I must start by saying that this isnt really about Ikea
or any other individual case. And it isnt just about fonts
or typefaces. Its about websites and why they often dont
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
«Verdana was designed for the limitations of the
Web - its 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 cant describe my disgust,» spat Ben
Cristensen of Melbourne. «Horrific,» lamented
Christian Hughes in Dublin.
«Its 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 IKEAs design
philosophy, giving it a very special, unique flavor that
actually fit the companys 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, IKEAs
image not only loses originality, but also credibility and
the reputation that the company has built since the
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 its 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 wasnt designed for that purpose. This may influence, if only partially, the meaning of
some criticisms in one particular case. But it doesnt change the general picture.
Anyhow its 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
Its 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 cant afford a better
one. This isnt suicide, because one error isnt enough to
destroy an established reputation. But its definitely a
As always, Gerry McGoverns comments are in a wider
«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 its advertised
on TV they think it must be good. At first they didnt want
to buy from Lidl or Aldi supermarkets because they hadnt
been told in ads that they were good. But theyre 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 youre
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 dont 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 its coherent in all
its ways, clumsy and confusing when it isnt. Its 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.
Its 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 dont seem to be as effective as their
should in preventing or treating the pandemia.)
More broadly brand loyalty isnt forever. It takes a long time to build trust, much less to lose it. Itdangerous to disappoint a customer (or reader.) And its even worse if a competitor is behaving better.
But lets 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
The choice of a font that cheapens the brand
isnt 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 isnt in the readers computer it
turns into something else in ways that its 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 dont
set a font, readers read with whatever they have
chosen. (Or if they didnt 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? Its the other way round.
There are only a few fonts that probably everyone
has. So that cant be a way of looking
Its much more important, to set a distinctive identity,
to have something relevant to say right away, that isnt 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 doesnt 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 isnt a good idea to
concentrate on an image that is often the label
But there is more. After reading abut the debates on this
subject, I tried to look at Ikeas websites. I couldnt,
because nothing can be seen unless I install the
lastest flash software. I have no desire whatsoever to
do so. That isnt only because I dont enjoy
flash animation. Its also, quite deliberately.
to avoid websites starting that way they are generally
those that I dont 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
dont need? Probably But this isnt 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, its
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?
Its true that I have been online for seventeen years and
many other people have less experience. But people like me
arent 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
Are there newbies who are just surfing around and enjoy
the entertainment? Maybe. But they arent the best customers
or prospects. And it wont 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.