Sweden Sans, the “Lagom” typeface

Sometime after Söderhavet started working on the new global brand identity for Sweden, we started thinking about designing a custom typeface for it.

We had already decided on incorporating the Swedish flag into the identity, as well as using a local-language textual mark. But we still needed to find a unique identity carrier that could be used in widely diverging contexts. Because the client preferred a fixed-cost solution for typeface use, the idea of designing a custom typeface was mooted early on — and Sweden Sans was born.

Our goal for Sweden Sans was to design a typeface that is distinct, plays well with other typefaces, but also works well alone. It also has to be simple and flexible, so that it can unambiguously convey the 50+ translations of “Sverige” into local languages. I kept my early sketches very rough, in order to rapidly prototype many versions.

We decided to go with a design inspired by classic Swedish street signs, with blended mono-type and sans-serif accents that clearly show a Scandinavian heritage. We added design details such as a stroke through the zero, mono-like serifs on the i and j, and a filled ring on the å. We then began an intense collaboration with Sweden’s most renowned type designer, Stefan Hattenbach, to fine-tune and polish the design of every single letter.

Designing a whole new typeface can be daunting, so we called on Stefan’s long expertise as a professional typographer to guide us through the journey. Stefan is used to partnering closely with agencies for this kind of work, and he was instrumental to preventing stupid mistakes on our part. He was also great sounding board for all our questions, both broad and narrow. Here’s Stefan’s take on the process:

“When working with Söderhavet and Jesper, they obviously had a clear picture of what they wanted but lots of questions about readability and other technical issues. We talked in great detail about aspects of the font such as the arms, the x/y factor, the ascenders and more. We also made sure the typeface is natively web friendly, so that readability on display screens is perfect. One huge question was: Are we going to keep it strictly mono or just be inspired by the mono design?”

We started by designing a regular weight, but soon realized we needed more weights, because some parallel projects demanded them. For example, we wanted a really heavy weight for a project promoting higher education in Sweden. Stefan gave us advice on transposing the font from regular to bold, and I think that with Stefans help it turned out a bit heavier than what we initally set out to create. We (and our client) love this bolder bold — the impact of the thick strokes complements the message we want to convey.

We’re also planning to release a light version of Sweden Sans, in addition to the semibold that we already use for the textual marks. Also in the works is an Arabic Sweden Sans. We hope to one day see a Chinese version, but given the expense of designing many thousands unique characters, this will ultimately depend on the client’s budget.

Stefan Hattenbach again:
“Working with Söderhavet was interesting and fun — Jesper is really into typography and even if
he isn’t a “classically trained” typographer he knew precisely what design effect he was aiming for.
I remember that at one point we emailed each other around fifty times in a rapid-fire back and forth when discussing the letter r — he had his view and I had mine, but we came to a good solution. Because we had the same goal for Sweden Sans, I think we got a great result. And the client is happy. I hope we can develop more typefaces together in the future, because the workflow was close to flawless.”

There are many challenges inherent to this kind of project: Typography is an emotional topic for many people, and everyone has their opinion. Along the way, we’ve received very divergent feedback: It’s too stiff, it’s too Swiss, it’s soul-less, it’s a really nice retro, it’s really minimalistic, it’s very IKEA, it’s very stylish… etc. But I think we got what we set out to create – a modern Swedish typeface with its own distinct characteristics and feel; a typeface that exemplifies Swedish ‘lagom’ yet still manages to display an edginess through its unique design details.