Designing OneABC, a Typeface for Australia

How do you design your country’s national font? Wayne was asked to do this by the ABC, Australia’s most trusted media brand. They set out to create a font family that unifies the ABC’s digital presence across multiple platforms, while also being best-in-class for legibility and accessibility.

It’s designed to replace the thousands of font configurations in use across the ABC, allow for a proud, uniquely Australian typographical expression, and align with their charter to deliver content that contributes to our national identity. Wayne’s here to tell you about the project which consumed him for over a year.

Wayne has been working on a typeface for the ABC, “ABC Sans”. Trying to capture Australia’s identity in a font is a difficult challenge!

Wayne has worked on type for decades, inspired by a Letraset book he ended up with as a kid. He studied other things but eventually carved out his own job as a typeface designer. There really isn’t a course you can do – while you can learn typography, there’s no formal way to learn typeface design.

You’ve just gotta be a really stubborn bastard and do what you want to do.

The brief

The brief was extensive: a 13-page document, which is unusual in the field but not so unexpected from the always-thorough ABC. They’d even interviewed Australian prominent designers asking about “the Australian style”.

There were three key elements of the brief:

  1. how might the ABC make a coherent experience for all its properties?
  2. how could this typographic system encapsulate Australia’s eclectic and multicultural identity; and express a contemporary and relevant ABC?
  3. how can ABC Sans be a major brand carrier for the ABC?

This brief is obviously difficult and a little terrifying!

National identity

So what is our national character? What defines us as a nation?

Wayne asked people on Facebook and got lots of aussie words (straya, carn, maaaate, thongs…) and 99.94 – Bradman’s batting average.

Most of it wasn’t useful but some key phrases started emerging, including “wide, brown land”. The outback is a unique identifier, although since most of us live on the coast beach imagery is at least as relatable as the outback.

The key thing about both the outback and the sea is a sense of space. The endless sky. A place that still has more land than people.

Over it all, an impossibly open sky, dwarfing everything. – Tim Winton

Three characteristics that Wayne settled on:

  1. open space
  2. proudly inclusive
  3. larrikin element

Also looked at other typefaces supposed to represent a nation’s character. Not a lot, but a few…

  • Sweden Sans (soderhavet.com) – it has a principle of lagom – balance, avoiding excess. The vertical bar in the Q is balanced.
  • Johnston, the typeface used for the London Underground – not intended, but it’s become strongly associated with things that are very English.
  • Helvetica – known as being very Swiss.

Start drawing

So where to start? Just start drawing. He had ideas of Uluru shaping caps and a strong baseline to show ‘connected to land’. They weren’t good ideas, but they were part of the process. You have to meander your way to the final result, it’s never a straight path.

Things started to clarify:

  • inclusiveness: open rather than closed apertures
  • connection to country & open space: wide measure, generous proportions when compared with other fonts
  • the ABC’s logo is a lissajous figure, which gives a curve that could be used on some letter shapes

He sketched a great deal on paper, leading up to clean alphabets on A3 tracing paper.

Wayne kept all of this in a sketchbook so he could show the process later. He finally presented this to the ABC and found himself being filmed for posterity. He was still terribly nervous but got the immediate green light to go ahead and make the typeface!

The build

At that stage the first vectors were created and tested with real content. Issues came back that the wide measure wasn’t efficient; and the type colour was inconsistent (some areas would look darker than others). The double-decker g had to go. Some of the rounded corners had to go; along with faceted corners on some letters.

So most of the ideas about national identity were being dropped in order to make a usable and legible typeface. The wide measure and open apertures had survived. This does hold up, the typeface feels more open than Helvetica for example.

Legibility hits issues like differentiating I, L, i, 1. The ABC originally requested a zero with a stroke; that was eventually dropped for a differently-shaped character without the stroke.

Legibility also demanded a large x-height, ascenders that go above the cap height, good counters and apertures.

Accessibility – type being distinguishable for people with dyslexia, for example. The spurs on the p/q and u/n are different so they are not mirror/flipped images of each other.

Lining vs non-lining numbers – ABC Sans has both. Wayne may just possibly prefer non-lining numbers for their visual appeal. Lining numbers are common as they are essentially fixed-width, meaning numbers will line up with each other.

The J & Q dilemma: should they have descenders or not? The typeface had to include inline J and Q that did not extend out of the line.

The final steps

There was a full day workshop with the entire design team, where most people on the team contributed something to the final shapes.

The final typeface was created, moving shapes from Illustrator to Fontlab. At this point he had to fill in the entire character set; and then create all 11 weights of the font using interpolation to set the basics, then a manual review.

The ABC also needed some specialty weights like the italic, bold condensed, rounded and rounded bold (for kids programming).

Then three serif weights (ABC Serif) were produced for internal text use. The serif font shares a common DNA with the sans.

Spacing between letters is set, then kerning variations (it has 777 kerning pairs with adjustments). Some of this work is really tedious! But it results in a font that has good reading rhythm.

In use, and finding issues

So finally the font goes into use! You start seeing it in the wild; and on retina screens it looks awesome. It went into apps, websites and finally started filtering onto TV screens. On HD TV it looks good, on older TVs… it doesn’t look so good.

A couple of letters will need a shape revision to help with issues discovered as the font went out to every possible place it needs to be used.

The “li” combination has spacing that feels a little wrong.

There’s also a lot of issues the font itself can’t fix. The non-lining numbers interfere with the rhythm when used in a paragraph. Sometimes people change the spacing between characters via CSS, so the spacing of ligatures no longer makes sense.

The response

From the public, the response has been really positive.

However since all Australians feel a level of ownership of the ABC; and there’s been some commentary about the ABC ‘wasting money’. Chris Kenny had a dig about using non-system fonts and wildy over-estimated how much money had been spent to product ABC Sans. Sen James Paterson pulled up in front of the senate estimates committee.

There’s a difference between public organisations being accountable vs being micro-managed. The cost of a custom font also needs to be considered against the cost of licensing a typeface for many thousands of employees.

But anyway, Wayne’s mum likes it.

Conclusion

It was exciting, it was a privilege to work on the national typeface. The ABC design team were truly collaborative. The success of the end product was a team success.

Does it truly capture the national character? It’s probably impossible to tell, although Wayne feels like it is imbued with some level of Aussieness.

The best font joke ever

The font should have included a Reverse Italic…. perfect for the ABC because it leans to the left!

They didn’t go for it.