Monday, August 31, 2009

Ikea—Maybe it's time to rethink Verdana

In design communities everywhere, Ikea’s decision to adopt a new typeface is big news. Really big news. And to beg the question that everyone seems to ask when the topic of typography comes up: Why should I care? No, this isn’t a global issue. The survival of humanity does not hinge upon the decisions of a Swedish furniture brand. But it’s exactly the kind of news story that has great relevance in certain areas of work, but maybe just not yours. Knowing about this kind of thing gives you a glimpse into the world of graphic design, where things you never thought about can matter a lot.

Read this to see what happened. They changed their brand’s typeface from Futura to Verdana. That’s it. Why the fuss? Typefaces, like people, have complex histories. Those largely unaware or uninterested in graphic design-related fields are often times surprised to hear that typeface design is a complicated process, as each letter is created independently, ensuring the overall typeface has a consistent tone and feel. In the case of the two typefaces in question:
  • Futura was created by Paul Renner in the late 1920’s, and it is based on simple geometric shapes like the circle and 45-degree line. It became hugely popular as a sans-serif, purportedly being able to express modernity and efficiency. The simplified, streamlined letterforms were in part a reaction to lots of the ornate typefaces that were popular at the end of the 19th century.
  • Verdana was created by Matthew Carter in the 1990’s as a “web font,” which means it was designed to be readable on computer screens, especially at small sizes. It's used extensively on the web because it's "safe," meaning that designers can safely assume that all browsers will display it correctly, since almost all computers have it installed.
Both typefaces were produced in radically different times for very different reasons. Ikea adopted Futura and created a modified, proprietary version for it's own commercial use. It makes sense to say that the choice, both visually and historically, demonstrates the overall character of Ikea's brand: clean, modern, and new.

Visual brand identities are heavily dependent on typography because it's functional design: you've got a message, how do you want it to look? Lots of typefaces "evoke" certain emotional qualities, but one begins to wonder if it's the typeface, or the typeface's history, really that matters here. Even the public can recognize typographic history, as some typefaces can look outdated or retro.

Sure, Verdana is not the most elegant typeface at a designer's disposal. There are some objective points that one could argue make it look "awkward," especially for Ikea's purposes. But the when when Ikea's spokeswoman says that "Verdana is a simple, cost-effective font which works well in all media and languages," maybe Verdana is just what Ikea needs.

If we forget where Verdana came from and pretend that we're seeing it for the first time, does it still look as "terrible" as people are saying it does? If we ignore the fact that it's a default web-font, that web designers use it all the time because they have to, does it still look "unspectacular"?

Ikea is an international company, and Verdana will allow it to be graphically consistent with all of their marketing materials across many, many languages. Futura didn't allow them to do that, because of its lack of Asian characters. And the internet, for which Verdana was created, is, well, modern. Computers were a long way off when Renner drew Futura. Considering these two points, I think Ikea is right on the money. Verdana is a functional, modern typeface designed to do exactly what Ikea needs it to do.

Designers are focusing too much on typographic history by complaining that the legitimacy of Ikea's brand strategy has been compromised by the change. Ikea's riding a new wave, one that should force people to ignore the legacy of Verdana, and embrace it as the new "modern" look of function.

No comments:

Post a Comment