Plex for IBM

Name: IBM Plex
Designer: Mike Abbink, plus an international team of 15 designers from Austria, Croatia, Israel, Latvia, Poland, Lebanon, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States
Foundry: Open Source/IBM
Release Date: Internal corporate use November 2017; general release March 2018

Back Story: IBM’s new custom type family, Plex, made its first public appearance in 2018 at SXSW, debuting on wrapping for the exterior of an 8,400 sq. ft. building. Plex is part of IBM’s overall philosophy on the importance of design as an integral component of a firm’s identity, a view born during the heady days of corporate modernism in the 1950s. After seeing an arresting store display of Olivetti typewriters in New York City in 1954, IBM’s CEO, Thomas J. Watson, Jr. declared, “Good design is good business.” An IBM advertisement, circa 1960, reads: “In every field of science, in every line of business, in every nook and cranny of our society—data is multiplying.” IBM provided the tools to manage this data explosion, and decided to use design as its own tool to manage its corporate image.

When graphic designer Mike Abbink joined IBM in 2015, he became instrumental in leading the company away from Helvetica Neue as its identifying typeface, which cost IBM over $1 million annually in licensing fees. A bespoke typeface made financial as well as design sense.

Whys it called Plex? The original plan was to call the typeface “Eliot” as an homage to the founding architect of IBM’s design program, Eliot Noyes. When it transpired that Noyes’ family would not lend their name to the font, Abbink suggested “plex,” a simple, flexible group of four letters that easily joins up with other characters to form words. “Plex is being a part of something before it, like [the word] ‘duplex,’ ” Abbink told Quartz. “It’s basically a component of IBM.”

What are its distinguishing characteristics? Plex consists of four subfamilies in eight weights and two styles (roman and italic). It’s an open-source project (OFL) supporting 100 languages, with another ten to be added over the next two years. The typeface is a modified Grotesque balancing human and rational elements, man and machine. It draws upon the history of other Grotesques which came about during the Industrial Age—just like IBM, founded in 1911. The typeface incorporates aspects of Paul Rand’s famous logo for the company, whose 1962 update is still seen on IBM products. The first (and most obvious) detail borrowed was the slab serif, but the design team adopted the vertical strokes and right angles of the interior counters, the rounded curves of the exterior stroke, and the sharp point at the intersection of the “M.” A great deal of thought went into every detail: Plex Serif merges features of Berthold Bodoni, such as ball terminals and rectangular serifs, with qualities adapted from Janson, and the steep slant of Plex Italic is inspired by Janson Italic. On a tech level, Plex Italics were engineered according to specific angles that work best with pixels to get the smoothest on-screen rendering. Plex Mono adapts its letterforms from one of IBM’s iconic products, the Selectric Typewriter.

What should I use it for? Any design project having to do with IBM.

What other typefaces do you like to pair it with? Plex is best kept all in the family: the IBM clan sticks together.