A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 68: new year, new interrobang

Things have been quiet lately on the interrobang front. Well, no longer. Take a look at this:

Pearson interrobang logo
Pearson’s new logo, featuring a very recognisable interrobang. (Image courtesy of Pearson.)

That is an interrobang and a half, I’m sure you’ll agree.

So, some context. Pearson is a global publishing and education company with fingers in many pies — schools, higher education, professional development, and traditional publishing via imprints such as Addison Wesley and Shady Characters’s own Penguin Books — that until recently possessed only the blandest of corporate logos.* In 2015, however, they decided to come up with a new identity. As Brand New reported, quoting from the press release that accompanied the rebranding exercise:

[Pearson wants to] transition from educational print publisher to a digital and services-led learning business. The ambition behind the new brand is to unify Pearson’s broad and diverse portfolio of products and services under one strong master brand; distinguish Pearson from its competition; drive global awareness and favourability, and serve as an important anchor for its employees around the world.

If you’re playing buzzword bingo, congratulations! You’ve hit the jackpot.

Jargon aside, the symbol that Pearson chose to represent its new, digital self is the interrobang, Martin K. Speckter’s inimitable mark of interrogation, consternation and excitement. Readers of Shady Characters will know the story of the interrobang’s genesis inside out, but Pearson’s press release recapitulates the basic idea for those less well versed in the world of unusual punctuation:

Combining a question mark with an exclamation mark, and encapsulated in a thumbprint, the logo represents the combination of excitement, curiosity and individuality that’s at the heart of Pearson’s approach to learning.

Aside from the underlying armature of the interrobang, the mark appears to have been created from scratch — certainly, I don’t recognise any particular donor typeface — and the blue “thumbprint” is allegedly intended to add a human touch to proceedings. On balance, I think they’ve done a creditable job in preserving the character of the ‘‽’ while letting the reader/viewer know at the same time that this is a proprietary mark.

What now, then, for the interrobang? The one thing that niggles at me about all this (as first suggested by reader Bracken M on Twitter) is the idea that Speckter’s mark might come to be associated chiefly with Pearson rather than being acknowledged as a mark in its own right. And yet, my fervent hope is that its adoption as the logo of a major corporation will kick-start a wave of interest in the ‘‽’. Only time will tell.

Elsewhere, Wired published a very pleasing little slideshow of typographers’ favourite letterforms. Of course, the spectrum of printable characters being what it is, fully one-third of the fifteen typographers interviewed for the piece made distinctly leftfield choices: Peter Bil’ak chose the capital ‘Æ’ ligature; Sara Soskolne plumped for the double-S of the German eszett, or ‘ß’; and Jonathen Hoefler, Sophie Elinor Brown, and Michael Doret all chose the redoubtable ampersand, or ‘&’.

But then, all three amperfans have previous, as they say.

Jonathan Hoefler wrote about the ampersand back in 2008, noting that it was the middle name of his company Hoefler & Frere-Jones (now Hoefler & Co); Sophie Elinor Brown once created a whole bevy of ampersands she dubbed “the amperclan”; and Michael Doret’s company is called, simply, Ampersand Soup Type Founders. Whatever the interrobang’s fate in the long term, the ampersand looks likely to live on a(n)d infinitum.

Lastly, while listening to Slate’s excellent Lexicon Valley podcast the other week, I was happy to hear some air time devoted to Oxford Dictionaries’ selection of the “face with tears of joy” emoji, or 😂, as “word” of the year for 2015. Why this symbol rather than a word, or even a mark of punctuation? As explained at the Oxford Dictionaries blog,

This year Oxford University Press have partnered with leading mobile technology business SwiftKey to explore frequency and usage statistics for some of the most popular emoji across the world, and 😂 was chosen because it was the most used emoji globally in 2015. SwiftKey identified that 😂 made up 20% of all the emojis used in the UK in 2015, and 17% of those in the US: a sharp rise from 4% and 9% respectively in 2014.

Granted, this is all rather academic in the absence of statistics about the use of emoji in comparison to words and/or marks of punctuation, but to make up 20% of all emoji used in the UK is quite a feat. In terms of my slightly rickety Zipf’s Law analysis of punctuation, “face with tears of joy” is the comma, sitting at the top of the pile. It may be neither a word nor a mark of punctuation, but it’s a worthy winner all the same.

You can see their old logo at Wikimedia Commons, if you absolutely must. 
Pearson have put together an only moderately cringeworthy video describing the design process here at YouTube

9 comments on “Miscellany № 68: new year, new interrobang

  1. Comment posted by Jon of Connecticut on

    Happy New Year, Keith. I’ve been working my way through David Crystal’s Making A Point the past couple of weeks. I don’t have time to give a review at the moment: I still have a way to go with the book, in any event. But I did learn the term “uptalk?” I do like reading about elocution, too, so that was a pleasant surprise.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Thanks, Jon! Happy new year to you too.

      I hope you’re enjoying David Crystal’s book — I was more taken by the first, historical part than with the later chapters on usage, but they were eminently readable regardless.

    2. Comment posted by Jon of Connecticut on

      I finished it. It turned more into a reference book as it went on, but it was, as you wrote, “eminently readable.”

  2. Comment posted by Jon of Connecticut on

    Crystal is a good writer. This is the third book of his that I read. I suspect someone at the local library is a fan of his.

  3. Comment posted by Ralph on

    Pearson’s logo is clever, but I share the misgivings about a company effectively copyrighting a punctuation mark. What sets this logo apart from the actual mark? The “thumbprint” circle around it? So we have to tread carefully if we want to represent the interrobang inside a circle now? Hmmm. Hopefully the courts won’t have much sympathy when issues arise.

  4. Comment posted by Michael on

    To me it’s clear that the new Pearson logo is actually about distorting the question mark part so that it is more reminiscent of a “P”. That is to say, they have actually moved away from the “classic” interrobang, so I would say they’re not trademarking it, but would instead describe their logo as “A capital P, open on the left ascendant, combined with an exclamation point, overall in a rounded, relaxed form with a thumbprint-reminiscent oval background.” The many other people using interrobangs in their logos are probably safe!

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Possibly — although this video, apparently by Pearson themselves, combines the ‘!’ and ‘?’ to form the logo. Even so, I doubt that other interrobang users have anything to fear; anyone invested in it as a logo or brand will certainly have precedent on their side by now. Thanks for the comment!

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