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One of the world’s largest retailers just debuted its own shape-shifting typeface

Alibaba Sans, a new font designed for the e-commerce giant, standardizes the user experience across its many platforms (it also contains a clever logo Easter egg).

One of the world’s largest retailers just debuted its own shape-shifting typeface
[Image: courtesy Alibaba]

In 2018, the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba raked in $30 billion in a single day–breaking a global sales record. As Alibaba continues to grow, the company is turning to design as a way of supporting all the digital merchants that power its business.

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Like Amazon, Alibaba’s e-commerce business predominately provides a platform for smaller merchants who sell their goods through the company’s digital infrastructure, whether that’s on Alibaba.com (where wholesalers sell to small businesses), on the company’s more consumer-focused e-commerce websites like Taobao (China’s largest shopping website where small merchants hawk their goods), or Tmall, which is home to bigger brands.

But the many small businesses that use Alibaba don’t always have the resources to invest in branding, and as a result, there’s a lot of variation and confusing design among these sellers. Taobao, for example, can end up being a jumble of images and colors for users trying to navigate across it.

[Image: courtesy Alibaba]

To help streamline its websites and standardize the design of its many small businesses, Alibaba is releasing its own typeface called Alibaba Sans, which will also be used in the company’s branding across its many divisions, from e-commerce and cloud computing to payment, logistics, and even entertainment. But Alibaba Sans is available for free for any of the small businesses that sell through Alibaba’s e-commerce platforms to use, too.

[Image: courtesy Alibaba]

Designed by the U.S. type studio Monotype in the U.S., Alibaba Sans has 11 different weights and works across 172 different languages. A Chinese version, designed by Hanyi Font in China, has five weights and includes 116,895 Chinese characters. “The rigid Black weight, for example, represents the stability of the company,” Akira Kobayashi, Monotype’s type director for Asia Pacific, tells Fast Company via email. “On the other hand, the Light Italic weight is appropriate for items that need to appear more approachable. The varied weights give the typeface flexibility.”

[Image: courtesy Alibaba]

Most importantly, each character had to be easy to read at all sizes, though the designers prioritized smaller sizes because of Alibaba’s mobile-first clientele. “The various fonts were all designed to be aesthetically pleasing from small to large sizes across any device or location—from display screens, across multiple office buildings on the company campus, to e-commerce marketplaces,” Kobayashi says.

The font is meant to be an amenity for small businesses that may not have invested in branding. The company has also provided a video editing tool that automatically transforms a product page into a short promotion and an AI-powered tool that writes product copy based on millions of samples for its merchants to use for free. While an Alibaba spokesperson says that the aim is not to homogenize the design of the small brands on the platform, Alibaba Sans does seem like a way for the company to offer a more streamlined visual experience to shoppers while elevating the design of its site as a whole. That could make it harder for individual merchants to stand out, especially if many of them adopt the font. Still, Alibaba Sans may make the user experience for consumers better by elevating the design of each small business.

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If you look closely, the font itself has a bit of a hidden agenda: If a user types the word “Alibaba,” the typeface automatically changes the glyphs so they more closely resemble the company’s wordmark, including a wider-set capital “A” and a lowercase “l” without a tail. So in the end, anyone who uses Alibaba Sans will undoubtedly be giving the company’s brand a boost.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable

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