The Story of Verdana

In 1994, Microsoft began a typeface development project which was to forever raise the bar for quality standards of screen type. The goal was to produce a new family of sans serif typefaces as TrueType outline fonts which had exceptional readability. To do the job right would require a team of individuals skilled in art, craft and engineering. For the type designer, they chose the talent of Matthew Carter, and for the technological expertise, they chose Tom Rickner of Monotype Imaging.

Matthew Carter’s breadth of experience includes cutting punches in steel for metal typefaces, editing bitmaps, and drawing outlines for photo and digital systems. One typeface of note is Matthew's Bell Centennial, which he designed as a bitmap for use on the new CRT typesetting systems of the late 1970’s. That typeface was used to print phone books, which are notorious for being printed on poor quality paper at high speeds. So when Microsoft presented Matthew with the challenge of designing a highly legible and readable outline font, optimized for the screen, he borrowed a chapter from his past and began by making bitmaps.

The pixel, or picture element, is the basic building block of screen type. Every bit, whether black, white or gray has tremendous impact on our ability to read fluidly and without impediment. Matthew therefore focused his attentions on the final product which people would read, namely three sizes of bitmaps for each of four weights of this new sans serif typeface family. From those bitmaps, Matthew “wrapped” outlines around them, which would in turn be produced as hinted TrueType outlines.

What is TrueType hinting, anyway? Hinting is both engineering and art. It is about defining and controlling the structure of letters. It requires the elimination of subtlety at small sizes where choices are limited. Hinting enforces consistency among similar features, where mathematical chance could introduce optical and typographical errors. It is accomplished by writing small computer programs for each glyph in a font. These programs adjust the shape of the scaled outline to improve the bitmap which is generated by the rasterizer.

Tom Rickner is well versed in TrueType hinting. He was a part of the TrueType development team at Apple Computer, where he hinted and oversaw the production on the first TrueType fonts to be released with Apple’s System 7. After leaving Apple and prior to joining Monotype Imaging, Tom worked as a freelance designer, hinting custom typefaces for such clients as Apple and Microsoft.

Hinting is full of decision making, such as choosing the right compromises between shape, spacing and proportions. However the Verdana project added a new element. Typically, the hinter exercises his or her own judgment in adjusting the font to best represent the “spirit” of the outlines at a given size. With Verdana, Tom had to apply hints in such a way as to reproduce the bitmaps which Matthew had created, while still faithfully rendering the outlines at all other sizes. This required further compromise. In some rare cases, the bitmaps which Matthew had designed were too radically different from the outlines, and so the bitmaps had to be modified. In other cases, Tom’s hinting resulted in a different yet preferable bitmap, and that revision was adopted as well. However, the vast majority of letters appear just as Matthew first designed them, matching his vision pixel for pixel.

Since Verdana first shipped with Internet Explorer in 1996, it has become one of the most widely specified fonts in Web sites around the world. We choose to attribute this to both the universal appeal of the design, and the quality of the rendering. The team of Carter, Monotype Imaging and Microsoft have since produced other widely used typeface families, including the condensed cousins to Verdana, named Tahoma and Nina, and Matthew’s serifed family named Georgia. It should be noted that Monotype Imaging’s role has not been limited to supplying technical expertise alone. When Microsoft chose to extend Tahoma to support the Hebrew, Arabic, and Thai scripts, they chose the expertise of Monotype Imaging and its talented drawing office. But that is another story...
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