Sunday, August 23, 2009

Ikea Goes All Verdana

Like millions (billions?) of others, I get the Ikea catalog in the mail; their most recent one just arrived. Its design has been visually stable for a long time, in part because it has consistently used the Futura typeface throughout.

Suddenly, the company has decided to standardize all of its font usage worldwide on something other than Futura, marking a noticeable change in the catalog's appearance.

Sample of an Ikea catalog before the font change, compared to a page after
(Futura-based design on the left; new design on the right.)

This could be a legitimate decision -- for instance, they might think Futura is not differentiated enough, since it has been around for over 80 years, and is used by many other companies. Perhaps they want to make a more clear "brand statement."

But no, that's obviously not the reason, because what font did they choose?


Now, don't get me wrong -- I like Verdana as a text face for screen use. It's far superior to the other sans serifs choices that are generally available.

But it's plain old ugly for display use, and I wouldn't even consider using it for print. Its letter shapes are specifically tuned to be readable at smaller sizes, so when it's used at larger sizes as in the catalog, it's unattractive. It looks big, oversized, uncomfortable. Note how in the sample below, it appears larger than Futura, even though both are set at the same point size.

Sample of Futura vs Verdana, showing the bold and the numbers
WhenVerdana is used as text type, particularly on a screen where resolution is always in question, that bigger size is an advantage, but in print it's what designers call "horsey."

Aside from its size, the letter shapes themselves are sometimes awkward. I particularly dislike the Verdana numbers... and there are a lot of numbers used at large sizes in the Ikea catalog.

While my aversion to the font's design is clearly a matter of taste, what can't be disputed is that Verdana has zero brand resonance for Ikea -- in part because they've switched away from a font that did have brand resonance, which the chain had built up over the years, and in part because Verdana is already in use everywhere online, so it can't possibly signify Ikea.

The folks over at have been discussing Ikea's font change, pointing out that the company's founder is cheap, which probably motivated the switch as Ikea moves into more markets that require better language support from its corporate fonts. Verdana already has extensive multi-lingual support, and it's available on all the computers throughout the company at no additional cost.

Designer James Puckett questioned the financial common sense of that decision, however:

I would argue that making such a dramatic change to the visual identity of such a valuable brand has potential costs that are much higher than the cost of extending Futura to cover more languages. If Ikea has to do one big ad campaign in the US and Europe to reinforce the new identity, they might spend more than they would have to extend Futura.
St. Thomas art history professor Craig Eliason pointed out that the switch might be partly intended to sync up with "web-immersed" young audiences, who "might feel subliminally quite at home in a store filled with Verdana." But this doesn't address the fact that there is no differentiation to be had from Verdana -- young consumers might feel at home, but they could be anywhere with their homey feeling, not specifically at Ikea.

Will the change have any effect on Ikea's sales? Simon Daniels of Microsoft's Typography Group wondered about that, saying, "I’ll be interested to see if their downward sales spiral is ever associated with the font change, and they change back, or change up. A grand experiment, to be sure."

Hmm. Maybe Daniels is right -- it's a great chance to see if something like a font change has any real-world (financial) effect, or if it's just something a bunch of nattering designers get bent out of shape about.

On second thought, maybe I should be glad Ikea made the switch!

Update: There are some really great before and after images of the Ikea catalog on


Ms Sparrow said...

Or, is it really all in the details?

iancu said...

I'm pretty annoyed by the fact that few wrote that Ikea's Futura is actually its own typeface, IKEA Sans (and IKEA Serif), based on Futura and Century Gothic. This is very important since having your own typeface is a lot cheaper than using a comercial one. Modifying IKEA Sans with arab or asian letters wouldn't have been so complicated — or at least it would've been cheaper than switching to an entire new typeface - on the long run, that is.

Daughter Number Three said...

iancu makes a good point, which was also addressed in the discussion.

Because my blog is not attuned to a type or design audience, I chose to leave out that aspect of the font change, perhaps mistakenly, because it does make Ikea's decision even harder to understand.