Fontroversy: Ikea’s Verdanagate of 2009

When I wrote my article on the controversial Comic Sans I never expected to engage people in an epic discussion over one typeface.

The design industry, however, creates plenty of intense drama over typefaces.  Take for example, IKEA’s Verdanagate of 2009.

Since the 1940’s IKEA has established itself as a company that respected and revered good, affordable design. It’s scandinavian, it’s utilitarian; the natural relationship with design seemed to be made in heaven. Ikea cemented it’s courtship with the design industry by using a long standing industry darling, Futura, as it’s brand typeface, and all was well in the world.

Then 2009 came, and Ikea decided a change was in order. The decision, they claimed, was made in order to unify the  brand across the web and print. Along with a comment that it was significantly cheaper to license all of the necessary computers with Verdana than it was to fund Futura’s licenses.

Futura, a geometric sans serif created by Paul Renner in 1927, is a staple in the modernist’s arsenal.  The typeface is based on the geometric proportions of the circle, square and triangle; once you get acquainted with it’s gorgeously proportioned forms, you will recognize it everywhere. It’s creation was inspired by the modernist ideas of the Bauhaus in that  the new times should embrace modern and new ideas; rather than rework old, outdated concepts. In a wonderfully ironic way, Verdana in it’s role of Ikea’s new brand typeface seems to be the new Futura; just seems that the design industry didn’t necessarily want a new Futura.

Verdana, as you may recall from my article on legibility, is a standard humanist sans serif, created by Matthew Carter for Microsoft back in 1996. It’s amazing for legibility and readability at small sizes due to it’s large x-height, comfortably loose letter-space, and generously portioned counters (the space inside the letters). It’s also available in 99% of the computers out there. It’s generally regarded as a solid choice for anything web related for large batches of text, but use it for print and the entire design community loses it.

When the switch took place, design experts everywhere criticized the corporation for their lack of intelligence regarding type selection. Articles popped up across design blogs and even the NY Times wrote a piece about it– but what’s really the big deal?

I decided to do a side by side comparison of the same spread used in an example I picked from my research.

Here’s the original spread,

Here is Futura, set as close to the spread as I could visually match it, using both the bold and medium weights.

It does feel clean, authoritative and strong, but it also comes across as scientific and cold. It’s describing all of the little intimacies that a bedroom encompasses, but displays the information in a way that’s pretty impartial. I also have a hard time reading ‘just’ without some sort of accent to where it comes out ‘yoost’; that linear descender challenges my knowledge of my own mother tongue.

This is the offending typeface, set at the same numerical proportions as Futura. It’s clearly larger, more easily read, and a little more personal with the more ovular O’s and wider x-heights. It does feel plain, but both are technically “plain”, the Futura’s forms just hold more aesthetic personality being shaped so closely with pure geometric forms. While it makes for a nice display face, it is harder to discern the letters within a paragraph of copy. Why IKEA ignored the typographic rule to use complementary fonts along with their primary branded font is beyond me. They could have added any number of additional elements, a condensed weight, a serif- either roman or italics, and even Futura is available for use through fonts–for–web embedding programs such as Typekit, but it doesn’t change their choice.

I wanted to show what a little consideration and elbow grease will do when working with something you find completely abhorrent. Take it from me, holding your tongue and just squeezing those lemons to make the best damn lemonade you can will work wonders for you in times of duress from client’s decisions.

Shown here using the body text size at a 21 pt instead of a 24 point size retains most of the same proportional congruency that the original Futura spread uses. It feels far more constrained than the 24 pt sample, and goes to show that a lot of what deems typography to be ‘beautiful’, or ‘ugly’ or simply what works and what doesn’t work includes a lot of factors. Most of these elements are within the designer’s grasp to be controlled and manipulated for the best possible outcome, or at least the ideal outcome from the forces that be.

From the design community’s point of view, the use of a generic and ubiquitous font seemed like branding suicide. It’s careless and ugly, they cried. Since it’s creation was intended for small sizes and the web, the font lacks elegance and rhythm set at larger sizes.There was even a Romanian design consult  who proposed a petition to the company hoping to instigate the company to switch back, and collected 3,000 signatures for his plight.

But all of this is far too subjective. When I was in college, Futura was a big deal. We had to love it, respect it, understand it and lavish it with praise as the deity it was to the typographers that worship it.  It took me 6 years to finally appreciate it. I find it blocky, heavy and clunky– but this is also my natural disposition towards typography. We all have our natural tendencies for what fonts appeal to us, as well as the ones that cause our noses to turn.

From the company’s stand point, I can absolutely see this typeface change as more beneficial than suicidal, and if not more beneficial than at the very least more truthful. It seems that the main concern is, at least for a majority of the company, ultimately their profit- and I would imagine a significant decrease in cost could be garnered from the switch. Another very significant point to be made here, the mass majority probably won’t take notice of this subtle change. Only the relatively small design community would be in an uproar, but it’s that same small community that felt such a kinship with the corporation to begin with.

Perhaps this speaks to how strong the branding was behind IKEA’s aesthetic that caused such a fervent outcry within the typographic community. One quote in particular sticks out at me, “”They went cheap,” said designer Iancu Barbarasa. “Designers have always thought of Ikea as one of their own, so now, in a way, the design community feels betrayed.”

Designers had attached the same passion they direct towards their work with IKEA’s company model for good design and it simply wasn’t there. What is there, however, is a great branding and marketing scheme designed to establish those associations, connections and relationships with its customers, even if they are imaginary.

One thing I did notice when compiling research for this topic was the comparison between the advertisements for the original IKEA and the ones featuring Verdana. Revamped IKEA focuses the branding to the site, rather than linking the site to the printed brand. It’s definitely an interesting take, and I think one that continues the idea that IKEA is a design innovator rather than a follower. It takes innovation to turn established standards on its head and walk away with it unscathed. In this instance, the industry of design gives the impression of extreme rigidity in mindlessly observing to “The Rules” regardless of application or potential innovative executions.

The print industry, whether we want to admit it or not, is puckering and floundering while the internet industry is thriving under as many new forms as it can awkwardly spout out, as quickly as it can. Positing the brand to mimic the site is a technologically forward way to approach your branding- who cares that it doesn’t have the same visual rhythm as Futura,  The information is clear, rather transparent, and it’s all about showing off the product.

In case I haven’t sold you already, consider this: let’s talk about IKEA’s product. Is it a specialized piece of furniture? Lovingly crafted and created sent to you in a perfect, elegantly realized solution? NO! You are sent the pieces in the box, left to your own devices to cram, screw, bang, lift, mess up and redo all over again until it’s complete. Lopsided, but complete. I see no reason why they would want an overly designed aesthetic- it wouldn’t be a logical fit. Perhaps the design community saw something it wanted to see in IKEA and reacted like a spurned girlfriend when it found something it didn’t like, but I see IKEA’s choice to use Verdana as acceptable, and understand the change to be rather forward thinking. It’s just not that visually distinct up close, but then again, neither is IKEA’s furniture.

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