When REM announced they were splitting up, the news didn’t just mean that there would be no new music from the band. It also meant that there would be no new fonts, and that’s important to some people (like me!) because REM have always been very experimental when it comes to fonts. In fact, as a graphic designer who deals with fonts on a daily basis, I can say that it was REM who got me interested in this line of business in the first place.
Take a look at the cover of every REM album and you’ll see how the fonts kept changing. REM never just took off-the-shelf fonts and slapped them on their covers. For the past decade and a half, REM’s designs and fonts have mostly been the work of Michael Stipe and Chris Bilheimer. From the relatively simple white fonts of ‘Murmur’ and ‘Automatic for the People’ to the heavy stylisation of ‘Up’ and ‘Accelerate’, not all the fonts have been my cup of tea. But they have all, without exception, been interesting.
So interesting, in fact, that I wrote my dissertation about them in college. Yes, I wrote 10,000 words (plus appendix!) on the fonts of REM. When I started, I thought I was being weird and unusual. After all, who would write so much about fonts? But I soon realised what a huge subject area this was. Fonts are all around us. Wherever there are words – on posters, signs, doors and walls, on menus and in magazines and newspaper, on websites – there are fonts. But many people don’t really think about them.
Fonts are in the news a lot, too. This website, 100gf | Politics and Computers, has a news category dedicated to fonts, and just this year there have been some interesting stories, ranging from Google’s font-based April Fools stunt to the launch of a font designed to emphasise sarcasm. Then there are those who are accused of allegedly ignoring font copyright rules. Yes, some fonts are copyrighted. It says something about the lack of attention people pay to fonts that few people bother to think about that kind of thing, but fonts are big business and people who design unique fonts have a right to get paid when other people use them.
A font collection is more than just a bunch of letters. It’s a kind of new language. One of the (perhaps slightly sad) things I liked about REM’s fonts was seeing them used on the covers of albums, and then seeing how (and if) they would be re-used on the covers of singles, or in videos. Some fonts worked better than others in this regard. But regardless of whether I liked an individual font, I always appreciated the effort. Personally, that’s enough. You can’t just judge things based on whether you like them or not. There has to be something interesting about them too.
Javi Hironen’s 5 Favourite REM Fonts
Automatic For the People. Very simple and elegant, this sans serif font had tall letters and (to my mind) a very pleasing spacing between the letters. It was also reused very well on the cover of some of the singles, most notably ‘Man on the Moon’.
Reveal. The ‘Reveal’ font is unique and highly stylised. Normally I don’t like fonts that go too far out of their way to be ‘weird’, but this one works. On the album’s cover, the ‘M’ has a couple of large reddish circles that seem to represent the sun. It’s a great example of a font that works specifically for its context. I can’t imagine it being used elsewhere very successfully.
In Time: The Best of REM. This ‘greatest hits’ album had a blocky font with parts of letters filled in. It was very distinctive, one of the most important qualities of a font, and it came to characterise the entire album and, for me, that period of the band’s history. Possibly the last great REM font.
Up. This is one of REM’s most neglected albums, and possibly one of their most neglected fonts too. On the album cover, the pale blue font has small squares instead of dots between the letters. I always liked the band’s determination to keep the dots in their name. I felt this font could have been used more, perhaps on some of the singles.
Accelerate. I must admit, I didn’t like the album very much. But on the album cover, the ‘REM’ font shoots across the sky like something from a superhero movie. Except that it’s all in black and white. It’s a great cover overall (and better than the recent one for ‘Collapse Into Now’) and the font really makes it stand out.