Must we give up good typography in the name of convenience?

November 4, 2009

As a design professional, the recent flap over IKEA’s decision to change its typeface from Futura to Verdana really struck close to home for me. IKEA has long been held up as a prime example of good design that reflects and contributes to the brand. Futura is a very clean, contemporary typeface that dovetails perfectly with IKEA’s Swedish heritage and streamlined, efficient product line. The IKEA brand identity was truly something to admire. There is even an online petition asking IKEA to rethink its decision. Yet they changed a core element of the identity for simple expediency. Futura is not a “Web font,” and with the increasing usage of the Internet as a key part of retailing, IKEA decided to make a wholesale change to Verdana, across the entire company. In the print catalogs, on store signage, on packaging… everywhere, whether it’s electronic media or not.

Comparative cover of Ikea catalog--Futura vs. Verdana.
Image credit: idsgn

Why is this offensive to designers? It’s not because Verdana is a particularly inferior typeface – it isn’t, even though some other Web fonts like Arial are poor imitations of “real” typefaces (in the case of Arial, it’s Helvetica). Rather, it’s because it represents a limitation of design choices. The number of quality typefaces in existence is vast, giving print designers enormous creative choice when communicating brand attributes.

Verdana vs. Futura side by side
Image credit: idsgn

The number of what we’re calling Web fonts – those included in the basic operating system of personal computers – is very small. There are only seven. A Web page can call for any font the designer wishes, but if that particular font isn’t installed on the user’s machine, the page will default to one of the standard Web fonts. The reason that these Web fonts even exist is, on a certain level, absurd. Like any other intellectual property, typefaces need to be licensed and Microsoft (and other technology companies) chose to create their own rather than pay for the long-established ones. There were other technical reasons such as kerning difficulties and browser support, but that’s another topic. So, computer users around the world got a very small set of lowest-common-denominator typefaces, some of which were not very good at all from a design standpoint. And – like the old joke about the number of Microsoft engineers it takes to change a light bulb (none… the company just changes the standard to “dark” – by the sheer force of market domination, these few typefaces have been accepted by those outside the design community as valid de facto choices. The uproar is unsurprising. Is the whole world headed down this path? Will everything wind up looking the same? Let’s hope not. There’s no fundamental technical reason why we can’t have good typography on the Web. The basics are already there, with the widespread adoption of cascading style sheets. The issue lies with getting good typefaces deployed legally, so that the small set of Web font defaults don’t get used. That’s a legal and practical problem that we’re just going to have to live with for now. There’s also no technical reason why we can’t have more system fonts, but realistically, that’s not going to happen. Open source might be a valid model for software development, but I don’t envision type designers handing their work out for free, nor do I see the operating system vendors even agreeing on what color the sky is, never mind which new typefaces to build into their next release. The eventual answer, I think, lies in technology. Some products have appeared recently that purport to allow designers to design for the Web the way they do for print, rendering “real” typefaces onto Web pages on the fly without those fonts having to be installed on the user’s machine. But currently, they add processing overhead that slows sites down unacceptably and are just one more thing for administrators to manage. With certain licensing issues remaining, these solutions are not ready for prime time. I don’t pretend to have a ready answer to this thorny problem, but I do know this: If we roll over and follow IKEA’s lead, we’re going to see more and more dumbing-down and debasement of design standards in the name of convenience. We, as designers, should not stand for this. Don’t let your carefully crafted identity be driven by the fact that there are only a handful of Web fonts! I do believe that a solution will arrive before long; technology has a habit of moving faster than we expect and allowing us to make huge leaps that bypass seemingly intractable problems. In the meantime, hang in there and don’t lower your standards. What’s your view? How are you using creativity to get around the limitations of current technology? We’d like to hear your story.

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