Runes and Glyphs: The Beauty of Icelandic Typography

• Dispatch #17 •
Aside from beautiful natural resources, one thing that is fascinating about Iceland is its typography.

Call it a designer’s habit, but one of the things I look out for when traveling to a different country is its typography. Type is one way to document civilization, and it’s incredibly fascinating to see the many ways we give form to our language. I especially do this for countries with a different language; I come to appreciate the forms of the letters rather than what they mean.

Being in Iceland, my typographic fascination was special, because the 32-letter Icelandic alphabet contains some interesting ones that I have never seen before. This includes the letter eth Ðð (pronounced as “D”), and the runic letter thorn Þþ (pronounced as th). I also loved the accented vowels and Ý. Not only is Icelandic a very old language, but it is also one that is very insular and hasn’t changed much since the 11th century—modern speakers can understand the ancient sagas.

On the floor near the Reykjavik Cathedral
On the floor near the Reykjavik Cathedral

Some Icelandic words are longer that most English words, and so this presents a unique design challenge when creating signage. I think the graphic design is for the most part, compact and elegant, such as the name on the facade of the National Gallery of Iceland.

The beautiful National Gallery of Iceland, and the lovely accented i
The beautiful National Gallery of Iceland, and the lovely accented i
They lost me at the first syllable
They lost me at the first syllable
Compact. That's the word I'd use to describe this typography.
Compact. That’s the word I’d use to describe this typography.

While many words are long, they have ways to make it seem not so, such as this lovely cross stitch sign.

Cross stitch
Cross stitch

An effect of the length of the words are, I think, an inherent neatness in handwriting.

Very neat Icelandic handwriting
Very neat Icelandic handwriting

I can also see why handwriting is often hyphenated.

Icelandic handwriting
Icelandic handwriting

I came to appreciate Icelandic humor when I was there. Before buying this $18 shirt, I asked the storekeeper to teach me how to pronounce it. I learned that “ll” is pronounced as “tl”. This volcano stalled a lot of flights in Europe and deserves to have its own t-shirt.

I can proudly pronounce this word
I can proudly pronounce this word

I love the coziness and local flavor in the country that does not have a McDonald’s and a Starbucks. Here at Kaffitar I enjoyed delicious coffee surrounded by locals that were relaxing for the day.

You gotta love a country that rejected Starbucks.
You gotta love a country that rejected Starbucks.

I appreciated the humor on their other souvenir shirts.

Icelandic humor on souvenir T-shirts
Icelandic humor on souvenir T-shirts

I also laughed at the Icelandic entrepreneurial spirit.

A piece of volcano, or some fresh mountain air?
A piece of volcano, or some fresh mountain air?

Bjork, of course, is unavoidable. Or at least her name.

Hipster + Bjork
Hipster pipe + Bjork

On one of the hipper streets of Reykjavik, it was interesting to see the artsy side of Iceland, graffiti and all.

Writings on the wall. On the left is a cafe advertising its menu, and on the right is graffiti
Writings on the wall. On the left is a cafe advertising its menu, and on the right is graffiti
Graffitti
Graffitti

I learned that in ancient times when Helvetica didn’t exist, people used to draw these love charms to attract women.

Love charms to woo girls
Love charms to woo girls

If you’re ever in Iceland and become immune to volcanoes and waterfalls, another feature to look out for is their typography. Go and fall in love with every letter.

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