Why has the furniture giant adopted a typeface designed for screens?
News has recently broken of Ikea’s decision to change the typeface used in their 2010 catalogue from the much-revered Futura to the somewhat-less-revered Verdana.
Predictably, the online design community is up in arms. The petition has several thousand signatures already. In their defence, Ikea have claimed the new typeface was chosen for its global versatility – Verdana includes Asian characters, which will allow the company a measure of visual consistency in all countries. It’s also a great deal more web-compatible. Not to mention cheaper.
So why are designers and typographers so opposed to the change?
The main argument seems to be that Verdana is simply inappropriate. While it may be fine in the capacity for which it was first designed – in small sizes on a screen – if we’re talking universal application (including large signs, billboards and so on) the typeface may well fall flat. For instance, the number “1” (one) in Verdana has relatively exaggerated serifs to distinguish it from lowercase “l” (L) and uppercase “I” (i). The supposition is that, at larger sizes, techniques intended to enhance legibility will seem clumsy and awkward.
Verdana is arguably a victim of its own success. It’s one of a handful of almost universally compatible fonts. According to Wikipedia, it’s present on 97% of Windows operating systems, and 94% of Macs. As such, it sees a lot of general use. In the eyes of many designers, its almost as though Ikea knocked together their catalogue using Comic Sans.
And this, I suspect, is the crux of the problem. Ikea have a reputation for great design, as their work with the Stockholm Design Lab will attest. For several decades, they have been seen as a beacon of designerly good taste. The decision to adopt Verdana seems to many like wilful disregard for this reputation.
However, to see Ikea solely in the light of their reputation is to ignore the fundamental values of their brand. Above all things, Ikea is affordable and practical. Just like Verdana. And while it may offend the sensibilities of those who make a living out of the careful selection and application of typefaces, Ikea know that 99% of their customers will never notice the change.
Then again, perhaps Ikea are displaying more forethought than we give them credit for. Perhaps there is a sea change coming, in which designers will throw away their Helveticas in disgust, and everything from road signs to cereal boxes will be carefully set in multicoloured, web-compatible Verdana. Or perhaps not.