Typography against terrorism: the German police FE-Schrift

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In Germany, the font you will find on license plates is called FE-Schrift.

Image by Wassim Chouak on Unsplash

FE-Schrift was designed by German typography professor and designer Karlgeorg Hoefer. It was applied to license plates from the 1990s replacing the old font used for license plates, DIN 1451.

DIN stands for Deutsches Institut für Normung, which translates to “German Institute for Standardization”. The DIN 1451 standard was designed for industrial uses and traffic signs because it is easy to read.

DIN 1451

The problem was that DIN 1451 is also very easy to modify and falsify; this became a problem in the 1970s and 1980s when Germany was still divided and victimized by the violence of the local Baader-Meinhof gang, aka the Red Army Fraction. This group has carried out terrorist-style assassinations, bombings and kidnappings. They robbed banks for funds and tended to get into shootouts with police. To avoid detection, they often used license plates that they altered.

Hence the introduction of FE-Schrift, which is short for Fälschungserschwerende Schrift, which translates to “anti-counterfeiting police”. It was created specifically to make tampering difficult.

FE Schrift

For example, with your average sans serif font, the letter “P” is easy to change to “R”, “B” is easy to change to “3”, and “F” is easy to change to “E”. Suppose your license plate contains “PBF” and you want to change it to “R3E”. If you try this with FE-Schrift, at first glance it seems doable:

Image by Stybn, CC BY-SA 3.0

However, when you stack the fake “R3E” (red) with the actual way it would be printed in FE-Schrift, the differences become apparent:

Image by Stybn, CC BY-SA 3.0

The casual viewer might not be able to spot the fake, but it was good enough for the license plate reading cameras and primitive software Germany was using at the time of its introduction.

FE-Schrift became the official license plate font in Germany in 2000.

Finally, a question for you typography nerds: Why are there two types of “6” and “9” in DIN 1451?

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