It’s easy to dismiss the IKEA switch from Futura (a font I used in my e-mail when I worked at the Institute for the Future, for obvious reasons) to Verdana as much ado about nothing. But this Guardian piece does a better job than many of explaining why it matters:

Futura has a quirkiness to it that Verdana does not, as well as a much longer history linked to a political art movement. Futura, dating from the 1920s, is loosely Constructivist (only loosely, because the proprietary version that Ikea made its own – Ikea Sans – is slightly tweaked to distinguish it from, say, something Joseph Stalin might have used). Verdana… is one of the most widely used fonts in the world, and people who care about these things dislike the way our words are becoming homogenised: the way a sign over a bank looks the same as one over a cinema; the way magazines that once looked original now look like something designed for reading online. This is what has happened with Ikea: the new look has been defined not by a company proudly parading its 66-year heritage, but by something driven by the clarity of the digital age….

Verdana seems to have been chosen by Ikea by default, or at least by economics. An Ikea spokeswoman, Monika Gocic, has said that Verdana is for them because “it is more efficient and cost-effective”. This is another way of saying: “We use it because everyone else does.”

It’s amazing to think that serious modernism is now a century old– a hundred years ago, more or less, Peter Behrens was revolutionizing industrial design at AEG and training a generation of architects and designers who would shape the look of the 20th century (Gropius, Mies and Le Corbusier all studied under him), Charles Rennie Mackintosh was finishing the Glasgow School or Art, Frank Lloyd Wright completed the Robie House— and so IKEA can reasonably see itself as a company with a serious history that it should take seriously.

Further, IKEA matters in the world of design, not just because it’s a company that has shown that (at its best anyway) good design sells, but because it has a disproportionate effect on the design market:

According to Swedish folklore, there are more copies of the Ikea catalogue printed each year than the Bible. It certainly has more Billy bookcases than either the Old or New Testatment, but its designers would do well to remember their history. The first movable type appeared with Gutenberg’s Bible in the 1450s, and everything followed from there. In this strange way, the multi-million print-run of the Ikea catalogue has now adopted a cloak of heavy responsibility. But things could be worse. It could be in Helvetica.

[To the tune of Alban Berg Quartet, “String Quartet No. 4 in C minor, Op. 18 No. 4: II. Scherzo (Andante scherzoso quasi Allegretto),” from the album Beethoven: The Complete String Quartets (Disc 4) (I give it 4 stars).]