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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.

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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?

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