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157: Impact: An Incomplete History of Type

Updated: Nov 22, 2023

Name: Impact

Release Date: 1965

Designers: Geoffrey Lee

Classification: Transitional Sans Serif Display

Owned By: Monotype Imagining Holdings Inc.

Claim to Fame: The typeface synonymous with the Internet and meme culture

Ah, Impact. The typeface who launched a thousand meme formats. If you’ve been anywhere on the internet in the last 15 years I’m sure you’ve seen this typeface plastered onto a slew of different images, sporting its iconic white fill and black outer stroke. But where did this relic of modern culture get its start, and how did it become the memetic juggernaut that we all know today? I’m Cameron, your guest host for today’s podcast, and let’s embark together onto the journey of an unlikely typeface who found its way from humble origins in Mid-Century England and became the de facto typeface for Internet culture.

Believe it or not, but the story of Impact starts all the way back at the end of World War II, where after years of violence and social turbulence, people yearned for structure, routine, and sense of normal. Once the dust settled, in swept modern Swiss style design trends, which favour bold, geometric forms and objective clarity and made waves as an escape from the chaos and ambiguity of war. While this movement spawned other iconic typefaces like Helvetica, by the 60s the style had been riffed upon and exaggerated to many logical extremes, creating a trend of bold, condensed and industrial fonts which road on the coattails of this post-war cleanliness and simplicity. Needless to say, these trends led the way for the birth of new typeface that was bracing for impact.

Originally released in 1965, Impact was created by British designer Geoffrey Lee, who hand carved the initial font into metal. Born in Wimbledon in 1929, at a young age Lee had been a member of the Royal Air Force, and by 1950 had found work at an advertising agency which kick-started his career in design. Throughout his life, Lee worked as a Type Director and Design Consultant at various companies across the UK, eventually teaching at the Manchester College of Art and London College of Printing. Along the way he worked with and developed type solutions for many typographical technologies as they rose and fell from relevancy, from carving metal type such as Impact, to the Linotype machine and eventually the Macintosh.

Visually, Impact is a sans serif typeface with a high x-height relative to its cap height, and shorter ascenders and descenders to boot. Its thick vertical strokes are contrasted with the noticeably thinner horizontal strokes, and the typeface pairs basic geometric shapes and right angles with more natural curves and unified counters to create a bold, condensed, and surprisingly legible display type that, as the name implies, Lee hoped would have a big impact in his time.

Lee designed Impact for a type foundry known as Stephenson-Blake, though the typeface didn’t start with the name recognition and popularity that it has today. Stephenson-Blake mostly used the font for their own marketing materials, and valued the boldness and simplicity of the typeface for how legible it was over images…more on that later. In its time, Impact faced plenty of competition from other typefaces with visual similarities, most notably Helvetica Inserat, Univers Bold Condensed 67, Franklin Gothic Extra Bold Condensed, and Placard Bold Condensed. Unlike these typefaces, Impact had not been designed with a type family in mind that would inherently pair well with it, and had to stand on its own merits. So how did Impact become so commonplace all these years later?

Well, it turns out that Impact’s lukewarm reception was actually its greatest strength. You see, Stephenson-Blake was quite the old fashioned company, and continued prioritizing metal typecast type production while other foundries started work on the newer technologies of phototypesetting and even digital typesetting. As a result, they started to falter and disbanded their type foundry operation, selling many of their typefaces, including Impact to their competitor, a little type foundry known as Monotype.

Enter the home computer. In 1992, Monotype made arguably the most important decision in Impact’s history by licensing the typeface to the one and only Microsoft as a default font included in the Windows operating system. During Microsoft’s meteoric success in the 90s and near monopoly during the introduction of the home computer system to middle class households, Impact became notable as one of the few typefaces the average person could be able to both recognize and use in day-to-day operations. Whenever someone needed to design a poster in Microsoft Word to advertise their bake sale or to help find their missing pet, the striking Impact became a top typeface for the job.

In 1996, just over 30 years since Impact’s humble origins with Geoffrey Lee, Microsoft and the World Wide Web Consortium included Impact on their list of “core fonts for the web”, in part thanks to its inclusion on Windows 98, which made up close to 90% of the Operating System market at the time. Suddenly, Impact had carved its place not only onto nearly every home computer but had weaved its way into becoming a standard of the Internet itself. But even then, it’s greatest success was yet to come.

So hey, I’ve got a question for you—I can haz cheezburger (ew)? In 2007, this was the text was written in Impact over the image of a smiling British shorthair cat, and it made Internet go wild. This was the image that brought image macros, or memes with text captions overlaid onto photos, into the mainstream, and of course, Impact was the typeface at its centre.

Thanks to our cheeseburger-focused feline, dozens of meme generating websites cropped up, allowing users to put text over their own favourite Internet memes, including beloved characters like Bad Luck Brain, Overly Attached Girlfriend or Scumbag Steve. Look, I’m not going to pretend this era of Internet Comedy always holds up in hindsight, but Impact was the definitive default font for most of these meme templates, and remains at the heart of internet culture at the time, continuing into today. Unlike other core Internet typefaces like Arial Black or *shudder* Comic Sans, Impact benefits from being incredibly legible over busy elements like images, making it perfect for these memes and macros. As a display typeface, it is both eye catching and legible, but won’t hold up for large bodies of text, suiting the short and quippy nature of most memes quite well. It blew away the competition in this niche usage that allowed it find a home decades after its time, and honestly, as the standard meme font, I think we could’ve done a lot worse. Looking at you Comic Sans.

It helps that the standardized, block structure of typeface leaves it nearly monospaced, which reduced if not eliminated kerning issues in most of these automated meme templates. But since Impact was both incredibly legible and freely available on most computers, anyone could replicate these memes and join in on these cultural touchstones, helping evolve them into something we still know and use today.

In a way, the peaks and valleys of Impact’s story provide its own meta-narrative on memetic growth, the evolving culture of the internet and beyond, and the ways in which accessibility and constraints can breed creativity. Just as Impact only thrived once it became available for all to use, the collective ownership of memes and the Internet allowed people to build on the ideas of others and create new, entertaining and subversive works unrestrained by copyright. People worked through the limited options on early home computers and used Impact to create their own communities and in-jokes all centred around the same universal typeface, assuredly leaving behind a far greater legacy than Geoffrey Lee could’ve anticipated. Though Lee passed away in 2005, two short years before a cat asking for a cheeseburger would propel his typeface to a new level of internet fame, his legacy lives on. And while Internet culture has evolved past the standard Impact format for image macros, Impact’s…impact on the evolving culture of the 21st century will never be forgotten. Godspeed, Impact, and thanks to you for listening.


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About Our Guest Host:

Cameron Mady is a recent graduate of the Graphic Communications Management program at Toronto Metropolitan University. Hailing from Brantford, ON, Cameron thrives on curiosity and exploration, and takes pride in blending ambitious and creative ideas with practical applications. A focused and award winning designer in his university career, Cameron is excited to take on the world of graphic communications and discover what he can offer in a professional environment

Music (public domain): TRG Banks - Above the Earth

Talk Paper Scissors Theme Music: Retro Quirky Upbeat Funk by Lewis Sound Production via Audio Jungle

Boat Origami Photo: Boat Origami Photo by Alex on Unsplash

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