- Ironic Sans
- A Font Confession
A Font Confession
I’ve known this is wrong for 15 years
I have a confession to make. I have been holding on to a font secret for almost 15 years, and I think it’s time to come clean.
Back in 2009, I made a game that quickly became incredibly popular with a particular kind of nerdy people. I rounded up 20 logos that were originally done in Helvetica and I meticulously remade them in Arial, and then I created a quiz that challenged you to see if you could tell which is which:
People loved it. Almost overnight, tens of thousands of people played the game. Twitter was having a huge growth spurt and people organically began tweeting their scores with links back to the game. The original blog post about the game got more than 800 comments with people sharing their scores.
The ones that tripped people up the most were MATTEL and TOYOTA. They both have very few letters to compare, and none of them have very distinct differences between the fonts. I imagine it was a coin toss for many people.
But there was one other logo that was frequently mentioned as difficult: The “digital” logo for the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC):
And here is where I hang my head in shame, because just as my game was going viral, I learned that the “digital” logo was never Helvetica in the first place. And I left it there anyway.
The truth behind the logo
The “digital” logo was designed in 1957, the same year Helvetica came out, so it’s possible that the logo was inspired by the font. The logo was designed by DEC’s art director Elliott Hendrickson but the letters themselves were hand drawn by his colleague Arthur Hover.
For reproduction purposes, the artwork was photographed using high contrast fine-grain film, which became the “master” version of the logo. That film was then used to make plates or screens for printing whenever they needed to use the logo.
In the 1980s, a DEC employee named Ned Batchelder was working in the company’s printer group, focused on PostScript — a programming language used for printing documents and images. He noticed that it had become common practice for people to recreate the logo when they needed to use it by just using Helvetica letterforms and putting the letters in boxes.
In fact, even as late as the ‘90s the company’s style guide said to “always reproduce the DIGITAL logo with its seven lowercase letters each within a rectangular box.” It didn’t specifically say to use the master version, just to reproduce it “precisely.”
But Ned knew this was hacky and inconsistent. So he decided to create a PostScript version of the logo that would be reusable more easily than the master film, and set out to reproduce it as accurately as possible.
He went to the company’s graphic department and got the best film master he could. He scanned it and traced it using Adobe’s new vector art application, Illustrator.
He made some observations about the original masters on his website:
For years, he became the go-to guy in the company when someone needed a copy of the logo. Eventually, Compaq bought DEC, and Hewlett-Packard bought Compaq, but people still went to him when they needed the old logo. So, in 2007, he posted it on his website where people could download it as a PostScript font, PDF file, Illustrator file, and more recently as an svg.
When I learned it was wrong
The game went up on September 29, 2009. Just four days later, Ned Batchelder left the 289th comment on the blog page about the game:
He included a link to his website for more information. I read it and was flabbergasted. I was embarrassed. I didn’t know what to do. So many people were already playing the game! Should I fix it?
Some of the other logos had slight modifications from Helvetica here and there which meant that not every letterform was pure Helvetica, but were close enough for my purposes. But in “digital”’s case, it never even started out as Helvetica.
I convinced myself that it would just cause confusion if I removed the logo from the game. So many people were commenting already about that logo as one of the “hard” ones. If I removed it, other people wouldn’t know what they’re talking about.
It’s no big deal, I told myself. Just leave it. It’s just a silly game.
Then the website broke and the teachers came calling
Time passed. I mostly didn’t think about. Then about a year ago, the game just suddenly stopped working. Where the logos were supposed to appear, there was just nothing. I assumed my web host made a backend change that must have broken functionality somehow.
The thing is, I didn’t write this program from scratch. I found a free script somewhere for a multiple-choice quiz and then heavily modified it to be my game. So I don’t know the first thing about fixing something like this when it breaks.
I was a little sad about it, but whatever. I liked having it up for posterity, but it was way past its prime and I was sure nobody would miss it.
Then I started to hear from the graphic design teachers.
Oh, man. My heart suddenly sank. All this time people have been using this game as a tool in class and I’ve known it was inaccurate. And for every teacher I heard from, I imagined many others who didn’t bother to write or didn’t notice yet it was broken.
I wrote back to them saying I’d try to fix it. But I added, “By the way, since you’re using this in your classroom, I should probably tell you something about the ‘digital’ logo…”
New tech comes to the rescue
After spending a week or so fiddling with the page and having no luck, I was prepared to give up. I had neither the time nor skills to fix the broken quiz. Then ChatGPT was released and I immediately started to hear about how it could help debug code. Could it fix my problem?
ChatGPT had only been out for three days when I asked it for help. I pasted the code and described the problem. It managed to identify the issue and walk me through the fix. I could not believe it. My jaw hit the floor at the power of A.I. — and the game suddenly worked again! I wrote back to all the teachers who had reached out and let them know.
It’s time to replace “digital”
Now, I think the time has finally come to replace “digital” in the game.
Looking at Helvetica logos that I haven’t already used, I’m moving forward with McDonald’s. Here is the original logo:
It looks to me like the initial M and the apostrophe are custom, while the rest of the text is Neue Helvetica Pro 95 Black with one or two tiny tweaks (like the removal of the small spur on the lowercase a, and making the uppercase letters a little closer in height to the lowercase letters):
So that’s what I’m going with. By the time you read this, “digital” will be replaced with McDonald’s. To see how it looks in Arial, you’ll just have to go play the game.
And if you see any other mistakes in the game, please let me know! I may not get around to fixing it for another 15 years, but I’ll put it on my to-do list.
And that’s it for another newsletter! For more on the digital logo, check out Ned Batchelder’s post, and also vt100.net, a website “dedicated to the range of video terminals produced by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) from 1970 to 1995” which seems like an obscure website until you’re writing an article like this one and it’s suddenly very useful.
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Thanks as always for reading. See you next time!