When has typefaces in relation to corporate branding been at all about readability and elegance? They are nothing to do with it. It is all about what emotional response is invoked in the reader. If you're new and hip you don't want Times New Roman as your typeface due to how people perceive it. Likewise a great many people who work in tradition will preference cursive fonts. And really nothing says "I know how to build gas chambers" than using Fraktur, a type face that used to be incredibly popular in the e

            • by jabuzz ( 182671 )

              Nope 3rd January 1941 according to Wikipedia when Martin Bormann propagated Hitler's decision that Fraktur along with other similar typefaces to be Judenlettern (Jewish letters) and prohibited their further use. Though Tannenberg was in wider use than Fraktur in Nazi Germany. Everything was transitioned to Antiqua.

              Thing is at least the capitals of Times New Roman would have been perfectly recognized by a Roman citizen 2000 years ago.

              https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

      • All I care about is that unlike Helvetica, the new font distinguishes I and l. So if it does become the new Helvetica, I will no longer have to copy/paste into an editor with a different font when they can't be figured out by context.
      • THEY DO NOT BECOME OUTDATED.

        Yes they do. Things like typefaces invoke an emotional response from the people exposed to them. That emotional response needs to align with your goals and brand. When it doesn't then the typeface is outdated to you and needs to change.

        Want to build a brand around old-guard old-money wallstreet? Times New Roman is the font for you.
        Want to show that you're a consultant that comes up with unique solutions? Then you better have a unique font.
        Want to show that you're proficient at gassing Jews? Fraktur and its

    • Re:Stupid (Score:5, Interesting)

      by JaredOfEuropa ( 526365 ) on Thursday November 09, 2017 @02:40PM (#55521013) Journal
      Font and typography can play a big role in brand recognition, which is arguably what the creative director of brand experience is all about (and is important even for larger companies that are already well known). Printed material from Shell or Ikea is instantly recognizable... Ikea ran an ad about how the price tag is the first thing they design, and that could be taken literally: companies like that spend a lot of time on typography, and especially the way prices are presented receives a lot of attention. This is the stuff that can position your company as "budget", "premium", "good value for money", or position it in one or more target demographics.
      • Does anyone think IBM has a serious problem with brand recognition?

        Honestly, I think this is just representative of the insatiable need some people have to put their own mark on things. I mean, read this quote:

        We should really design a typeface that really reflects our belief system and make it relevant to people now. Helvetica is a child of a particular sect of modernist thinking that’s gone today.

        Wow... seriously? It gets more ridiculous:

        A design tool at its core, IBM Plex is an expression of that same intersection between humans and technology. IBM will make the typeface free for anyone to download and is encouraging its widespread adoption. “If shoe stores or coffee shops or small businesses are using it for their identity, awesome,” Abbink says in the video. “They’re agreeing they want to be part of a discussion around machines and how they’re going to evolve and progress our world.”

        Again... wow. Sorry friend, but you're not changing the world. You're just making another family of fonts in a virtual sea of new fonts available in this modern era.

        • Does anyone think IBM has a serious problem with brand recognition?

          Yes. Plenty of people do. Most companies that try to pit themselves as leaders of technology but have shown a stable and unchanging brand for many years have a problem with brand recognition.

          To be honest, IBM is slow. Many consultancies have rebranded heavily in the past 5 years which just shows that IBM's brand says: "We're no longer up to date with the world".

          Brand recognition is not about knowing what IBM do, it's about what a company's presentation of itself represents. It's why VISA abandoned the three

    • Tell the IBM PHB's that you switched to Swiss 721.

      (joke for the graphic designers out there).

    • This should tell you all you need to know about whether the "creative director of brand experience and design" adds any value to the company.

      I wouldn't really look to IBM to get an answer to that although IBM is and has been doing an OK job in that regard. ...
      You will get a way more clear answer to that question if you look to Apple.

  • Abbink and his team saw a contrast between hard edges -- the engineered, rational, and mechanical -- and curves -- the softer more humanistic elements. It's a reflection of the man-and-machine relationship that runs through the company's history -- a dynamic that is reflected in the final form of IBM Plex

    The only thing worse than artists are those who critique them.

  • I find it amusing that IBM, a company with a track record of working with Microsoft and Dos and other non-MAC OS would compare their new font to Helvetica, a font closely associated with the Mac OS. Why they wouldn't say "IBM Plex is the new Arial" is beyond me, especially since those two fonts are so similar.

    • Re:What about Arial (Score:5, Informative)

      by PopeRatzo ( 965947 ) on Thursday November 09, 2017 @02:06PM (#55520691) Journal

      Helvetica, a font closely associated with the Mac OS.

      Helvetica was created in 1957.

      • Helvetica, a font closely associated with the Mac OS.

        Helvetica was created in 1957.

        And . . . ?

        The two statements are not contradictory or mutually exclusive.

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

          Thanks to MacOS it's become associated with crap font rendering. It wasn't until they got high resolution displays to negate the crap anti-aliasing that a print font really worked on screen.

          • Thanks to MacOS it's become associated with crap font rendering. It wasn't until they got high resolution displays to negate the crap anti-aliasing that a print font really worked on screen.

            It wasn't the antialiasing that was bad, it was just mediocre, it was the lack of hinting. It makes thing look more like print... If you squint, but makes the text even when you are not squinting as clear as if you were.

          • Helvetica is a sans serif, proportional font.
            I know it since 30 years, it never needed anti aliasing.

        • The statement should have read: Helvetica, a font closely associated with the Mac OS by people outside of the graphics design industry, including Apple's own fans.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Helvetica has been around since 1957, and its use by Apple is comparatively minor. It was only Mac OS X's system font for one year. Helvetica is hugely influential and widely well-regarded, while Arial is basically just a generic knockoff.

    • Re:What about Arial (Score:4, Informative)

      by pjt33 ( 739471 ) on Thursday November 09, 2017 @02:18PM (#55520809)

      I know it's /. and people don't read the summary, but

      Why are we still clinging on to Helvetica?

      is a big hint, which is easily confirmed [ibm.com]: Helvetica is what IBM currently uses as its primary typeface. Comparing to anything else would therefore make less sense.

    • I find it amusing that IBM, a company with a track record of working with Microsoft and Dos and other non-MAC OS would compare their new font to Helvetica, a font closely associated with the Mac OS. Why they wouldn't say "IBM Plex is the new Arial" is beyond me, especially since those two fonts are so similar.

      I suspect the designer is an fanatical Mac user. After downloading the font it has multiple directories. Among those mac vs pc.. Only mac users are under the delusion that macs are not PCs, and secondly... The "mac" fonts were OTF and the "pc" fonts TTF.... yeah.. those working on that are pretty deluded, and if it is designed on macs the hinting is probably also completely fucked, though with my hidpi screen I can't tell bad hinting anymore.

      • Both MacOS and Windows have been able to use both OTF and TTF for many years. Yes, that may have been where they both became mainstream, but they're not exclusive to the OSes any more.

        • Both MacOS and Windows have been able to use both OTF and TTF for many years. Yes, that may have been where they both became mainstream, but they're not exclusive to the OSes any more.

          Exactly, TrueType started on macOS, while OpenType was on Windows first, but both standards were designed by both companies.

      • Everybody in this decades is associating 'PC' with Windows.
        If you can not deal with that you have a mental problem.

    • by caseih ( 160668 )

      Just a guess here, but IBM has probably been using Helvetica long before the Apple Macintosh was created.

    • by gtall ( 79522 )

      All the people that worked with those other companies and software no longer work at IBM. They have the institutional memory of a gnat.

    • Arial is a large step down. A sad and sorry Helvetica rippoff, and it shows at every corner. Designers and Typographists never use it. And when they are forced to, they feel dirty afterwards. I'm not exaggerating.

  • So deep and fascinating.

  • there are three basic types of fonts, Sans, Serif, and monospace, the rest is just window dressing, sans & serif is for mostly websites and documents, i prefer monospace fonts because they look better in xterminals and midnight commander
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Absolutely. Every distinction beyond those 3 is just pretentious fluff. That's why I do *everything* in Comic Sans. /s

    • by barbariccow ( 1476631 ) on Thursday November 09, 2017 @02:35PM (#55520973)

      there are three basic types of fonts, Sans, Serif, and monospace

      Completely wrong.

      Sans Serif and Serif just describe either the absence or presence of lines extending from the bottom of letters. Even these have sub categories, like "Slab Serif". Neither of these have anything to do with a font is monospace or not. For example, "Courier New" is one of my personal favourite fonts, and is both monospace and serif. These are just 2 possible attributes (since "sans serif" just means not containing serifs) of a font. Many font families have both serif and sans serif versions, and some even have monospace versions, which just means each character takes up a fixed amount of width, NOT meaning that the span of the left side to the right side of each glyph is a fixed length, whitespace counts. So you can make ANY font monospace just by whitespace padding all representations of glyphs to match the largest in the set.

      Thus, being toggelable attributes, the true difference between any font is absolutely everything else.

    • > there are three basic types of fonts, Sans, Serif, and monospace,

      Incorrect. [wikipedia.org]

      There are at least 2 properties of typefaces.

      * Serif along with the opposite Sans Serif, and
      * Proportional along with the opposite Non-proportional aka monospaced

      You are conflating proportionality [wikipedia.org] with serifs [wikipedia.org]. Traditionally, monospaced typefaces are Sans Serif, but that is NOT a hard rule.

      For example, you can have:

      * monospaced Serif typefaces -- e.g. Courier New [microsoft.com] (which look like crap on electronic displays, but look good in pri

  • Because a significant aspect of legibility is familiarity. There's a reason almost all "if you touch this you'll die" signs are typeset in Helvetica, this is also why Germany spent a significant portion of the last century clinging onto Blackletter.

  • Well, obviously the designers needed work, so they made some. Hey, why not create a font, but three fonts, and a shit-ton of paperwork to go with them. Plus standards on how they should be used, so there will be plenty of enforcement make-work in years to come.

    You want to know why, a lot of times, companies change shit for no reason? So that the designers will have something to design, and far more importantly, have something on their resumes they can show off. So many products that work just fine get

    • You mean like how I'm stuck on Mac OS X 10.9.5 because the fonts in ulterior versions look like anorexic crap designed for kids with 30/20 vision and triple-resolution displays?

  • >> Why does IBM not have a bespoke typeface? Why are we still clinging on to Helvetica?

    It's a FREE and OPEN font. (Remember when IBM tried pitching open source stuff?)

    And the crap IBM shovels won't smell any sweeter if it looks a little different.
  • Abbink and his team took a deep dive into IBM's archives. They were especially interested in the company's history in the postwar years,

    I see what you did there.

  • But fastcodesign.com just proved don't know jack shit about how the web works.

    The image "4-ibms-quest-to-make-a-new-helvetica" should be in PNG format, not JPEG.

    Idiots.

  • Typefaces were in place long before IBM, Apple, Microsoft entered the scene. I too wonder why the article refers to IBM creating a new "Helvetica", calling it IBM Plex, and including serif, sans-serif, and monotype. My main complaint is that there is essentially no such thing as a serif Helvetica, so how can there be a new IBM Plex that is serif? Same is true of monotype. And we should have no illusions about IBM Plex replacing Helvetica. Nothing is EVER going to replace Helvetica. The article summary
  • And it looks IBM-ish to me, though I couldn't say why, maybe it looks like something that OS2 would have scrolled up in that creepy smooth way that it did. I think they should have used the typeface from the 3270 terminal though - that is what I most associate with IBM.
  • What about Courier? (Score:5, Informative)

    by barbariccow ( 1476631 ) on Thursday November 09, 2017 @02:52PM (#55521107)
    What about Courier? IBM owned that font... It's also known as "IBM Courier." They owned the copyright to that font and released it decades ago.
    • by antdude ( 79039 )

      It amazed me that my IBM ProPrinter X24e dotmatrix printed so fast with that font. Now, I know why.

  • Soft lines on the outside edge, so I guess they intend it to always show up blurry. No thanks.
  • Ok, I'll bite..I'm stupid Someone explain to me what "bespoke typeface" means.
    • bespoke just means "custom tailored"

      if you consider the etymology, you can think of bespoke as meaning "this is what you said you wanted..." or "you asked for it..."

      • bespoke just means "custom tailored"

        It is interesting to go to the Miriam Webster site to see the definition. They include a comment about a "new meaning" that the word picked up in the 16th century, of "sold before it was made".

        As in "vaporware".

    • Ok, I'll bite..I'm stupid Someone explain to me what "bespoke typeface" means.

      Does your internets not have the Google?

  • Ok, now I get why IBM has been going straight downhill. They weren't spending nearly enough time on a new font.
  • So far the posts to this story have been uniformly disparaging, derisive and even mocking. I happen to agree with the consensus that IBM generally, and the creative team described in TFA specifically, are waaaay over thinking things.

    That said, let's note that, for a corporation as large as IBM, the costs of having such a design team develop is pretty minor. Even so, there has to be some form of performance metric the managers and higher ups use to measure the value to the company the design team and their

    • That said, let's note that, for a corporation as large as IBM, the costs of having such a design team develop is pretty minor.

      The costs of replacing every print or display use of a font for IBM products or services will be astronomical, as will the enforcement of the standards for its use.

      It's like when a company or school develops a new logo. It isn't just the $50,000 paid to the graphic designer to produce the logo, it's the thousands upon thousands of dollars spent on things like replacing everyone's business cards, advertising, letterhead, etc, with the new logo, and throwing out all of the stuff with the old. A local bank c

    • by Shotgun ( 30919 )

      Turning the question around so that we can all see it in a different light:

      If you're a software engineer, how do you determine that a change is needed? Once you've re-ordered a body of code, with its objects and methods, and so on, how do you measure its effectiveness at expressing the intent and objective of the project?

      This is interesting, because every few months we get a raft of stories coming down about how a particular distribution is rearranging the furniture on a Linux distro's desktop, or rewritten

  • Some 13 years ago, OS/2 came with its own custom font, Warp Sans. Granted, it was a bitmapped font and only came in (IIRC) 11pt, but I'm pretty sure it qualified as an "IBM font".

    • "13 years ago"? Meaning 2004? OS/2 and Warp were already long dead by then. Maybe you meant 23 years ago, when Warp 3 first came out.

      Disclaimer: I worked at IBM in the 90s, and was an OS/2 developer until IBM pulled the plug around Y2K.

  • Helvetica is one short of the embodyment of god in Fonts. The replacement for it has long since been built and is called Futura. 99% of things we read in the western world goes back to these fonts and their anchestors. I seriously doubt they can find and establish something this iconic.

    But I'm curious anyway. IBM has money to burn and chances are their font doesn't suck. What I've seen so far looks ok to me, that much I can say. A replacement for Futura or Helvetica? Nope. Not even close.

    But a neat font? Ye

  • Helvetica Neue used to be the New Helvetica. Now Helvetica is the New Helvetica.
  • Berthold City. Those unmistakeable square-cornered letters used for the IBM logo, all the 70xx, 360, 370 manuals and numerous other IBM publications.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]
  • All these comments, and not a single person pointed out the obvious: where is this font? Where are the side-by-side images showing some popular fonts next to this new IBM offering. "The quick brown fox, etc..." Event watched the video, but it is essentially useless. No real explanation as to why this is necessary over Helvetica, how crisper/softer/something it will be, easier to read, less ink, higher contrast, ...anything?

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