Fonts still matter

November 1, 2009

Johnson’s World by Steve Johnson

For a few fleeting moments, the arcane world of graphic arts basked in the glare of the mainstream media courtesy of Ikea, that international icon of retail success that first skyrocketed to fame by integrating an extensive array of cheap furniture with succulent Swedish meatballs. In this year's catalog, Ikea unceremoniously dumped Futura, the venerable gothic font dating back to the days of hot metal.

My introduction to Futura came while composing headlines on a Ludlow. This was before a Mac was a computer. It was before a Mac was even a hamburger! If you don't know what a Ludlow is, go ask your grandfather.

In place of Futura, Ikea selected Verdana, which, truth be told, was never intended for use in print.

Print and design purists, as well as Ikea fans, stormed the blogosphere with pithy posts defending Futura as though it were Catherine of Aragon, wounded by Ikea in the King Henry VIII role, replacing aging queen Futura with saucy upstart Verdana. Except…

Verdana is no Anne Boleyn

Verdana was deliberately created to be ubiquitous and bland, and therefore universally compatible in a global environment connected by Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser. Other yawner fonts like Arial (the Helvetica knockoff with all the spacing and none of the character) and Tahoma are birds of the same feather.

Making these fonts freely available and including them with all Microsoft software made it a sure bet that these fonts would come to reside on every computer in the world, and therefore be “web safe.” This simply means that if you design a web page with a websafe font like Verdana, it probably will display the way you intended it to, anywhere.

What possessed Ikea, lauded by fervent devotees for its good sense in all things stylish, to adopt Verdana for print use? Perhaps Ikea wanted all of its media to match. Alas, poor furniture seller, your marketing program is not a living room set.

The media furor

This stylistic faux pas made Ikea an easy target of ridicule for design snobs who rushed to tweet their Twitters so they could claim their 15 nanoseconds of fame.

If you are a designer, or a twitterer, this is old news. If you are a printer, this is probably the first you've heard of this story. When was the last time a typeface became the subject of a major news article?

The surprise isn't that font freaks screamed foul, but that the mainstream media paid attention. Time magazine, the Wall Street Journal, even the stodgy New York Times and Chicago Tribune repeated this story. As a printer, I'm both stunned and gratified that the press even cared. Ironically, I haven't heard much in the printing trade press. Too bad. Ikea's stylistic misstep could be twisted into a powerful case history for savvy marketers of print and media services.

An Internet focused design firm, it could be said, might see nothing wrong with employing an unsuitable font for a printed catalog. An experienced web designer probably would be convinced that a Microsoft websafe font is the only way to go. A webonly designer wouldn't comprehend why the same rule need not and should not apply to print.

A print-oriented designer likely would make the opposite mistake, insisting on Futura for the corporate website. The result would be widespread font substitution, with web pages displaying text using common substitute fonts, such as Times New Roman or Chicago. The designer might never see how awful this web creation looked to most of the world.

The printer's role

Did I lose you on that last paragraph? I'm sorry to hear that, because it means you don't provide web design and maintenance. A printer offering such services would have been uniquely equipped to help Ikea avoid embarrassment.

The service provider who is equally at home in both online and print media will win the race in 21st century markets. Understanding both of these media formats — and knowing how to integrate them in an effective manner — will move you even further ahead of the pack.

Ikea is a rare breed among massmarket retailers in that it still prints an annual catalog. We must respect and revere such commitment to print. Ikea's crime was a misdemeanor, not a felony; Verdana is not so much repulsively ugly as it is bland and plain.

Verdana also is wider than Futura. Less type will fit on a page. This should mean thicker catalogs with more printed pages. Perhaps this will go down in history as the year declining print volumes began to rise again! Long live meatballs and extended type faces!