Offline a pause in navigation

  Giancarlo Livraghi

    September 2009

anche in italiano

Ikea’s ugly font
(why websites don’t work)

I must start by saying that this isn’t really about Ikea – or any other individual case. And it isn’t just about fonts or typefaces. It’s about websites and why they often don’t work as well as they should – and communication in general being in a mess that is going from bad to worse.

The example discussed here is one of many. Companies that are well known for the quality of their products and services can “stumble” when it comes to their online presence (and so do all sorts of organizations, including governments, public service, newspapers etcetera.)

I am pleased to return, once again, to quoting Gerry McGovern. On September 21, 2009, he published an article titled IKEA chooses an ugly font.

There is a lot of fuss about the fact that Ikea changed the font in its websites to Verdana. This choice is being vehemently criticized. I am quite surprised, because a few years ago many website editors claimed that it was the “ideal” font for online use. They appear to have changed their minds. Here are some examples quoted by Gerry McGovern.

«Verdana was designed for the limitations of the Web - it’s dumbed down and overused,» Carolyn Fraser, a letterpress printer in Melbourne, Australia, told Time. The design community is seemingly up in arms that IKEA would choose a «plain ugly» font. «Words can’t describe my disgust,» spat Ben Cristensen of Melbourne. «Horrific,» lamented Christian Hughes in Dublin.

«It’s more efficient and cost-effective,» says IKEA spokeswoman Monika Gocic. So, IKEA has gone cheap and some think this will damage its brand. «The former typeface definitely better reflected IKEA’s design philosophy, giving it a very special, unique flavor that actually fit the company’s style,» Vitaly Friedman told Time. Vitaly is editor in chief of the online Smashing magazine, which is dedicated to Web design. «With Verdana being used all across the Web, IKEA’s image not only loses originality, but also credibility and the reputation that the company has built since the 1940s.»

There are many reasons – rightly comments Gerry McGovern – to buy from IKEA but I doubt the font that they use is one of them. IKEA is successful because it makes stylish, affordable furniture, not because of the font it uses.

Of course no publisher or editor of printed paper, in his or her right mind, would consider using a typography compromise such as Verdana (though the use of sans-serif or other poorly readable typefaces is stupidly spreading also in books and newspapers.) But it’s interesting to notice this (somewhat belated) backpedaling by “web specialists.”

I am grateful to a reader for ponting out that, strangely, Ikea is using a Verdana typeface also in printed catalogs – though it wasn’t designed for that purpose. This may influence, if only partially, the meaning of some criticisms in one particular case. But it doesn’t change the general picture.

Anyhow it’s ridiculous to claim that this was done to “save money.” There is no cost reduction by changing a font (while there are additional costs in managing the adjustments.)

It’s quite possible (in fact desirable) to be simple while being elegant (but, as we shall see, Ikea is doing the opposite.) If they choose to wear a “cheap-looking dress” the only result they can obtain is to look like a poor quality product for people who can’t afford a better one. This isn’t suicide, because one error isn’t enough to destroy an established reputation. But it’s definitely a mistake.

As always, Gerry McGovern’s comments are in a wider perspective.

«You know, this recession can only be good for Ireland,» the barber said to me. «Irish people, you know, are a bit brand-loyal. If it’s advertised on TV they think it must be good. At first they didn’t want to buy from Lidl or Aldi supermarkets because they hadn’t been told in ads that they were good. But they’re getting used to it. And now comes IKEA ...»

The Web is resulting in the bursting of the ad-built branding bubble because web customers are much more fact-driven and less emotion-dragged. The very reason you’re on the Web is because you have not allowed yourself to get carried away by your emotions. You want to do a bit of research, get more facts, get the best deal.

On this point I don’t quite agree with Gerry – who, as a leading advocate of the internet, sometimes tends to undervalue other communication resources. There is a mixture of reason and emotion in all human behavior. And communication is a whole, effective when it’s coherent in all its ways, clumsy and confusing when it isn’t. It’s even more important to keep promises, to actually behave as one says.

As I said and wrote many times, the myth of false “image” with no roots in reality is wrong and ineffective everywhere, not only online.

It’s no “casual coincidence” that this degeneration has been spreading in the same years (decades) as the warping of speculative finance. They were born together and together they must die, as disease-bearing bacteria (but remedies don’t seem to be as effective as their should in preventing or treating the pandemia.)

More broadly – “brand loyalty” isn’t forever. It takes a long time to build trust, much less to lose it. It’dangerous to disappoint a customer (or reader.) And it’s even worse if a competitor is behaving better.

But let’s get back to the Ikea example, because we can learn a few more lessons. (I checked the following comments with Gerry by email – and I am pleased to know that he agrees.)

The choice of a font that “cheapens” the brand isn’t the only problem – nor the most relevant. I have always been asking myself if it makes sense fo “force” the typeface online. And in practice I never do so. (If, as it can happen, that font isn’t in the reader’s computer it turns into something else – in ways that it’s practically impossible to verify.)

We must go back to the basic principle that the internet is “a varying reception environment.” The most effective solution is to let it be so. If we don’t “set” a font, readers read with whatever they have chosen. (Or if they didn’t deliberately choose, and are seeing whatever is the default in the software or was set by a technical assistant, that is what they are used to.)

Does letting the reader choose make the site less distinctive, more commonplace? It’s the other way round. There are only a few fonts that “probably everyone has.” So that can’t be a way of “looking different.”

It’s much more important, to set a distinctive identity, to have something relevant to say right away, that isn’t the usual boasting, pompous self-praise or pointless glitz. And an immediately visible structure that makes it easy to find what is interesting for the reader.

Blowing up appearances instead of content doesn’t only look like everybody else (because the gimmicks are often the same) but tends to identify at first glance with the worst websites, those that hide the lack of meaningful information behind loads of cosmetics. It isn’t a good idea to concentrate on an “image” that is often the label of emptiness.

But there is more. After reading abut the debates on this subject, I tried to look at Ikea’s websites. I couldn’t, because nothing can be seen unless I install “the lastest flash software”. I have no desire whatsoever to do so. That isn’t only because I don’t enjoy “flash” animation. It’s also, quite deliberately. to avoid websites starting that way – they are generally those that I don’t care to explore. So I dont’ waste my time and move on immedately to somewhere else where I can find what I am looking for.

Are there many people who carelessly let themselves be “updated” with all sorts of software that they don’t need? Probably But this isn’t the point. The fact remains that too much decoration is distracting. The more people are experienced in the use of the net (and therefore they are the best potential customers) the sooner they get bored with unnecessary “dressing up.”

The solution is extremely simple. Even for those website owners who absolutely want to have such an appearance, it’s technically easy to offer a “no frills” alternative that goes directly to content. Why do so many (including Ikea) not understand that they can – and they should?

It’s true that I have been online for seventeen years and many other people have less experience. But people like me aren’t an exception. While in a conversation, or when we are reading, minutes or even hours can go by pleasantly with no feeling of boredom, online a few seconds before getting to what we are looking for feel like eternity. And it is so for everybody.

Are there newbies who are just surfing around and enjoy the entertainment? Maybe. But they aren’t the best customers or prospects. And it won’t take long for them to become fed up and start looking for something meaningful.

The time has come to understand that any site not offering efficient service to readers (instead of cosmetic glitz) deserves to be dismantled and stored away in a dusty cupboard – or in some dark museum of horrors. This was true forty years ago, when the internet was in its infancy, or twenty, when the web was beginning to develop. Now, with the ever-growing size of the net, it is even more so.

This cartoon by Maurizio Boscarol,
published in a book in 2001,
is an effective description of sites
with lots of glitz and scarce content.

Eight years later, this is still a widespread problem.

Another humorist, with experience in computer technology,
J.D. “Illiad” Frazer, recently summarized the concept in a few words.

«Beware of geeks bearing gifs»

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