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Mastercard identity (2016)

Pentagram hits the Mark in an iconic brand’s return to simplicity. (Still, a few words of warning to geo-sans fans.)

Contributed by Stephen Coles on Jul 14th, 2016. Artwork published in
July 2016
    Source: © Mastercard. License: All Rights Reserved.

    It isn’t adored by quite as many young fans as other riders of the current geo-sans wave — typefaces like GT Walsheim, LL Brown, and LL Circular — but FF Mark is one of the more popular releases of the last three years, and it’s picking up steam. You see it in industries from tech to editorial, in print and on the web. As a plain, clear sans with a moderate x-height it works reasonably well in most of these environments, yet it’s often called to do jobs it’s not really meant to do: especially pages full of light body copy where the design’s uniform stroke and letter widths paint a pretty drab monotone.

    Source: © Mastercard. License: All Rights Reserved.

    That’s not a period, it’s a ®. Trademark symbols have become like terms and conditions texts: legally required, but practically useless. Designers prefer to make them as small as possible to get them out of the way of their logo.

    Source: © Mastercard. License: All Rights Reserved.

    Designed by Hannes von Döhren and Christoph Koeberlin in 2013, FF Mark filled a gap in FontFont’s library: a geometric sans with a large lowercase. This sample image is by Pentagram, who is admirably steadfast in crediting the type they use.

    This major redesign for Mastercard, however, is exactly the kind of mission FF Mark was trained for. Pentagram began by refocusing on the iconic interlocking symbol, now nearly 50 years old, wisely clearing it of its clutter and moving the name to the side or below. The new circular typeface obviously echoes the symbol’s geometry, but it’s not just about circles: FF Mark’s other characteristics fit well too — its broad stance, open forms (‘s’ and ‘c’), the roundness of the ‘m’ arches and ‘t’ tail.

    Source: © Mastercard. License: All Rights Reserved.

    This redesign is not so much a revolution for Mastercard as a callback to the best logo of the brand’s past. In 1979, “MasterCard” was set in ITC Avant Garde Gothic, stamped boldly over the center of the circles. This was replaced in 1990 by an ill-advised italic which was later littered with a drop shadow in typical ’90s fashion. Going back to a geometric sans serif is a no-brainer, but Avant Garde is rather cold and closed. Switching to all-lowercase FF Mark refreshes the banal corporate presentation with a more approachable air.

    Source: © Mastercard. License: All Rights Reserved.
    Source: © Mastercard. License: All Rights Reserved.
    Source: © Mastercard. License: All Rights Reserved.

    As we can expect from an experienced firm like Pentagram, the logo and type harmonize naturally. The designers resist the urge to rationalize the geometry via some contrived construction grid. And all the work is thoughtfullly implemented in a variety of environments where bite-size chunks of type combine with large images and the overlapping circle motif.

    Source: © Mastercard. License: All Rights Reserved.
    Source: © Mastercard. License: All Rights Reserved.

    These teaser images for the new identity came out pretty nicely. It’s solid work. Not thrilling, but as fresh a look as you can expect from a multinational payment network. The question remains, however: Will FF Mark be the only part of the typographic palette for this new identity? Will it be used to set long passages of text? Will it be pushed beyond its purpose? We’ll have to wait for the answer because the redesign was just announced today. ( is still set in Accord Alternate, a 2010 face that already feels dated, perhaps because it piggybacks on the well-worn spurless concept from 20 years ago.)

    Source: © Mastercard. License: All Rights Reserved.

    This mockup (not necessarily a final design) overlooks a basic principle of setting body text: the more space letters have inside them, the more space they need between them.

    I hope this teaser video is not an indication of FF Mark’s intended role, because some of these screens make all the most common geo-sans mistakes: a light weight, spaced way too tightly, for all the text on the page. A financial services company striving for clarity and simplicity should take the readability of mundane info as seriously as its logo.

    Source: © Mastercard. License: All Rights Reserved.

    At its core, this is a strong mark, returning Mastercard to its former glory, by emphasizing not the name, but the symbol: a couple of unmistakable dots that shine your way to a shop door, even from across the street.

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