Sweden Enlists Söderhavet to Design A National Typeface

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How do you brand a country? A hard task, to say the least. Hot on the tails of Bobby’s post on Norway’s exceptional passport and currency design, another country has been catching the eye’s of designers: Sweden. This year, Stockholm-based design firm, Söderhavet, took on the challenge of reimagining their home country’s identity. The whole package is clean, modern, and oozes Scandinavia, but to me the most important part of which is the typeface they designed. It’s about time countries start putting more emphasis on type to aid in creating a national identity, because the ones that have done so in the past (Switzerland) have come to see phenomenal results.

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Nations are most quickly recognizable through their anthems, music, and food. But perhaps most important to a nation’s identity is the flag. There’s an old saying in design that specifically relates to branding, “if it works in black, it will work in color.” Yet, apply this to most flags and you’re left with unrecognizable monochrome results. This won’t do, there needs to be more to a country’s look. In redesigning Sweden’s image, Söderhavet went a step beyond and created a national typeface inspired by Swedish signs of the 1950s. They named that typeface “Sweden Sans”, a modern, geometric sans serif font.

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“Aesthetics are very important in Sweden and we have a long tradition of great architecture, furniture and design – so this was the natural next step,” said type designer Stefan Hattenbach of Söderhavet, who worked on the font. “It was a big responsibility to be representing our country, but we were really proud to be asked.”

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To create the typeface, the designers started with the Swedish flag. “We started to think about how it would work with different typefaces, then started mood boards with different fonts and pictures—especially of old Swedish signs we’d seen from the 1940s and 50s,” says Jesper Robinell, Söderhavet’s head of design. Six months later they were left with the clean, classic, minimal typeface that reflects Sweden. Little touches, like the capital Q’s tail pointing downward instead of slanting to the right, add a touch of modernity and originality to the concept.

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Not only did the team capture the look of Sweden, but they also captured the nation’s attitude. One of my favorite words in Swedish is lagom, meaning ‘not too much and not too little,’ something in the middle of being content. It’s a word, that as far as I have come to understand, more or less reflects the attitude of Sweden’s people. Hattenbach explains that, “lagom is what we’ve aimed for with Sweden Sans… It’s all about Scandinavian minimalism. If they notice the typeface too much, it hasn’t worked.” Success, if you ask me.

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Sweden is far from the first country to employ a national font because Switzerland has been doing so since the 60s. Their branding goes beyond an emblem, a color, or a national dish, but is instead immersed into the writing and language of the nation. What am I talking about? Helvetica, of course.

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Helvetica comes from Helvetia, the female national personification of the Swiss Confederation, and is an integral component of the International Typographic Style that swept the face of 20th-century graphic design. From train timetables to bank notes, the Swiss have accepted and employed this clean, simple character set with great success. Not only does it concisely reflect the nation’s identity, but it is recognized and used worldwide, working the front lines of Switzerland’s soft power.

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So, how do you brand a country? As Söderhavet and Switzerland have taught us, you need to think beyond a flag or colors. Consider application, as it’s your best means to having the concept used, remembered, and adopted by citizens.

You can find Sweden Sans for download here, as well as guidelines for working with the Swedish brand.