Typography and Web 2.0

Google fonts

A weird thing happened in 2009 when IKEA decided to change from Futura to Verdana. People noticed! And they weren’t at all happy about it.

Even if doesn’t register in a concrete “Wow, look at that cool font” kind of way, the ethos of a font family is present in thousands of intrinsic little ways: the curve of a letter, the thickness of a line, the feeling that it invokes. College Humor took that idea to a new and silly level in its personified “Font” videos: check out Font Fight.

If you still think that a font is a font is a font, allow me to explain a little more about IKEA’s situation.

IKEA had a very good business reason to switch from Futura to Verdana: their website was already using it, and they wanted their print materials to match. Verdana is a fine font for the web: it’s available on almost any computer, and it looks clean and modern. It’s even a sans-serif font, just as Futura is. But the big difference was that Futura was not a web-friendly font (ironically, that isn’t the case now.)

So let’s take a look and see what the controversy was about. Below is an image of the two fonts, courtesy of http://arts.nationalpost.com/2011/11/03/ikeas-epic-swedish-fontroversy/. Shocking differences, yes? 🙂

IKEA font

In a National Post excerpt of his book Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, Simon Garfield explained more about the true source of the controversy:

Like the bookcase, Verdana was also in almost every home, and becoming something you barely noticed. But that, for dissenters, was the point: Verdana was everywhere, and now it was in one more place. It was becoming a non-font that we don’t even register [emphasis added]. Which is precisely why it was so effective, and exactly why it was chosen (Garfield, 2011).

Typography really does set a mood–it almost affects the way we speak the written words. Remember when LeBron James left Cleveland to seek his fame elsewhere? Dan Gilbert, the Cavaliers’ majority owner, wrote a scathing open letter about James’ ‘shameful display of selfishness and betrayal’ (Gilbert, 2010). Very harsh words indeed.

The kicker? The letter was written in Comic Sans, one of the most reviled and ridiculed fonts on the planet.

It’s worth a short digression to read the letter in its original Comic Sans glory. Try reading it aloud without laughing. Was this font chosen in a show of disdain or in a tone-deaf move by an angry Clevelander? Or was Comic Sans one of five fonts that could be chosen in a basic web editor? You be the judge.

So this brings me to templates. Templates forsake individual control in favor of stability and consistency. As Kristin Arola explains in The Design of Web 2.0: the Rise of the Template, the Fall of Design, this separation of content and form means that the rhetorical choice behind a particular font, for example, is now taken away from us.  Much like the IKEA “fontroversy”, we are now presented with “non-fonts that we don’t even register”:

In the late 1990s, creating a web page through either hand coding or a WYSIWYG program necessarily included choices of how and if to incorporate graphics, colors, fonts, sounds, and hyperlinks. Today, our students still choose photographs, words, sounds, and hyperlinks (clearly all rhetorical choices), but they choose colors, fonts, and shapes less and less. Instead, the platform, or more specifically the design template, is chosen for them (Arola, p. 6).

Like most social media sites, my WordPress template works well for me because the creators took out some of the guesswork. There is no need for me to use HTML or CSS to structure the page; the template takes care of that for me. My site will look pretty much the same on Firefox, Chrome, or Safari. It’s a good thing, right? Maybe not.

Perhaps we all need to guard ourselves and our friends from the misuse of  Comic Sans (except on April Fools Day), but the very nature of Web 2.0 means that we must understand exactly what we lose: the ability to rhetorically create the space and ethos of a communication.

Come to think of it, that little bit of ethos might be worth fighting for.


Arola, Kristin L. (2010) The design of Web 2.0: the rise of the template, the fall of design. Computers and Composition 27 (2010) 4–14.

Garfield, Simpson (2011). IKEA’s epic Swedish fontroversy. National Posthttp://arts.nationalpost.com/2011/11/03/ikeas-epic-swedish-fontroversy/
Gilbert, Dan (2010). Open letter to fans from Cavaliers majority owner Dan Gilbert | THE OFFICIAL SITE OF THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS. http://www.nba.com/cavaliers/news/gilbert_letter_100708.html

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