“Think LOL but more obscure”: Pentagram’s Michael Bierut designs The FBI Guide to Internet Slang
Also featuring two custom typefaces from Matt Willey, the project is based on an official 83-page glossary put together by the FBI to help decipher the most obscure social media chatter imaginable.
- Liz Gorny
- 10 March 2022
The latest project from Pentagram partner Michael Bierut is inspired by a story that couldn’t be more Steve Buscemi “How Do You Do, Fellow Kids?” if it tried. Inspired by a 2014 story revealing that the FBI has a glossary of 2,800 acronyms to figure out what people are saying on social media, Michael has designed The FBI Guide to Internet Slang. The booklet was created for Pentagram’s annual project to celebrate a new year, and features acronyms so obscure that it’s hard to imagine anyone has ever or will ever use them – NTTAWWT (not that there’s anything wrong with that) being a personal favourite. We have also been treated to two new custom typefaces from partner Matt Willey for the project, inspired by the type on FBI agents’ jackets.
After reading the FBI story many years ago, Michael revisited it on this project for its type-driven and timely subject matter, as a commentary on internet culture, surveillance and privacy. The FBI’s glossary appealed to him for other reasons too: “It all seemed like a case of a research assignment gone out of control, which as an obsessive myself, I appreciated,” the designer tells It’s Nice That. Turning this into a new booklet was “sort of an exhaustive task”, he continues: “It turns out the whole list of terms that the FBI compiled is available online in a blurry pdf: 83 pages, 2,800 acronyms.” Michael read the whole thing; the booklet is a compilation of some of his favourites.
The FBI Guide to Internet Slang has been designed in collaboration with both Matt Willey and Britt Cobb; it was kept purposefully “raw and blunt looking”, “like a primary source rather than a fancy design exercise,” says Michael. The booklet challenges readers to identify 14 abbreviations of varying difficulty and absurdity, with answers at the back. The acronyms are set in two custom typefaces inspired by agency uniforms from Matt, who drew particular inspiration from the fact that, oddly, FBI jackets appear to have no standard lettering format. In response, Matt generalised them into two families, one sans serif and another slab serif. The fonts are named Edgar Sans and Clyde Slab after J. Edgar Hoover and his deputy Clyde Tolson, who ran the agency for much of the 20th century.
Matt’s fonts are juxtaposed with OCR-A, a monospaced type created in 1968 for computerised optical character recognition, “very much evoking the days when mainframes occupied entire floors of government buildings,” says Michael. The rest of the booklet is in black and white, finished with a pattern of hundreds of acronyms on the inside of the gatefold cover, suggesting an additional “secret code”.
“What’s weird is that even after spending hours working on this thing, I still have trouble remembering what they stand for, which makes me wonder if the people who compiled this list in the first place were somehow trolling the FBI,” says Michael. “One of the few I do remember is SALTS — “Smiled a little then stopped” — which is more or less the reaction we hope the piece provokes.”
A limited number of copies of The FBI Guide to Internet Slang are currently available. To receive one, you have to provide proof of a donation of any size to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a non-profit organisation working to defend civil liberties in the digital sphere. Make your donation here, then forward a copy or screenshot of your donation receipt to firstname.lastname@example.org.
GalleryPentagram / Michael Bierut, Matt Willey and Britt Cobb: The FBI Guide to Internet Slang (Copyright © Pentagram, 2022)
Pentagram / Michael Bierut, Matt Willey and Britt Cobb: The FBI Guide to Internet Slang (Copyright © Pentagram, 2022)
About the Author
Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. After graduating in Film from The University of Bristol, they worked freelance, writing for independent publications such as Little White Lies, INDIE magazine and design studio Evermade.