Six Fonts That Piss People Off

A furor erupts when Ikea changes its official typeface. Here are five other controversial fonts, involving Nazis, incest, and comic books.

ikea catalog

Recently, Ikea unveiled its new catalogue, and designers began complaining almost immediately. To laymen, the problem is probably almost invisible: Ikea has changed its official font from Futura--with its tony design pedigree--to Verdana.

So what? Verdana was designed as an on-screen font for Microsoft. And while it's serviceable in that context, it was never meant for print. Designers would liken that move to driving a Honda Civic around a racetrack--sure, the Civic might be a fine family car, but it doesn't have the elegant engineering required to race in the main event. Ikea, with its history of design excellence, is supposed to know better. Time and NPR have already reported on the controversy, and there's now an online petition demanding Ikea reverse course. Grrrrrrr.

Maybe all the hubbub strikes you as weird, but fonts have always inspired passions. Here are five more examples from history:

Germans argued for literally hundreds of years over which font was more German: Antiqua, or Fraktur. Antiqua was descended from old Latin typefaces; Fraktur was invented in the 17th century, and was used in Germany's first newspapers. Otto von Bismark wouldn't read anything that wasn't printed in Fraktur; on the other side, Goethe, Nietzsche and Jakob Grimm (of the brothers Grimm) all decried it, in favor of Antiqua. Hitler eventually settled the dispute: The Nazi's banned Fraktur due to its (untrue) "Jewish" origins. (Nazi buffoonery, as always, was on full display; the dictate against Fraktur was printed in Fraktur.) The Allies then resuscitated the font, in the money printed by their interim government.

Fraktur

Antiqua

Helvetica is literally everywhere, from American Apparel to American Airlines. It even has a documentary devoted to it. And it still trails controversy, ranging from charges that it's insufferably bland and overused, to older polemics against the politics behind its creation. Before globalization was a household word, there was the International Style, and its aspirations to a universal design language. Helvetica was one product of that movement, and from the start, designers have railed against the homogenous, mono-culture it symbolizes. In fact, the only thing that pisses off some more than Helvetica is Arial--a knock off, again designed for Microsoft, which isn't as elegant as the original.

Helvetica

Designers hate Comic Sans--again, a Microsoft product. Every couple of years, an article or a movement springs up to fight it. In fact, the Wall Street Journal recently wrote a long-ish article on the history of this hatred. As they wrote, "The jolly typeface has spawned the Ban Comic Sans movement, nearly a decade old but stronger now than ever, thanks to the Web. The mission: 'to eradicate this font' and the 'evil of typographical ignorance.'"

comic sans

Typography disputes usually boil down to looks or politics. But Gill Sans is something different. It, and its creator, Eric Gill, are widely admired. But Gill was also a monster: Though it was covered up in early biographies, he admitted to sexually abusing his children, engaging in incest with his sister, and bestiality with his dog. Just like Richard Wagner and his infamous Nazi sympathies, Gill's works create discomfort--is it proper to enjoy the work of bad men?

Gill Sans

Typographic history is filled with theft and credit grabbing, and one of the most famous examples is Times New Roman. The mainstream history of the face holds that it was invented by Stanley Morison, after he lambasted the Times of London for its clunky typeface in 1929. They challenged him to do better, and after years of blind alleys and hair-pulling, he finally produced Times New Roman in 1932. But some type historians allege that Morison actually stole the design from William Starling Burges--making Morison one of the most successful credit-thieves in the history of type:

Times New Roman

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24 Comments

  • Camryn Brown

    @ Larkin - Why would a "Fuck Comic Sans" poster use Comic Sans? I hardly think you needed to point out that it was a different font. The picture may not illustrate what the font is (unlike the others) but it does illustrate the article content.

  • Matt McKnight

    "Just like Richard Wagner and his infamous Nazi sympathies"
    Wagner died in 1883. He was antisemitic, but predates Nazi-ism.

  • Samuli Vapaasalo

    As a proud owner of a Civic Type-R, I'd like you to re-check your view on Honda Civic's racing abilities...

  • Osandi Sekou

    @allen people care which is what makes design 'design'. that there's an emotional response to it means there's meaning. meaning drives innovation. done.

  • Kyle Baker

    FWIW the (non) Comic Sans image may be in serif deliberately so as to underscore the point...

    My neighborhood (Ukrainian Village in Chicago) has lots of "Ban Comic Sans" stickers around. It's pretty funny -- I understand the distaste but I think any one who is really passionate about "affecting change" and not just being cute might have a screw loose.

    Generally I think the over-use is the bothersome part -- Comic Sans is a decent, fairly anonymous font, but it's ubiquity (as a member of the core M$ fonts) combined with it's status as the sole "handwriting*" font in this group make it ripe for abuse. (*Script-style fonts not included.)

    It's like the Hootie and the Blowfish of fonts. There's not a whole lot to loathe about their music -- but for the few years they were all over the radio people wanted to blow their brains out.

    As a graphic designer I can't help but notice particular fonts used over and over. I used Storybook for an album cover not long ago b/c it was perfect. But now I'm haunted by it in old books, in the laundromat window, on the taco shack sign, at the real estate office... suddenly it's everywhere.

  • Steve Jay

    Is the IKEA example comparing the "Home is..." blurb to "NEW LOWER PRICES..." one? How can your compare these chunks of text when one is in all caps? The typeface change is insignificant next to the change from lower to upper case, IMHO.

    Secondly, the change to Verdana was probably to match the look of the catalog to their look on the web. What's wrong with that? Doesn't brand consistency stand as the paramount consideration here?

    Interesting tidbits on the histories of the other font families you mentioned.

  • Cliff Kuang

    @Carlos--What is it about typefaces/fonts that brings out the inner pedant in people? The vernacular use of the word "font" is far different--and far looser--than the way designers use the word. But really, this issue negates the article altogether for you? Jeez. And BTW, the "#fail" of the illustration was the illustrator's, not my own. Like I said, I chose the illustration because it was the funniest I could find. Forrest for the trees, people.

  • Carlos Antony

    So much ignorance in one Article makes it impossible for me not to comment.
    Font vs Typeface #fail
    comic serif vs comic sans #fail

    come on FC get someone who knows their way around design to write articles about design...

  • Rebecca Wilson

    Who knew their is social/political meanings behind fonts? I'm just out of the design loop.

    --
    Rebecca Bell Wilson
    eMedical Media
    rwilson@emedicalmedia.com

  • Dave Minella

    Larkin, I knew you'd be here, and I knew you'd be setting the world straight as to the misuse and misnaming of their fonts. I saw (the real) comic sans on a funeral home sign, and that is what did it in for me. Helvetica, on the other hand is a great font, as is calibri - although it, like verdana, is a Microsoft font never intended for print.

  • Steve Thomas

    Um ... I like Verdana. And I think Comic Sans is fun .. in the right context.

    AFAIK, Verdana was developed, with Georgia, specifically to look good both on screen and in print. Back in the day, before LCDs and sub-pixel smoothing, most fonts looked like crap on screen, and Verdana and Georgia were comissioned to address that. Probably the greatest service to manking ever provided by Micro$oft.

  • Cliff Kuang

    @Larkin--You're right, of course. But the image was the funniest I could find, illustrating the movement.

  • Michael Chinn

    Hey Lisa...no, the actual issue seems to be your lack of of knowledge. Before making statements that are so incorrect and absurd take a few minutes to do some research or take a type or design 101 class and learn the true meanings and history/origins of the words typography, typefaces, type families, AND fonts, etc.

    This is what pisses me off!

  • Larkin Werner

    Your comic sans example actually isn't correct -- its' comic *serif*, not sans. Come on Fastcompany, you're better than that ...

  • Charles Gibbons

    Actually, "font" has been in use since at least 1683 to describe printing types. From Moxon's Mechanick Exercises: "He provides a Fount (properly a Fund) of Letter of all Bodies; for most Printing-Houses have all except the two first..." "Typeface" generally describes the style of character produced by a given font. But I rant...