Georgia & Verdana
for the screen (finally)
by Daniel Will-Harris
Download them here...
The typefaces you
normally read have been designed to be typeset digitally
and printed on paper. But as more people read more type
off computer screens, they're unfortunately reading a
type designed in another era for another medium. That's
why type on screen can look pathetic (especially
so-called "italics" on the Mac) and is
often painful to read.
In the past, every time
a new typesetting or printing medium appeared, designers
created typefaces to take advantage of it. But today,
while more people than ever are designing more typefaces
than ever, so few of them are designing type specifically
for the screen that you can count them on one finger.
Maybe it's the
complexity of the task, which requires a deep knowledge
of type design, legibility, and technology, rather than
just style. Maybe it's because until the web has a way to
transmit type as easily as it transmits pictures (see WebFonts), there's no market to sell such faces.
Luckily, a company with
the deepest pockets in the computer world thought deeply
enough to see what a problem this was and hired a type
designer with years of experience designing legible type
under difficult circumstances, including Bell Centennial
for phone books, and ITC Charter for low-res printed
The company: Microsoft.
Yes, Microsoft. The type designer: Matthew Carter. The
typefaces for the screen (shown automatically on this
page if you've downloaded the fonts from the link at the
bottom of this paragraph): Verdana a
sans serif named for the verdant Seattle area and Georgia,
a brilliant serif named after a tabloid headline
about alien heads found in Georgia, which was then used
to set test headlines. The hinting on both was done by
Monotype's hinting expert, Tom Rickner. These fonts are
available for free download at www.microsoft.com/truetype/
Verdana does everything
right on screen; it has a large x-height so characters
look bigger, yet not so big that it's hard to tell the
lowercase from the uppercase or that it looks crowded in
apps such as web browsers that don't have adjustable
Verdana is extended, but
more importantly, it has extra space between characters
so they don't touch. The bolds are quite bold, ensuring
that you can always tell the difference between bold and
roman, yet the bold characters never fill-in, even at
small sizes (you can still read it at 4 point, at least
Special care has been
taken with letters like 1, I, l, i and J so that they
aren't confused. The lowercase "i" is slightly
shorter than the lowercase l, which also makes them more
distinct. Letter combinations such as "fi"
"fl" and "ff" are designed so they
clearly do not touch, as touching letters can create
hard-to-read blobs on-screen. Microsoft's web site
states, "Curves are reduced to a minimum in the
counters. Lowercase characters are a pixel taller than
their uppercase counterparts at key screen sizes, to aid
the distinguishing of particular characters."
Even though it was
designed for the screen, Verdana is attractive on paper.
While some have compared it with Frutiger, a closer look
reveals more of a resemblance to Carter's own Bell
Centennial. Because it's spaced widely for the screen, it
has a more "typewriter"-like feel to it on
paper. [not to editor: if you track it more tightly for
the page please mention it here.] But this face was not
designed for "style," it was designed for
function, and Matthew Carter explains (below) how the
screen literally dictated the design.
Georgia, Carter's new
screen serif, is perhaps an even more remarkable feat
than Verdana. It takes the complexity of serifed
characters and makes them not only comfortable on-screen,
but also very attractive.
In large sizes, Georgia
might be mistaken for a heavier Times New Roman. It's a
sturdy face that could easily be used by any newspaper.
On-screen in body-text sizes, it takes on new
life--looking friendlier, almost like Cheltenham. The
characters are beautifully clear at 8-12 point. Its
x-height is larger than Times, but not as large as
Verdana's, and the result is a face with a traditional
feel that's very pleasant on-screen. It has a true
italic that is so fluid and graceful it could be used by
itself, and like Verdana, a bold that verges on
ultra-bold. The numerals have a slightly old-style
feeling but are still lining.
Georgia is nothing short
of wonderful on-screen--which is, of course, the whole
point. It could easily become the de facto serif screen
face, and readers would be all the better for it.
To find out why and how
Microsoft initiated these fonts, I spoke with Simon
Earnshaw, a typographer at Microsoft.
DWH: When (and
why) did the project start--and when will it be complete?
The Verdana family
started in early Summer 94 as a two font typeface
(Tahoma), designed by Matthew Carter and hinted by Tom
Rickner, to be used as a system font for Windows95. To
make the fonts work in extended text settings it was
necessary to open up the counters more, widen the advance
widths and loosen the spacing. Thus Verdana was born;
effectively the more generous cousin of Tahoma.
Just as the Verdana
fonts have their origins in Windows, the Georgia fonts
were conceived for the then nascent Microsoft Network as
a serif alternative to Times.
Trebuchet and Comic Sans are all available now for free downloading.
characteristics did Microsoft want in the faces?
Our brief was very loose
beyond a statement of the problems we wished to overcome
and the intended purpose. We felt more inclined to let
the experience and eyes of Carter and Rickner produce
what felt right to them. Of course we (and the UI
designers) had input at different stages, but to a large
degree we just let them get on with it.
Matthew Carter's unique
Matthew Carter has
designed or resurrected many popular typefaces including
ITC Galliard, Snell Roundhand, Cochin, ITC Charter, Bell
Centennial and more. He's designed type for lead, photo
and digital type, and been instrumental in the creation
of type libraries for phototype (at Linotype) and digital
type (as one of the founders of Bitstream). There are few
people more qualified to design typefaces to meet the
demands of the screen.
why did Microsoft embark on this project?
Microsoft wanted fonts
to give Windows a new look. They also needed some faces
of which they were the sole undisputed owners so they
could give them away. They also needed fonts with a
comprehensive character set. MS software is localized all
over the world [dwh: over half of Microsoft's sales are
outside the United States] so they needed fonts that were
conceived from the start as being as all-inclusive as
DWH: How did you
start working on this project?
In graphic design
circles, people think of screen fonts as preview
mode--it's only when the toner hits the wood-pulp that we
usually judge a typeface.
But that's an
increasingly short-sighted view of life. Larger numbers
of computer users spend their entire time in front of a
screen and never (or seldom) print anything. So it became
obvious to us that this was a reversal of priorities--we
should not approach this as one of doing printer fonts
adapted for the screen, we should design them as screen
fonts from the outset, the printer fonts are secondary in
In the past I've been
burned starting from outlines and trying to be extra
clever in the hinting. So I finally deciding, I'm
better off grasping the nettle. What's most important is
to get the bitmaps right at the sizes people use most
So instead of
starting with outlines and then working to hint them for
the screen, I started by simply making bitmap fonts. No
outlines, just bitmaps.
Bitmaps are relatively
easy to make and they show exactly how the fonts will
look on-screen. This allowed us to make decisions about
sizes, weights, and distinctions between serif, sans,
roman, italic, all viewed in context. Working this way we
came up with a definition for a certain number of
critical sizes and weights.
Once the key bitmaps
were done, I very carefully wrapped an outline around
them. I always have in mind that this outline will then
be given to the person responsible for hinting--and
they'll need to be able to hint outline to get back,
pixel for pixel, to the bitmap faces where we started.
DWH: Isn't this
the reverse of the normal practice of starting with
outlines then creating bitmaps?
Yes, but since our
immediate problem was, "how do we make the bitmaps
look as good as possible," we felt our chances of
success were higher if we simply started out with
appears extended with extra spacing between the
characters. How did you come to those decisions?
In very early trial we
would set a paragraph of text in a pre-existing face and
in Verdana on the same screen. Then we'd walk backwards
across the room until one of them became illegible.
If Verdana has any
unique qualities at all it's in the spacing. Pre-existing
printer fonts are spaced for paper, not the screen, so
they suffer on screen. In Verdana, it's the regularity
of the spacing that's just as important as the
positive parts of the letterform.
Wider spacing wasn't
enough, it also had to be more regular, this was
thing that gave it an advantage in readability. Verdana
really isn't wide, the sensation of width comes from the
bolds are extremely bold. How did you decide on this
The bolds also started
out with bitmaps. At small sizes the only way to make
something bolder is to double the weight: a stem of one
pixel jumps to a stem of two pixels. In typographic terms
that's a big step; very few bolds are as much as twice
the weight of the normal until you get into the black or
ultrabold range. The bitmaps dictated the weight.
DWH: Do you see
any other faces having inspired Verdana?
One face I feel lurking
is Bell Centennial. Both faces had some legibility
requirements in common. And with similar limitations come
some similar solutions--you simply couldn't design a
Helvetica-like "c" which turns in on itself
without it blocking completely on-screen
DWH: How do you
feel about your work being given away?
As a type designer I try
never to part with the rights forever. Even when a face
is done for a particular client, they will license it for
a certain period of time, then the rights will revert to
me. People commission faces, use them for a while, get
bored with them, then this gives me a residual benefit.
But in this case there
was never any plan other than to give these fonts away. I
didn't see what else they could say, realistically,
except that they needed complete rights. It was up to me
whether I would choose to work this way or not. I liked
the project and people so I thought, why not?
DWH: Since other
designers aren't yet designing fonts for the screen
(probably because the mechanism for embedding them isn't
in place), you weren't taking away from anyone else's
sales. It seems to me that your faces will just serve as
an inspiration to other designers.
It's true to say that
type designers have been rather slow in dealing with the
screen, but much more importantly, computer screen fonts
are considered a sort of poor relation. Oddly enough, it
is the buzz about the Internet that has made this a
I'm a believer in
designing specifically for the screen. When you get up to
larger sizes for display you can use anything on screen.
But for type down at the most-often used sizes I remain
persuaded that what we did was the best thing to do--to
look at this as a screen exercise.
DWH: Do you
think that OpenType will spur more type designers to
design for the screen?
I would hope so--it
would be good to see more screen work being done. But
first there needs to be a demand. Graphic designers must
create a market for these new faces by demanding faces
designed specially for the screen. Designers may think
they have a library of type that will be good enough on
the screen so they don't have to buy a lot more faces.
But as I've explained, text sizes really have to be
designed "for the screen."
These new fonts could be
sold to people who are tired of straining to read the
screen, so why is Microsoft is giving them away?
They'll be included in Microsoft's new browsers, and be
freely downloadable at Microsoft's web site. I asked
Simon Earnshaw, a typographer at Microsoft about this:
DWH: Does MS
plan to keep these fonts as freely downloadable for the
Absolutely. The whole
point is to make them available to as many users as
possible. The more people have the fonts, the more
confident a Web author can feel when specifying the
these fonts be included as standard in future MS apps or
versions of Windows?
there a commercial motivation behind this, or is this
just Microsoft's gift to anyone who has to read text off
Both, as you'd expect.
The provision of these fonts reinforces Microsoft's
advances in making layout, appearance and control of Web
pages easier, better and more attractive. And the real
winners are the users. Typographically we now offer far
more than any of our competitors; and this in a medium
which traditionally has been a very poor relative of DTP
and print. Of course we still have a long way to go, but
we're at least demonstrating our commitment to addressing
some of the issues.
DWH: In this
case, Microsoft has acted as the patron saint to everyone
who has to read type off a screen, and stands as a
testament to the company's attention to detail. Microsoft
should be congratulated for subsidizing new fonts that
make on-screen reading easier for everyone.
If you're looking for
existing faces that are easy-on-the-eyes, some of the
best include: Avenir, Blueprint, PNM Caecilia, Gill Sans
Book, ITC Legacy Sans, Lucida Fax, Lucida Sans, ITC
Maiandra (excellent and casual), Memphis, Melior (or
Bitstream's well-hinted Zapf Elliptical), Myriad Multiple
Master (you can tune the sizes yourself), Sassoon Sans,
Serifa (my standard screen font), and Univers or Zurich
(especially the extended version).
I've found that the
hinting on Bitstream's TrueType fonts is especially good,
probably because Bitstream designed its own tools for the
purpose and many of their fonts were hinted by a group of
type designers who have since left to form Galapagos
Design, the type design and production company
responsible for all the digitization and hinting of all
new ITC releases.
Monotype offers special
"ESQ" (Enhanced Screen Quality) fonts with
hinting by Rickner and his colleagues at Monotype. ESQ
faces include Arial, Arial Black, Century Schoolbook,
Impact, LetterGothic, and Nimrod. Choose any of these
faces from the Monotype library and you get an ESQ
version. And some of these are free: Arial and Impact are
both freely downloadable from the Microsoft site. --DWH