Sweating the small stuff

Outrage. Ikea recently switched corporate typeface, moving from Futura to Verdana across all their marketing, including their printed catalogue and ads.

To typography enthusiasts, this is like Mozart announcing a kazoo concerto. Futura is a type classic, skilfully designed by a master craftsman and demonstrating real artistry. It’s excellent for distinctive identity and brand work – so much so that Ikea had practically made it their own until now.

Verdana was created to act as body text on low resolution computer monitors. And it’s well designed for that purpose, but it doesn’t suit print work or any size above petite. At large sizes it looks plain fugly, with characters that appear juvenile at best. Use of Verdana in this way definitely constitutes bad typography.

The slight is all the greater coming from a company that has, to an extent, brought design into the lives of many people who previously believed it was the domain of turtlenecked pseuds.

Ikea’s reason was ostensibly to ensure consistent use of fonts across web and print platforms, and to ensure global compatibility across all languages. A strange choice, given that Verdana has notable deficiencies in its character set. However, it’s possible that Ikea isn’t as naive as we think. My colleague Paul Lloyd hypothesises that the switch is a deliberate ploy to make the company appear less expensive. It’s an old strategy: cheapen the aesthetic and the perception of price goes down. Plausible, at least.

By all means we can point, laugh and lament the lack of design skill at the company. However, some of the outrage has been ridiculous, particularly since we can never truly know the reasons behind the choice. Hell, there’s even a petition to reverse the change.

I believe that if companies make bad design choices that’s their prerogative. If I worked for Ikea, I would have fought tooth and nail to dissuade them from this choice – but no, I won’t sign a petition. Let them eat cake, and if design is as important as we say it is, the market will prove their mistake.

Herein lies my bemusement at the design community’s reaction. Behind the indignation, does any of us really believe that this typographic gaffe will affect Ikea’s sales? Is it really as egregious an error as we make out? Or are we merely acting out the stereotype designers fight so hard to shake off: the aforementioned turtlenecked pseud complaining that their soup isn’t hot enough?

Typography matters. Used well, it can elevate communication in astonishing ways. But, asAegir points out, there are bigger design challenges facing Ikea and indeed the global manufacturing industry than choice of corporate typeface.

Design is about sweating the big stuff; hopefully even changing the world. Often that involves the small stuff too, but focus solely on the trivia and it’s hard to avoid becoming trivial yourself.

Cennydd Bowles