Sep 1, 2009

The full fonty: why type nerds went mental over IKEA

Fans of fonts are in a frenzy over what they have dubbed "Verdanagate" -- Swedish DIY furniture company IKEA's switch typeface from iconic Futura to the more web-friendly Verdana. A publisher and designer weigh in.

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:

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19 thoughts on “The full fonty: why type nerds went mental over IKEA

  1. Jane Doe

    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

    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

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

  4. Lucy

    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

    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

    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

    “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!) 😛

  8. Elizabeth Carey Smith

    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

    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. Mel Campbell

    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?

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