Type has a way of speaking to us. I mean, of course it does: Type spells out words. So let me rephrase that: Typefaces have a way of speaking to us.
Comic Sans can’t be taken seriously. Helvetica, ubiquitous, clean, used everywhere from corporate logos to the New York City subway, is often used for clarity and neutrality.
But what if you need your font to represent a whole country?
That’s the aim of Sweden Sans, a typeface commissioned by the Swedish government. It’s designed to give a consistent voice to the country’s international promotions, from Sweden’s official compilation of pop music to a slick new national website.
According to its creators, Stockholm design agency Söderhavet and font designer Stefan Hattenbach, Sweden Sans is a “modern” but edgy typeface with some local tweaks — a filled ring over the letter “å,” for instance, and a line that cuts through the zero — and takes its inspiration from old street signs.
Sans is meant to encapsulate fuzzy Scandinavian concepts — progressivism, authenticity, lagom (Swedish for “just the right amount”). So how does it do it? “It’s a pretty open typeface. They’re simple shapes,” Hattenbach says over the phone. “We’ve worked on the spaces between the letters to try to keep it light and airy.” Wide holes inside of an enclosed “p” or “o” might have the same effect. To a type nerd, things get technical, and fast.
“I think it’s pretty easy to tell that the descriptions are a typical sales pitch,” says Rikard Heberling, a graphic designer based in Stockholm. But ultimately Sweden Sans is more about promoting “the myths of a certain Swedish taste or mentality,” he says. “It is merely a branding tool.”
And as branding goes, though, there is an unfortunate and glaring analogy — Blackletter, the thick, Gothic lettering that appeared in 12th century Europe and ended up synonymous with the Third Reich.
Its proponents thought blackletter was the superior way to represent the German language, but it ended up discredited as “Jewish,” and subsequently banished.
Sweden Sans, too, has some nationalist underpinnings. In 2004, an expert appointed by the government argued it was “important” to take more pride in national traditions. A decade later, Swedish nationalism is mainstream, the anti-immigration party is the country’s third largest political group, and soccer star Zlatan Ibrahimovic has recited the national anthem in an epic car commercial with the tagline “Made By Sweden.”
“It began almost as a diplomatic thing for government bodies working in both business and diplomacy,” Hattenbach says. “But nationalism is a bit of a trend right now. I don’t see anything wrong with Sweden strengthening its profile a little. We’ve been pretty harmless in the past.”
This story originally stated that Sweden Sans was monospaced. It turns out the letters aren’t precisely the same width, so we have duly corrected the story. We regret the e r r o r.