As of this writing, Google lists almost 1.4 million entries under “Ikea type font issues” and a petition started by Marius Ursache, a brand consultant in Romania, has quickly garnered over 5,000 signatories—each of the forceful opinion that Ikea should quickly re-consider its brand mis-step. Time, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, and the Guardian, among others, have picked up the story.
What’s the kerfluffle? Ikea has committed brand-slaughter. After 50 years of hawking its wares (and design philosophy and brand) through the typographic voices of Futura and Century Schoolbook, the company has just distributed almost 200 million catalogues which speak Verdana, a typeface designed by Mathew Carter specifically for on-screen use in small sizes (and freely distributed by Microsoft)—and one which is right up there with Times New Roman and Arial in its ubiquity and blandness.
So the story is not so much that Ikea made this change (companies can, and need to, change their image for a variety of reasons), but that people—not just we brand consultants and designers—care and feel betrayed.
Some large number of the 1.4 million entries (admission: I quit counting after several hundred) talked to the writers’ beliefs that Ikea was a design leader and in choosing to present itself like every flyer on a car windshield, the company devalued both the products customers had bought and their understanding of what Ikea means.
The surprise (to some, including Ikea) was that the visual expression of words matters: type is not just a neutral conveyer of letters and words. Ivana Hrdlickova, information manager at Ikea in Stockholm, speaking to The Swedish Wire said, “We didn’t expect people to react this strong. It’s sad that some people react negative. Still, we are very glad that people care so much. But what’s important is the message, not good looking fonts.”
But the “message” was also in the fonts. Futura, from which Ikea Sans was adapted, was designed by Paul Renner between 1924–26 and although Renner was not specifically connected to the Bauhaus, the sans-serif font expresses many values in common with the movement: straightforward geometry (the face incorporates almost-perfect squares, circles, and triangles), unadorned simplicity, form in the service of functionality…a new model for the future.
The accompanying serif font, Century Schoolbook, (from which Ikea Serif was adapted), was designed by Morris Fuller Benton in 1919. It is fondly associated by many of us with learning to read. The activities of Spot and the shenanigans of Dick and Jane were made real through this face. It, too, is straight-forward, basic, clear, with large counters (the spaces inside the bowl of the “p” or “o”).
What is clear to both type types and customers of Ikea is that these two typefaces—and the interaction between them—was a perfect match-up with the brand attributes Ikea had been (is) promulgating. Therefore the big disconnect with the move to Verdana. And some 1.4 million posts and entries show that how a message is delivered can either make that message more resonant and memorable—or detract and erode.
Ikea’s given reasons for the switch—that Verdana, freely distributed, was a cost-effective solution for global communications, and one that would connect their print and online communications—bears looking at. (Spokespeople did not talk of an intent to change the meaning of their brand.)
Cost: Well, free is cheap, but there is certainly a cost to eroding (or at best, not promoting) your brand meaning. Verdana is also a wide face with fairly loose letter spacing, so there may also be a “green” cost to producing the third most widely published print piece on the planet.
Consistency: Yes, it’s a good idea for communications from a company to be consistent in their presentation; consistency builds recognition, meaning, and all-important loyalty. But slavish consistency doesn’t trump using different media to their best advantage. Verdana is a great typeface for what it was designed for—on-screen communications—but in print, especially writ large for heads, it’s undifferentiated and value-free. There are many other decisions and cues that could hold together Ikea’s print and online communications (choice and execution of color, imagery, language); we all have to work with the constraints of online typography. Consistent ordinariness is not necessarily the best choice.
Of course, what comes pre-packaged in a computer is a factor to consider when crafting a system for brand-building communications—but it ought not to be a defining factor. While companies such as Ikea can commission or adapt typefaces for corporate-wide use (as they did the last go-round), many organizations can’t afford this route. The solution is often to license brand-important fonts for those desktops responsible for specific tiers of communications, with the understanding that other communications will be built from default faces. Done with intent, and with other elements of “glue” within a system, this is a fine solution.
A final irony: Since Johannes Guttenberg perfected movable type in 1450—and spawned the proliferation of printing and knowledge—thoughtful type designers have worked to design typefaces that are legible and have different affect, character, and uses. Cutting and casting faces in metal was tough slogging, but many faces from the last half millennium still work hard for us today: words set in Bodoni mean something slightly different than those set in Caslon or Baskerville—and certainly communicate differently than their later sans serif cousins like Gill and Frutiger. Phototypesetting in the 1960s made it easier and less expensive to conceptualize and realize an ever-wider range of fonts; digital design and production increased the options that communicators have exponentially.
So it is ironic, and disheartening, in this era of typographic plenty, that a major company with brand roots in enduring design principles, should have chosen to take the road most traveled and sacrifice valuable brand meaning for watered-down expediency.
We know how taking the orange and straw off the Tropicana container worked out.