“What’s in a name?” Juliet famously asked. Pose that question to the graphic designers at the design firm Pentagram and the answer would be: A lot.

With the help of Pentagram, the American Institute of Architects commissioned a new typeface called Architype for the 2014 AIA National Convention in Chicago (June 26-28). Architype is the AIA’s first proprietary typeface in its 156-year history, and it will be a key element in the promotion and branding of this year’s meeting, “Design with Purpose.”

The decision to design an original typeface for the convention came about when Pentagram was hired to help streamline communications strategies for the Institute. In considering the breadth of written material coming out of the AIA, the designers had a thought: What about creating a typeface unique to the organization for its signature conference?

“We felt simply doing a logo would seem like a feeble thing for all of the communication that AIA does,” says Michael Bierut, a partner at Pentagram, which has offices in New York, San Francisco, London, Berlin, and Austin, Texas. “We wanted it to be more fundamental.”

Bierut points to the efficacy of a recognizable typeface in solidifying an organization’s identity. Think, for instance, of the immediate recognition that comes with the looping swirl of the Coca-Cola font. “Just as a person’s voice is associated with his or her personality, the typographic language becomes a part of an organization’s ‘voice,’ ” he says. “It’s a fundamental building block, and if you do it right and implement it consistently, you can get immediate proprietary acknowledgement simply by writing ‘hello.’ ”

Designing a Hybrid

Until recently, designing an original typeface had been a laborious process—a complex industrial endeavor requiring tedious tweaks in both the form of individual letters and in the way those letters related to each other, punctuation marks, and the construction of special symbols. Today, technological advances have made type design a swifter task, but they do not alleviate the great skill and deliberation required for creating successful letterforms.

Great care went into crafting Architype. First, the designers considered whether the font would be serif—including those little lines at the ends of letters—or sans serif, which is a cleaner approach. “Sans serif has a neutrality that has the broadest range of interpretations and inclusivity,” Bierut says. “It seems appropriate to architecture in the 21st century.”

Pentagram designer Hamish Smyth, who worked with Bierut, says the team then chose to craft Architype from a hybrid of two existing fonts. The first was the classic 19th-century typeface Akzidenz-Grotesk, the mother of all sans-serif fonts that we know today, including the popular Helvetica currently used by the AIA. The second, Trade Gothic, was designed in 1948 and reads as very “classic American,” Smyth says.

“We took parts of each of those, and that formed the basis of the characters,” Smyth says.

Next, Pentagram engaged a graphic designer specializing in typefaces to finesse the letter and number characters, and ensure that they all worked together as a whole.

The result is a font that is clean and contemporary—one that won’t compete with images of architecture—but that also has distinguishing characteristics unique to the AIA. Take the letter “I” for instance.

“What’s interesting about the ‘I,’ which sits in the middle of the AIA monogram, is that it suggests a Doric column,” Bierut says. “We thought, ‘What if we made a typeface that was sans serif, but it had a Doric-column style with the letter “I”? ’ ”

That special design element carries through in other horizontal elements, such as the letter “E,” and it makes Architype a rare breed font: one that’s conventional except for a few moments of distinctive stylization.

Once the print version of the font was completed in November 2013, the team went to work on the digital iteration. Here they worried about pixels and “hinting,” which is the way that different operating systems—think Microsoft versus Apple—render fonts. “There is manual work that you have to do to ‘hint’ the fonts and help make them appear on screen as we intend them to appear in print,” Smyth says.

Architype will make its premiere in the marketing for AIA’s annual convention in Chicago, where the font will serve as the foundation for the convention’s logo and branding. Look for it in the convention hall and on collateral materials. —Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson