What does a country look like as a font? That’s an abstract question, but one that Stockholm-based design firm Söderhavet had to try to answer as part of a project to design a comprehensive identity for its home country of Sweden. Led by designers Jesper Robinell and Stefan Hattenbach, the company has designed a typeface for Sweden that it thinks sums up the country’s own design heritage. Which is what exactly?
“In Swedish, we have this word called lagom,” Robinell tells me by phone. “It means not too much, but not too little. Not edgy, but not boring either. Something in-between and right in the middle.” Söderhavet’s typeface, Sweden Sans, is just right–ahem, lagom!–through and through.
When designing Sweden Sans, Söderhavet began by flipping through thousands of examples of old Scandinavian signage: old street signs, company logos, and more. The idea, Söderhavet says, was not to necessarily find one specific typeface to emulate, but to soak in the ambience of Sweden’s own rich heritage of type.
To design the font itself, Söderhavet started with a simple criteria: it needed to be able to support the Swedish flag. A cross pattée of gold overlaid on a background of blue, the Swedish flag’s design heralds back to the mid-1600’s–the period in which the country was founded–in one variation or another. Any typeface that Söderhavet designed needed to look great next to the flag, and compliment its angular, cross-sectioned design, to form a consistent logotype.
One way that in-between-ness surfaces in the finished product is that, although it’s called Sweden Sans, that’s a misnomer: it actually has a few serifs. The ‘i’, the ‘j’, the ‘l’ and the ‘1’ all have feet, where as letters like the lowercase ‘g’, ‘p’ and ‘q’ all have serifs at the end of their strokes. But while Sweden Sans might be more properly called Sweden Serif, it does somehow manage to still feel like a sans serif font.
“The serifs are there because we discovered in testing that the typeface really looked great in headlines where it has a loose kerning,” Hattenbach explains. “So we designed it almost like a monospace font. But because of that, characters like ‘l’ and ‘1’ can be very hard to tell apart without serifs.” Söderhavet’s rationale is the very definition of lagom: just because we’re designing a sans-serif font here, let’s not go crazy and rule out using serifs!
Although Sweden Sans reads perfectly normal in English, it still tips its hat to Scandinavia with some clever design touches. Take the capital ‘Q’ for instance, which is neatly bisected below the waist by a purely vertical descender. Or the number ‘0’, with its diagonal slash. Even in English, these characters help bring to mind some of the diacritics that, thanks to Ikea, we think of when we think of Sweden.
Asked to describe the finished typeface, Robinell and Hattenbach are pretty no-nonsense about it. “It’s functional. It works,” Robinell says. “Swedish design is very practical. For us, functional design is good design.”
You can find Sweden Sans available for download here, as well as guidelines for using Söderhavet’s design for the larger Swedish brand.