Symbols matter

Posted on Feb 14, 2013

Symbols matter

Matter’s visual identity takes inspiration from the chemical symbols used in the Periodic Table. But where did its design come from and why have these symbols become so iconic?

The Periodic Table of the Chemical Elements was devised by Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev in 1871. It was the first time someone had drawn up a table ordering the elements by atomic mass (relative molar mass). Mendeleev noticed that if you arrange the elements in this way there was a regular spacing (or period) between elements of similar characteristics allowing you to organise them in sets.

In recent years, interest in the Periodic Table has exploded with iPad apps, books, Martyn Poliakoff’s video montage of all 118 elements, and this year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lecture ‘The Modern Alchemist’ given by Peter Wothers. And almost everyone knows the Elements Song by Tom Lehrer (even if they don’t know all the words).

But it has also become a design icon, the familiar style of the chemical symbols in the table being used for a whole plethora of merchandise from shower curtains and mugs to tee shirts and even flip flops.

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Although you can find many different designs of the periodic table, there is one particular style which has become the most ubiquitous – bold sans serif symbols in a simple box – and it is this particular design which is used for most merchandise. As soon as you see a capital letter and a lower case letter in this style (say “Fe”) you immediately think of a chemical element or the periodic table.

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Like Johnston Sans, the humanist sans-serif typeface designed by Edward Johnston in 1916 for the London Underground, some typefaces seem to become inextricably linked with their uses: perhaps because they were designed for a particular purpose (like the London Underground), typify the era in which they were developed, or through association.

Today, the majority of periodic table designs use Univers or Helvetica and there is often debate about which is the correct one to use. But if you rifle through old chemistry textbooks and prints as early as the 1930’s, you see that the Periodic Table was using this bold sans serif long before Univers and Helvetica were created in the 1950s. Univers and Helvetica are both now widely used and are the typeface of choice for modern, sophisticated brands such as American Airlines, Panasonic, and 3M (see more here).  They evolved from a much older sans serif typeface, Akzidenz-Grotesk (or ‘AG’).

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AG was released in 1896 by the Berthold Type Foundry and was one of the first sans serif types to become widely used by publishers. Versions of the Periodic Table published in the early 1900’s almost certainly made use of this typeface which was becoming increasingly popular. If you are interested in the history of typography see this excellent blog by Martin Majoor about the evolution of the sans serif typefaces.

The origin of the familiar design of the Periodic Table is unknown. But there is a connection with science which might explain what led to this particular typeface being chosen: it was related to another family of typeface Royal Grotesk which was created in the 1880’s by Ferdinand Theinhardt for the scientific publications of the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin.

AG was a modern typeface loved for its simplicity, functionality, clarity and was especially popular for advertising in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries.
“Akzidenz-Grotesk was the major typeface of Swiss typography. Swiss graphics were the most objective form of advertising, perhaps because most of it came from the pharmaceutical and chemical industry. Akzidenz-Grotesk was dominant in industrial advertising, in posters and in all matters technical and avant-garde.”
Günter Gerhard Lange
This connection to a typeface specifically designed to help communicate the latest scientific research, the growing popularity of the family of Grotesk typefaces, and their increasing use in advertising for the scientific industries all would have influenced a publisher’s choice of style for the Periodic Table in text books and school posters of the day. And it happened for much the same reasons: it was clean, clear, and functional and helped communicate the content of the Periodic Table in a very effective way. The qualities in its design reflected the new science it was being used to describe.

Every single schoolchild around the world studies the Periodic Table and almost all will have seen it many many times as they are growing up. A strong, unique, design and a universal familiarity have combined to create an icon of the modern age.