If you type the word "refugee" using the new typeface Common Sans, something potentially confusing happens: "Refugee" immediately autocorrects to "human."
That's not an error. It's the handiwork of Swedish design studio Essen International. It created the graphic bit of activism as a pro bono project for the non-profit Solvatten to make people rethink the issue. "Often this is what you read in the headlines, about refugees, and you forget that they're humans," says creative director Robert Holmkvist.
Solvatten makes portable, solar-powered water purification kits and donates them to people in countries like Kenya, Uganda, or the Philippines, where there's little access to clean water. That doesn't have much to do with the mass migration of people into Europe, but Solvatten and Essen are Swedish. And in Sweden, the problem of people seeking asylum is profound. The Scandinavian country has an open-door policy toward people fleeing their homeland, and some 10,000 people are coming into the country each week. According to The Guardian, Malmö, Sweden, is so overpopulated with refugees humans that they sleep in the streets because there's nowhere to put them all. Sweden's prime minister recently announced stricter policies regarding asylum, citing a strain on local resources.
Amidst all this, Holmkvist says mounting "anti-immigrant sentiment" prompted Essen to use one of its most trusted tools—typography—to speak up in some small way. Common Sans, as a typeface, is a grotesque font similar to Helvetica or Arial. Essen created it in-house using software called Glyphs, in an open type file format that can easily be programmed. Typically, designers program typefaces so certain combinations of letters autocorrect to accents or ligatures. (For example, if you're typing in Swedish it would automatically merge "f" and "i" into one ligature.)
"We knew that kind of function existed, and we had this idea about how maybe you could do that in a bigger sense, not just aesthetically, and change the meaning of the word," Holmkvist says. He knows people are unlikely to use it, and that's okay. This is about the idea, he says, which is fairly simple: A refugee isn't who you are, it is what you are, and only temporarily.
Common Sans subverts type design in an unexpected way to get that point across. "The traditional role of typefaces and typography is to carry a message by not interfering," Holmkvist says. "Common Sans does the opposite. It's the typeface telling you, and interfering with you."
You can download Common Sans here.