In Type We Trust – Typography and National Identity

In Type We Trust: Typography and National Identity in the Age of International Style and Global Citizenship

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Traditional forms of national identification are undergoing change as globalization spreads deeper into everyday life. New placeless identities have risen as the tools of globalization create new social realities. Rooted in the theoretical foundations of typography, visual language, semiotics, and national identification, this paper examines the interplay of local and international visual identities and typography’s role in constructing meaning through a case study: Norwegian government’s use of a custom-designed typeface to market itself to a global audience.

National identities are constructed, negotiable, and dynamic entities that serve multiple social and political purposes. Individuals and institutions are co-authors of complex national identities.  It is difficult to collectively define national identities, but institutions employ symbols and language to express national identities.  Flags, mottos, and imagery, serve to summarize and solidify the ethos of a nation.  These symbols establish, revise, and reinforce national values, norms, and requirements for inclusion.  Identities are often formed with reference to outside influences and are directed at both domestic and international audiences.  In both cases, they serve to distinguish one community from another.

International Style Typography grew out of Switzerland in the aftermath of World War II. Influenced by the Bauhaus and neo-Marxist thought, the goal of the Swiss designers was to strip letters of the ornamentation excess that referenced specific places, people, and ethnicities.  Swiss designers linked the fierce nationalism of World War II with art and visual rhetoric that referenced a specific people and place.  German blackletter type is the archetypical example of lettering rooted in particular language and people. The graphic result of the Swiss comprised of a family of typefaces labeled International Style. These typefaces were characterized their slab sans-serif strokes, narrow aperture, and geometrically balanced form. Swiss designers maintained that art and design should emphasize inclusivity and contribute to universal well-being: typefaces are designed to be neutral, universal, and non-national.

The Norwegian government in 2006 commissioned a typeface for its official online presence.  The custom typeface is employed in the logos for its websites in 80 countries in 17 languages.  The typeface must communicate a sense of Norway-ness to a vast and diverse audience. It must do this without casting Norway in an exclusionary light. The commissioned typeface is a descendant of International Style Typography and is named Aeroportal.  The typeface is characterized by its light, unvarying stroke and remarkable round letterforms.  It lacks serifs and is used in only in lowercase. See Appendix for typeface example.  The use of a universal set of letters forms part of Norway’s strategy to position itself globally as an amicable and non-threatening actor.  Instead of using typography to distinguish itself as a nation, it employs visual language that is intentionally vague and international at its core. Its national strategy hinges upon a worldview that assumes a globalized economy and promotes liberalist politics. Norway doesn’t have the military or brute economic force to engage in world power politics. Norway serves the world better by operating as a flexible nation that is open to investment and collaboration. Thus, instead of distinguishing itself as uniquely Norwegian and risking creating any exclusionary messages, Norway pursues a visual identity that is distinctly universal, i.e., international and delocalized.  Norway does not attempt to cast itself as unique and apart from other nations.  It identifies itself instead as a generic, modern nation that welcomes other to project their own goals and   Whether Norway has succeeded in its goal to create its identity as “a nation that is open to everyone” is yet to be seen. However, the case of Norway proposes profound implications for state institutions, businesses, and national identities in today’s ever-shifting global village.


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