IBM Plex

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Let’s take a look at Plex, a new-ish type family by IBM that’s interesting for a host of reasons. The type specimen and website is the first thing to notice as it explores the abundance of styles which include mono, sans, and serif variants – but it does so in a rather bombastic and flashy way:

Perhaps it was because of the flashiness of the website but I’ve mostly ignored the type family until now. I rolled my eyes too quickly at the announcement as so many big brands are designing custom typefaces and, generally speaking, they’re rather boring variations on a well-trodden theme. There’s nothing daring in them, there’s no care or acknowledgement to the history of a company. Instead I feel like they just slap on a typeface that’s Apercu-adjacent and call it a day. (This is probably an unkind assessment but that’s what it feels like anyway).

IBM Plex however is something special and weird and unlike those other big rebranding efforts. Reed Reibstein’s Typographica review convinced me to take a second look and really look at what’s going on here:

Take the serif variant for instance, which I think is my favorite of the bunch. It reminds me a little of Commercial’s Caponi with a hint of Hoefler’s Mercury mixed into the broth:

In his Typographica reviw, Reed notes how these letterforms aren’t arbitrary or necessarily following certain trends:

As Plex’s impressive specimen site makes clear, these formal decisions are rooted in IBM’s history. The right angles come from the square counters in the IBM logotype’s B, while Abbink and company were inspired by the IBM Selectric Typewriter’s Italic 12 for the Mono Italic. Plex Serif descends from the Bodoni that Paul Rand preferred in his famous collaboration with the technology company.

The design of Plex reminds me of Roboto or, as Stephen Coles once called it, “the Frankenfont”, where letters were taken hostage from a number of typefaces. IBM Plex is somewhat different though. Yes, it’s inspired by a number of typefaces such as Bodoni and the IBM Selectric Typewriter letterforms but it contributes something back to the conversation beyond what it takes.

Also I like how Plex isn’t afraid to get weird when it feels like it. Plex Mono Italic is a great example of this where you can clearly see the inspiration from the IBM Selectric typewriter and it’s curious “font balls.” Here’s a snippet of the ad for the machine:

And here’s a close up of Italic 12:

Plex Mono Italic’s f appears out of a dimension of it’s own though and doesn’t seem related to that historical model:

Huh? Wah? Yikes! I love all these letters and I can’t wait to explore them in a project of my own. There’s so many details and curiosities to be found, it only requires us to look closely and to have a little patience.