The Climate Crisis Font shrinks in response to Arctic sea ice data

The OpenType variable font by Daniel Coull and Eino Korkala is currently being used by the Nordics’ largest newspaper Helsingin Sanomat to visualise the effects of climate change.

22 February 2021


Helsingin Sanomat, one of the Nordic countries’ leading newspapers, and agency TBWA\Helsinki have commissioned two type designers to visualise climate change through typography, as a tool to bring renewed attention and impact to an omnipresent problem. Made by Cape Town-based designer Daniel Coull and Finnish designer Eino Korkala, the Climate Crisis Font is an OpenType variable font that shrinks in such a way to mimic real data about the shrinkage of Arctic sea ice over several decades. Aside from the technicalities of such a project, Coull tells us the bigger challenge was to make the typeface attention-grabbing but not gimmicky.

The newspaper has been covering climate change closely since the 1970s, Coull tells us, but what makes covering this topic particularly difficult is “the same reason that makes climate change such a threat to the entire humanity: it’s old news,” he says. “Climate change is a lengthy and abstract phenomenon, and as such difficult to grasp for us humans.” So they sought to find new ways to depict a topic that’s “familiar to everyone, but still requires our constant attention”. Working with the newspaper’s team, Coull says they felt comfortable working for a client that “didn’t really have a motif to ‘green wash’ their brand, or ride on climate marketing stunts,” so could approach the brief “with no pre-determined goal on what medium or form the result would take”.

Quickly this took the form of a typeface that mimicked glacial melting over the course of 71 years. Helsingin Sanomat helped to provide and digest in-depth data on arctic sea ice decline and rising sea levels, sourced from the National Snow and Ice Data Center’s database recording changes from 1979 to 2019, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s predictions for effects up to 2050. This information was used to map how the letterforms would transform, the heaviest weight representing sea ice in 1979 (when satellite measuring began), and the lightest representing how sea ice might look according to the IPCC’s predictions for 2050 – at 30 per cent of the size.

“The hardest part proved not to be visualising the disaster,” Coull explains, “but making sure the change didn’t happen in the earliest stages of the transformation. That’s something we wanted to avoid. Unlike a global pandemic, climate change is a crisis that sneaks up on us: the situation gets worse so slowly that by the time the consequences are visible, we’re way past the tipping point.”


Daniel Coull and Eino Korkala: The Climate Crisis Font for Helsingin Sanomat and TBWA\Helsinki

Whereas variable fonts often change in a uniform manner, the designers wanted the Climate Crisis Font to decay in a more unpredictable way. When drawing how the shrink would effect “future” letterforms, the design of the characters feels the same but steers away from the shapes of the chunkier earlier characters. “Shrinking ice and rising sea levels don’t happen in a systematic manner,” Coull says. The opposite can be said for type design to an extent. So it needed to be less repeatable.

“It was a hard balance, especially stepping out of the set notions in type design about legibility,” he continues. “Earlier versions of the typeface were a lot safer. We drew countless letter shapes and styles, and produced numerous technical demos that came out nothing but naive, foolish and gimmicky. Only by pushing the design and questioning if it was extreme enough, and hitting the right points, were we able to end up with a result that seemed believable.”

As a result, the font – now in use by Helsingin Sanomat and available to download for free – is a bold and effective design device for telling the important and ongoing story of the climate crisis. Coull concludes: “If the design can open up conversation, bring awareness, and invoke a call for action, then that would be a good outcome.”

GalleryDaniel Coull and Eino Korkala: The Climate Crisis Font for Helsingin Sanomat and TBWA\Helsinki

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Daniel Coull and Eino Korkala: The Climate Crisis Font for Helsingin Sanomat and TBWA\Helsinki

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Jenny Brewer

Jenny oversees our editorial output across work, news and features. She was previously It’s Nice That's news editor. Get in touch with any big creative stories, tips, pitches, news and opinions, or questions about all things editorial.

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