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The full fonty: why type nerds went mental over IKEA

Publisher and editor of The Enthusiast Mel Campbell writes:

So design nerds everywhere have been shaking in their black skivvies and steaming up their retro spectacles with rage over the 2010 IKEA catalogue switching typefaces from Futura to Verdana  — the Swedish furniture behemoth’s first such overhaul in 50 years.

I don’t think the broad public is that interested,” shrugged IKEA spokeswoman Camilla Meiby. Nor is Wikipedia, whose editing community wants to delete the page entitled Verdanagate, claiming it is “non-notable, non-event and the title is utterly ridiculous”.

The thing is, though, that type nerds really, really love type.* They hoard examples, develop irrational hatreds of some fonts and love the detective work of identifying others. It gives them existential pain to see typefaces misused  — especially by companies that claim to care about design.

Type designers Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones have filled a small room with their collection of type specimen books and printed ephemera dating back to the 18th century. The pair based their famous typeface Gotham on old New York industrial signage:

This evocation of working America went on to be Barack Obama’s presidential campaign font.

Imaginary Alphabets is a similar project by Elizabeth Carey Smith, who found and photographed intriguing signage fragments on the street. She then retroactively designed the typeface that could have produced them.

One of the world’s most ubiquitous fonts is one of the most controversial. You may remember Helvetica, Gary Hustwit’s 2007 documentary film, or Lars Müller’s adulatory book Helvetica: Homage To A Typeface. The Swiss font inspires praise from designers who find it refreshingly simple and neutral and scorn from those who find it mind-numbingly bland and boring:

But oh dear, there’s worse  — Arial, the almost-Helvetica developed by type foundry Monotype. Thanks to its adoption by Microsoft, it’s ubiquitous online; I’m typing in it right now, and you’re probably reading it. But type designer Mark Simonson loathes it. Where an outright copy would have paid homage to Helvetica, “Arial, on the other hand, pretends to be different,” Simonson fumes. “It says, in effect ‘I’m not Helvetica. I don’t even look like Helvetica!’, but gladly steps into the same shoes.”

And don’t get designers started on Comic Sans, the 1995 Microsoft font so infuriating that people have lobbied to have it banned by law. Comic Sans is an effective typographical shibboleth: a way of instantly identifying those who care about type and those who fart in its general direction. It’s often found on poorly spelled, passive-aggressive signs in office kitchens, or, distressingly, the packaging of organic products that environmentally conscious type nerds would otherwise love to have in their fridges.

There’s plenty of pedantic fun to be had, too, in nitpicking the movie and TV industry’s typography. Simonson keeps a running commentary on typographic anachronisms on his blog, whether he’s noticing one of his own creations used in the recent Star Trek, or laughing that a sign for Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport is set in the Apple font Chicago.

And in 2007, Romanian designer Cristian ‘Kit’ Paul solved one of the problems keeping typographers up at night  — which font Woody Allen uses in his movie titles.

Like Allen, Wes Anderson has a trademark font: he uses Futura in all his films. Modernist and geometric, Futura was first released in 1927 but became widespread in the 1960s. It’s the typeface used in DDB’s iconic Volkswagen ads and on the plaque left on the moon in 1969. Unsurprisingly, Futura is right at home in the TV series Mad Men, where it spells out Don Draper’s name on his office door.

It’s now inextricably associated with sleek, simple ’60s design, as seen in this IKEA catalogue from 1965. Yep, Futura went so well with the IKEA aesthetic that the company had typeface designer Robin Nicholas (also the co-creator of Arial) customise a proprietary version.

Like Comic Sans, IKEA’s new typeface, Verdana, is a Microsoft font. Its specific purpose is to make small text more readable on computer screens: its letters are wide, open and loosely spaced, with deliberate distinctions between similar-looking characters to help readers tell them apart. In other words, it’s meant for pixels, not print, and it looks terrible writ large on in-store signage  — or billboards.

I haven’t seen it myself, but apparently it’s really lumpy and uneven at that size, with strange, distracting letter-spacing,” says Stuart Geddes, of design studio Chase & Galley. “Futura seems to fit the elegant minimalism that IKEA began with,” says Geddes. “To replace Futura with something really robust and distinctive would have been controversial, but to replace it with Verdana is just a really sh-tty step backwards.”

* Thanks to digital typesetting and word processing, ‘font’ and ‘typeface’ are used interchangeably now, but ‘font’ technically refers to a printer’s set of metal characters in a particular face and point size. It comes from the French fondre (to melt) and refers to the process of casting the molten metal letters.

Jeremy Wortsman, principal of The Jacky Winter Group and founding partner of Chase & Galley writes:

To the untrained eye, Ikea’s shift from its custom cut of Futura to the Microsoft-created screen typeface, Verdana may be unperceivable, but thanks in part to the thousands of annual design festivals (42 in Melbourne alone, at last count), that large, smelly, and amorphous blob we like to call “Design” has crept more and more into the public consciousness, taking the debate from seedy backstreet design blogs, to the printed page, including a recent short feature in Time.

Leaving aside the technical and semiotic differences that are best discussed in longer form elsewhere, what’s all the fuss about?

There is no denying that typography is the voice of the brands we interact with and use every day. How seriously would you take The Age if the masthead was set in comic sans? Would Apple still sell millions of dollars worth of iPhones emblazoned with Zapf Chancery?

As an unabashed Wes Anderson fan firmly placed in Team Futura, the change for me is akin to a lover trading off an entire APC wardrobe for a set of plaid snuggies. Sure, slankets can spice things up in the bedroom, but it’s really not for everyday use.

I recall something a bit more close to home, the redesign of Carlton Draught years ago. Moving from America where the names and the brands of the beers resembled far-off places somewhere in the nearby vicinity of Marlboro country, I found the idea of actually living in the actual suburb of my beer label to be, quite frankly, awesome

So why did it enrage me so when the new brand identity started rolling out? Because it changed Melbourne. It changed how the pubs looked.

Instead of that bold slab serif that adorned so many beautifully fading walls I passed each day, we had an unwieldy bold serif, with no less than five bevel and emboss effects. The simple, yet elegant CUB monogram, gone, in favour of two golden clydesdales, a feeble attempt to lend some authenticity to the new design by referencing the brands history.

It’s not just a typeface. It’s our visual landscape. The things we see every day. It shapes our perceptions and by nature, our thoughts. If that’s not worth fighting for, even from a keyboards distance, than what is?

19
  • 1
    Jane Doe
    Posted Tuesday, 1 September 2009 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    What a lovely type-nerd article. I am an Arial hater, because the I and the l are indistinguishable. Kim Jong Il, or Kim Jong the second???

  • 2
    Mr Bascombe
    Posted Tuesday, 1 September 2009 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    To designers, who care for their type and fonts like policemen care for doughnuts*, IKEA swapping Futura for Verdana is an exceedingly dumb thing. Futura (or IKEA’s own cut of it), along with the Swedish names, was ‘IKEA’, it signified ‘IKEA-ness’, and IKEA had successfully embedded their unique Swedishy visual language into our collective psyche (and a suburb or two in each state). Brand-wise, moving away from it is especially brave and/or crazy. The font now chosen to represent ‘Swedish flatpackingness’ is Verdana, which was designed solely for the web/screen, not the printed page. Using Verdana in print is like using your underpants as a hat. Not the done thing to do in polite society, or in suburban über-malls. People will point.

    * US only, I think.

  • 3
    Will Grant
    Posted Tuesday, 1 September 2009 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Both articles are great reads - but Jeremy, use the power of the internets and whack in some picture examples!

  • 4
    Lucy
    Posted Tuesday, 1 September 2009 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    Banning a font by law! What is this, a dictatorship of the font-cognoscenti? Are designers really in one mind about Verdana, and if so, why precisely are we supposed to listen to them when a simple rulebook would suffice?

    The golden quote: “I haven’t seen it myself, but apparently it’s really lumpy and uneven at that size”… that about sums it up. This is just more hating on Microsoft by people who can’t see the difference between true evil and ephemera. Next.

  • 5
    Kathryn
    Posted Tuesday, 1 September 2009 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    Lucy, the reason for disliking Verdana as a printed logo was given in both the articles and the comments - it was designed to be easily readable in pixelated form on a computer screen, and was not designed to be either printed throughout a catalogue or blown up to massive size as a logo. It is irrelevant that it was designed by Microsoft - this detail merely helps to explain what its purpose was, ie to be easily read on-screen.

  • 6
    Eric Lawson
    Posted Tuesday, 1 September 2009 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    TYPE FACES
    re that IKEA catalogue ( which I have not seen and don’t wish to see)
    Why can’t designers understand that the most readable type faces have serifs? Pick up any newspaper and you will find that its body type is Times/Times Roman or similar face. I spent a lot of my working life trying to convince graphic designers to use serif types for the sake of readability but the moment my back was turned out would come a publication with a sans serif body type. To make matters worse they like to use a light spindly 6 point sans serif type on a coloured background to produce something my ageing eyes cannot handle. OK I will accept Helvitica or Helvitica bold in headings but that’s about its limit.
    As I have often said, designers love to make things look pretty but they do not read!
    Maybe Crikey could try a nice readable Times Roman some time!
    Eric Lawson

  • 7
    gef05
    Posted Tuesday, 1 September 2009 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

    Why can’t designers understand that the most readable type faces have serifs?”

    Because (good) designers understand that such generalisations only serve to confuse the situation. No one style suits every situation - context of use is paramount, and if you make a concrete assumption (such as you have) you will be wrong as often as you are right.

    But then, you probably double-space after a period, don’t you? (Admit it!) :P

  • 8
    Elizabeth Carey Smith
    Posted Wednesday, 2 September 2009 at 1:43 am | Permalink

    Mel: Don Draper’s office door is in Gill Sans (a minor mistake.)

    Lucy: Why should you listen to type designers’ opinions on type design? Really?

    Verdana was commissioned by Microsoft. It was designed by one of type’s greatest designers of all time, Matthew Carter. No one is saying it’s a bad font. It’s just the wrong one for Ikea’s purposes.

  • 9
    Mr Bascombe
    Posted Wednesday, 2 September 2009 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Eric: it is thought that serif type is easier to read with long passages of text than sans serif type. Athough that argument seems to have developed around the time when there were simply more serif fonts around than sans serif fonts (ye olden days). Nowadays, sans serifs, serifs (and a couple of other styles, but I won’t go there) co-exist in harmony, each with an intended purpose for their usage and after designing with both styles for many years now – I’m convinced the argument that ‘serifs are easier to read than their sans cousins’ just doesn’t hold water (well, perhaps it does just a little, in print). Most web designers think that sans serif type is way more legible on screen as bodytext too (research demonstrates this too). As GEF05 says ‘context is everything’: spot on.

  • 10
    Posted Wednesday, 2 September 2009 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    ECS: Heh! This is what reading Mark Simonson at 3am gets you. Also, perhaps it’s a subconscious thing: I was obsessed with Gill Sans in 1996; thought it was the most elegant font evz. (1997-8 however were the shameful ‘Eurostile Extended’ years.)

    Also, while I have the type nerds’ attention: can anyone explain why so many PRs write their pressers in Century Gothic?

  • 11
    Mr Bascombe
    Posted Wednesday, 2 September 2009 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    Century Gothic is one of the mysteries of the universe. If Arial is a bloodless, soulless copy of Helvetica (which is that way inclined itself), Century Gothic is perhaps even doubly so. It looks like it was designed by a (bloodless) work experience kid. I think vampires are involved…

  • 12
    Paul Ferraro
    Posted Wednesday, 2 September 2009 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    What an intriguing article (and associated comments).

    Has anything been published on the history of fonts? Perhaps a nice little paperback which could be easily digested by a non-designer?

    Suggestions anyone?

  • 13
    Felix Dance
    Posted Wednesday, 2 September 2009 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    I do admire a good type nerd, but the apostrophe nerd in me fumes over this article.

  • 14
    Mr Bascombe
    Posted Wednesday, 2 September 2009 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Erik Spiekermann’s ‘Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works’: a great ‘how to use type’ book, by a great type designer. This one is probably the nice little paperback you’re after (although not so much about type history from memory) … and there’s also:

    The Bible: ‘The Elements of Typographic Style’ by Robert Bringhurst. Not exactly a light read, but ‘the’ book on type/fonts and their history and well, everything font-y that you could possibly think of.

    Ellen Lupton’s ‘Thinking with Type’ – lighter, and excellent – more visual than the above one. http://ilovetypography.com/2007/10/09/thinking-with-type/

    http://ilovetypography.com is a great type-related blog too.

  • 15
    Damon Schultz
    Posted Wednesday, 2 September 2009 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    re: serif versus sans serif. The old rule was that serif is for print i.e. paper and sans serif is for web i.e. computer screen. The rationale was that computer screens lacked sufficient resolution to display the serifs - semi-structural details on the ends of some of the strokes that make up letters and symbols - and hence using serif fonts would hinder rather than help legibility.

    With the advent of sophisticated anti-aliasing techniques and higher-resolution screens in modern display devices these concerns are probably outdated. As I type this comment in what appears to be Times Roman the serifs appear clear and crisp to my eyes and in my opinion aid legibility.

  • 16
    Mr Bascombe
    Posted Wednesday, 2 September 2009 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Yes - quite right. Higher res screens have changed the web playground a bit. Interestingly, The Times no longer uses Times New Roman (the typeface as created specifically for that particular newspaper in the 1930s) and online, The Times uses Arial for body text. One more little bit: some designers refrain from using Times and Helvetica/Arial as they’re too common, are ubiquitous and lack personality. Much of our work is in creating a distinctive voice for an organisation, a publication or a brand, which is, in part, expressed through typeface selection. As those fonts aren’t distinctive and help someone stand out in a crowded marketplace, we usually look for something a little more distinctive, appropriate and relevant to a client’s message. We don’t ‘hate’ those fonts so much… No hang on, I do…

  • 17
    Posted Wednesday, 2 September 2009 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Damon: You’re most likely seeing Georgia, a wide serif designed for the screen by Matthew Carter — yes, that Matthew Carter, of Verdana fame.

  • 18
    Bullmore's Ghost
    Posted Monday, 7 September 2009 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Typeface fury/envy invariably reminds me of this scene:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qoIvd3zzu4Y

  • 19
    Mr Bascombe
    Posted Monday, 7 September 2009 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    How about a typeface design that is so cleverly designed that it “…allow(s) more information to fit in a small space, thus saving paper, print time, shipping, and consequently, huge amounts of money”. Matthew Carter (that man again), did it with Bell Centennial – designed purposefully for the US phone book. Often a typeface is designed with a dedicated useful purpose in mind (ie. not just to be another ‘fabulously stylish’ thing).

    http://www.nicksherman.com/articles/bellCentennial.html

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