Remember the interrobang‽ Of course you do! That’s the kind of rhetorical question for which the interrobang is perfectly suited. I’ve been thinking about Martin K. Speckter’s punctuation mark of late for a couple of reasons: first, a Google alert turned up an obituary of a Minnesotan poet named J. Otis Powell‽. I hadn’t known of Powell‽ previously — I’d have loved to have been able to ask him about his surname! — but Minnpost explains his unusual name as follows:
Powell‽ once signed his own name with an exclamation point. Sometime in the 2010s, he changed that to an interrobang, a nonstandard punctuation mark that combines a question mark with an exclamation point. [When] asked about the change, Powell‽ said, “The exclamation point was too didactic. I’m at a point in my life now where even if I’m passionate and committed to something, there’s still that question, because I learn how much I don’t know every time I learn anything.”
Getting an ampersand tattoo is one thing; changing one’s name to include an interrobang is quite another.
Separately, I recently came across the website for a London-based architecture and engineering firm named Interrobang, and, although their name isn’t especially unusual, the way they present their logo very much is — it is an interrobang unlike any other I’ve seen so far.
This prompted me look at the interrobang itself in more detail. Of all the recently invented marks of punctuation, it is arguably the most successful and the most difficult to design. I count at least four separate approaches to its visual design, and, as such, I thought it was time to lay them out and perhaps even to start closing in on a canonical form. And so here we are: please read on for my tentative taxonomy of interrobangs.
Though Martin K. Speckter invented the interrobang, he did not design it. That was left to Jack Lipton, his agency’s design director. Lipton (and, in fact, a number of other interested parties) furnished Speckter with a series of potential interrobang designs, of which a few were published in Speckter’s type-in-advertising magazine, Type Talks. Here are some of Lipton’s proposals:
The design shown here in the middle was the one that stuck, if in the less sinuous form seen below. Its distinguishing feature is that the ascenders* of its constituent question and exclamation marks overlap to form a closed counter (or, in Lipton’s design, counters plural) and, as such, I’m calling this the “closed” interrobang.
Next comes the converse: the “open” interrobang. This style also arrived early in the form of the interrobang that accompanied Richard Isbell’s 1966–1967 typeface Americana. The distinguishing characteristic here is that the ascenders of the question and exclamation mark are joined at the bottom but do not form a closed counter, hence the name.
Isbell’s interrobang was echoed in 1968 by Kenneth Wright’s rather more lo-fi design for Remington Rand’s Model 25 electric typewriter and, of course, the interrobang used here at Shady Characters (‽), that of Sindre Bremnes’ Satyr typeface, even if its dual ascenders splay outwards rather than fitting neatly within one another.
If the closed and open interrobangs have in common a single conjoined stroke, the “disjoint” interrobang diverges by possessing two separate ascenders — as if its constituent question and exclamation marks share a terminal dot but can’t otherwise bear to touch.
Lastly, on to the reason for this post! As I mentioned above, I was intrigued by the interrobang used in the logo of Interrobang London. I asked Maria Smith of Interrobang to tell me more, and this is what she said:
We’re architects and engineers working together so we wanted a name that spoke to this cross fertilisation. The interrobang seemed perfect as it combines the expression of architects and exclamation marks, with the interrogating nature of engineers and question marks.
The design was a collaboration between myself and graphic designers Polimekanos.
We wanted to create a new one because while we loved the meaning, we couldn’t find an existing one that really satisfied us in terms of its composition. I suppose we also wanted our very own! The starting point was Didot because that was the heading font for the engineering company we’re a part of: Webb Yates Engineers.
You can see the result here, featuring a single “hybrid” stroke that combines aspects of both the question and exclamation marks. I like it! It’s less dense than the closed variant and, dare I say, less fussy than the disjoint and open varieties.
So: there you have it. What do you think? Is it reasonable to categorise extant typographic interrobangs as open, closed, disjoint or hybrid? Have I missed a category, or are my names in need of some finessing? And, most importantly, which is your favourite? Let me know in the comments!
- Ascender or stem? I’m not sure how to refer to the main stroke in the exclamation and question marks respectively. Answers in the comments, please! ↩︎