COLUMN: I got my Ikea catalog last week, and like many in the design field, thought something had changed but wasn’t quite sure what. Due to the fact I have been working on the Web more than the printed design space the past five years, it actually took me a little bit to notice the fonts had changed throughout. About the same time, this past Thursday I started to see a whole raft of online articles, blogs and business media responding to the “uproar” about the change: Ikea had changed their typeface. Holy Crap!

AIN0809-Ikea-VerdanaNow, while this falls about as low as one can get down the pole of what matters in the world right now, below unemployment, health care, and so forth, it’s nevertheless become a rallying cry, or topic du jour for the design community who despair over things as minute as the space between headline letters (ahem, I do that, too, admittedly; it’s called “kerning”), that Ikea has switched from a rich custom type font, to the lowest common denominator, a type face created for the Internet by Microsoft, called Verdana. A style of type which was not designed for print where the lovely bits interact with ink and paper, but for the cold cathode ray tube (CRT), and other display technologies which have evolved into LCD, OLED, plasma, and e-ink.

The main upset seems to stem from the fact that Ikea has “always been known for design.” And this is true, to an extent. Ikea has always had a mix of super cheap pressed board crap clothed in lovely colors and silly Sweden-inspired names with a healthy dose of umlauts, very cool desk accessories, storage stuff, and some often inspired decor pieces, as well as some lovely high-end “real wood” furniture pieces. I know, my curved desk I’m working on now, my bedroom furniture, my living room wall unit, and book cases all came from Ikea during the ’90s. I’ve been a graphic designer since my teenage years (ahem, the late ’70s/early ’80s), and I always “dug” the stuff at Ikea because it was both affordable, but some was really cool, too. Plummers was here first, and I tend to like their stuff better now, but Ikea really was a fun place to walk through and look at the mix of whacky desk lamps, and grid design flat-packed furniture.

So, this issue with Verdana … well, the problem stems (sort of a pun there for you typographers) from the fact that it doesn’t look as good when printed large as a headline, compared to a font which has been “drawn” to look good at large sizes, letter space (kerning) is harder to control, and because it’s a wide, open style, whereas many headline styles are designed to have thinner curves, and narrower widths to fit better in page layouts. Verdana just wasn’t built for the world of magazines and newspapers. All you really need to do is look at any price that has a 1 in it, like a large $129 price. The horizontal space, or white space between the 1 and 2 is too much, and creates an unpleasant empty space, even when kerned close together. Yeah, it’s true. But, really, so what. Verdana works because it’s big, blocky and seems to be missing subtle curves in places, and sometimes looks like it’s bold, even when it’s not. But you can read it at a distance, up close, and it shouts its readability. Not as pretty as the old font, admittedly.

But really, is that a bad thing? I am very knowledgeable about type, having gone to Compugraphic Typesetting School in 1984, and I also got my start in design with blue pencils, and dry-transfer lettering which went onto art boards by hand. I had my own typesetting business in 1987, and I started doing Web design in 1994. Verdana was a popular font once it was introduced because it looked great at font size 1 in HTML, whereas Times and Arial/Helvetica did not. Before CSS, it was common practice to use Verdana for footers, captions, small type, superscripts, and navigation. And for text on, ironically, many of the design oriented Web sites that wanted to use something other than Times or Helvetica.

Yes, Verdana is a font introduced by Microsoft, and was often eschewed by the Mac oriented design community simply because of that, and it being a “Web font,” not designed for print. Funny thing, too, is that the Mac version of another Microsoft font, Georgia, really does look gorgeous on the Mac, and has many of the traditional type elements, where the Windows version is more blocky. I ran into this when I chose to use Georgia for our company logo in 2000, but when we switched to Windows XP in 2006, the font didn’t look the same when you viewed it at 400%, or printed it at headline sizes like 72 pt. I haven’t looked at Verdana on the Mac lately vs. on Windows, but wouldn’t be surprised if there is a slight difference there as well. I chose Georgia for our company for the exact same reason Ikea chose Verdana, it’s a cross-platform, multi-language, multi-format type face – meaning, you can use it for print, for Web, for PDF, for video, and you can have a consistency. And, it does look very clean and open when translated to other languages; Microsoft did a great job at that.

Verdana spec sheet

Now it turns out Ikea is on the defensive because designers claim they have been violated, betrayed, and that Ikea should go back to its original corporate fonts. There is even a petition circulating to tell Ikea to go back to its original style.

In my opinion, that’s a mistake. Frankly, Ikea is acting in a designer frame of mind, they have chosen to go their own way and embrace a standardized font which everybody recognizes. What many of the dinosaur design community is missing is that many of Ikea’s core audience, the folks getting their first apartments, their dorm room furnishings, first couple living together, etc., are now folks who grew up with the Internet. Many of the young adults buying their first EXPEDIT, JAVNAKER, or KVART, have more experience reading their iMac screen, and MySpace page than they do reading the New York Times or Newsweek.

Frankly, Verdana “communicates” very well with youth culture because it’s the typeface of their generation, not their great grandparents. Sure, Futura or Optima, or any of the lovely Adobe or ITC fonts give us a rich history of details in the hand-making of letter styles, but for advertising, marketing and the sale of goods and services, this was a calculated and intelligent design choice.

It’s a business, not a design contest. In a worldwide depressed economy, anything a company can do to standardize, and become more efficient should be applauded and not derided. Of course, most designers work for somebody else and don’t have to deal with the business issues. Very few are both left brain and right brain enough to understand why Ikea has chosen to do this. The negative publicity the design community has drawn out regarding this change has, in fact, proven the point that Ikea’s designers made the right choice. End of days? Not quite.

Isn’t it a designer’s prerogative to buck conventions and question the standard way of doing something, and choose not to do what is expected? What’s wrong with choosing to use the “wrong” thing, to make the right choice for a brand style? Kudos Ikea team, you make me proud for proving you do have what it takes to be a mover in the world of design.