For years, the Scandinavian home furnishings retailer, Ikea, has made its reputation from selling furniture that halved the distance between quirky and generic. Simultaneously attractive and interchangeable, the company's do-it-yourself aesthetic was designed to fit into a wide range of spaces and designs.
With this in mind, it's hardly surprising that Ikea would want to do the same thing with its advertising. While it's signature font, a customized version of Futura, was attractive and distinctive, it didn't work in every language, and was unwieldy for many uses. Consequently, the company recently decided to switch to Verdana, a typeface that Microsoft distributes for free. The new font works across the globe, and translates into an endless array of alphabets. Unfortunately, it also infuriates many of Ikea's customers.
While many of the company's patrons love its sturdy, inexpensive furniture, there is a strong subset of customers who adore its design aesthetic. Similarly, there is also a significant portion of the population that obsesses over fonts. Ikea's recent typeface shift has, unfortunately, managed to hit the sweet spot linking the two groups.
An online petition, launched on August 25, already has over 5,000 signatures. Calling the shift "a mutilation of Ikea's long admired design philosophy," it calls on the company to "get a proper typeface instead of Verdana."
In all fairness, there is a firm philosophical underpinning for this battle. The old font, Futura, was based in Constructivism, a Soviet-inspired movement which argued that art should serve social purposes. In the context of Ikea's marriage of art and function, this font seems oddly appropriate.
On the other hand, Verdana is designed to be universal and interchangeable. Easy to read off a small computer screen, it can be seen as a tool for dissolving the borders that divide cultures, countries and consumers. In its own way, the new font also seems to suit both Ikea's philosophy and its purposes.
Font obsessives, however, don't see it this way. For Futura fans, the shift seems like an exchange of principle for profit, design for dollars. Moreover, the font's association with Microsoft (MSFT) strikes many as particularly unsavory. Where Ikea is a playful, unique design outsider, Microsoft is a firm establishment player; in this context, the shift seems like a sell-out.
It remains to be seen if the furniture retailer's loyal customer base will be able to make it reconsider its dangerous typeface decision. In the meantime, as the rest of us prepare to bid a font farewell to Futura, it seems reasonable to question whether this is one of those times in which design is, in fact, function.
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