Roman Numerals Get the X in Super Bowl

Screen shot 2016-01-14 at 6.09.12 PMI don’t blog much about football, unless it’s haiku about Troy Polamalu’s hair. But when my husband told me about this story, I couldn’t help but mess with it. The story, that is. Not so much Polamalu’s hair. I’m afraid that if I stick my hand in there, I might never see it again.

Anyway. February 7 will mark the fiftieth Super Bowl. The NFL has been using Roman numerals after “Super Bowl” for…let’s just say for almost as long as I’ve been alive. On the surface, the convention doesn’t appear to make sense. It’s 2016, so why not call the sports-a-palooza “Super Bowl 2016” in the very sensible way that hockey and baseball handle their championships? But the NFL season splits the calendar year, so to be absolutely accurate, you’d have to call it “Super Bowl 2015-2016,” and nobody wants to put all those characters on a T-shirt. Or a beer cozy, a cap, a foam finger, or all those Doritos posters.

So I can see why they opted for the Roman numerals in the first place. And for a while, all those Xs looked kinda fun and powerful. It gives an impression of gladiators duking it out, except with better padding and a halftime show.

But I can just imagine what went on at the marketing meeting as the NFL got ready for publicizing the golden anniversary of the Big Game.

“So, hey, what are we gonna call this thing?”

“Uh, it’s fifty, so we just change the numbers, right? Toss another X or I on there, right?”

“Dude. Fifty in Roman numerals is L.”

“Super Bowl L? What the hell is that? Nobody knows what that means. X and I, they get. Maybe V, if they’re smart. But L? Most people are gonna think Superman’s playing football on Krypton or something.”

And…meeting adjourned. Cue the promotion department to break out the Maalox and trash seventeen boxes of merchandise.

Super Bowl 50 it is. But don’t worry, traditionalists. The Roman numerals are returning next year with Super Bowl LI.

The official story of the temporary suspension is that the designers couldn’t come up with an aesthetically pleasing way to render the “L.”

I call bull on that one. I’ve been a designer; I know designers; we specialize in finding solutions. And how would the “L” be less challenging than next year’s “LI,” which will probably end up looking like a “U”? The more likely story is that the change in convention was a marketing call, because I’m also a marketing person and I’ve spent a lot of time in meetings. I know what goes on there. I’m willing to bet my Super Bowl 50 commemorative chip-and-dip bowl that it was the Krypton thing.

The Fonts of Our Lives

Have you noticed a subtle shift in the use of typography in supermarkets lately? Probably not, because, like most people, you’re more concerned about what’s in the box rather than what’s on the box. Or, unlike me, you have not been indoctrinated by a career in graphic design into the habit of identifying every font that you see. This especially annoys people in movie theaters when I randomly call out, “Gill Sans,” or “Memphis Bold” when the opening and closing credits roll.

I’ve tried to stop doing that, even though I secretly wonder which is more annoying in theaters: hordes of people texting in the dark, errant ringing cell phones, or my typographical Tourette’s.

Let’s go back to the supermarket, shall we? Grab a cart. No, you may not have a candy bar. But take a look at that box of cereal, or crackers, or macaroni and cheese. We’re going sans serif. Serifs are the little “feet” that appear on the ends of the letters. Times Roman, for example, is a serif font. Helvetica is a sans serif font. Historically, and as measured by studies of ease of reading, sans serif fonts are often used for headlines and subheads while serif fonts are often used for body copy, as they have been judged more readable in blocks. Serif fonts are really cool, in my opinion. I love the grace note they put on a character, and how various shapes and flavors denote different periods of history.

But this is not a lesson in typography. I’ll save that for others who are currently working in the field, or for me, when I run out of ideas. This is more about what the Internet has been doing to our eyes, as well as our social discourse and our culture.

I’ve written before on what turns me off about people’s websites, and some of those reasons have to do with typographical choices. But I never thought that the Internet itself, and our reading habits, could change typography. For instance, when using white text on black background (which is a total bitch for anyone who no longer has twenty-year-old eyes), serifs tend to melt into the page and disappear. They also disappear on certain types of screens. Clever marketers, studying the various screens of our lives, have seen a pattern. Extrapolating into a two-hundred-slide PowerPoint presentation unveiled at a conference in an undisclosed location (Akron, Ohio), they have deemed sans serif fonts to be old-fashioned, frumpy, and altogether the domain of “losers” who still gather their information from words printed on dead-tree pulp and would not deign to purchase an electronic reading-type device unless the price dropped below a certain level or they received one as a gift. (Or so I’ve been told. Now that I’m out of the field, I’ve been blacklisted, and even had to return my pica pole and vow to erase the secret handshake from my memory.)

Therefore, packages of crackers and cookies are now devoid of serifs, those nasty, dated, printers’ nightmares, and now sport a clean, modern design, and what has been shown in focus groups to be a younger look. Never thought that buying a package of saltines can make you look younger, did you? Skip that four-hundred-dollar face cream and the Botox injections and just fill your grocery cart with Saltines and Oreos.

I feel younger already.