Font talk: Have we written off Verdana too easily?

The typeface Verdana was released in 1996 as an easy-to-read font for Websites, and in the intervening years, it has been used and misused in just about every imaginable way. For example, the Swedish furniture retailer Ikea recently began using Verdana in its printed materials, which caused an uproar among designers around the world.

Because Verdana was designed for low-resolution on-screen use, its wide-open letterspacing make it inappropriate for use in printed materials, they claim. Also, its four limited styles of regular, italic, bold, and bold italic just don't provide enough options for a sophisticated design.

As fortune would have it, right now the team behind the original Verdana is working on an improved, expanded Verdana typeface family designed for use in both print materials and on screen. The expanded Pro version is expected to be available in the first quarter of 2010, along with an expanded version of the Georgia typeface (Verdana's serif companion).

Here's a hint

One of the reasons for Verdana's tremendous success on the Internet is that it was designed specifically for on-screen legibility. There are two main features that contribute to Verdana's clarity:

Letter shapes: Verdana's letters have large x-heights and open counters, so they don't plug up at small sizes. They also have a distinct contrast between the regular and bold weights, so it's obvious to readers when a word is set in bold type. In addition, the letters have plenty of space between them, and characters that are often confused (for example, 1 vs. l vs. i) are clearly distinguished by their design.

Hinting: Verdana includes extensive TrueType hints for improved rendering at small and large sizes. Hinting is the process of adding information to the font file that tells a display device -- whether on-screen or in print -- how to best draw the edges of the letters for the resolution of that device. A 72 dpi display has many fewer pixels to work with than a 1,200 dpi printer, so to make sure the correct pixels are used to display the edges of the letters, hints are included with the font that tell the display exactly which pixels to use.

These legibility features were incorporated into the design of all of Microsoft's 'Core Fonts for the Web', which included Andale Mono, Arial, Comic Sans MS, Courier New, Georgia, Impact, Times New Roman, Trebuchet MS, Webdings, as well as Verdana.

Another reason for Verdana's wide adoption by Web developers is its extensive character set. Verdana includes the WGL (Windows Glyph List) Pan-European character set, so you can use the same font for setting English as well as all the European languages.

However, none of this success could have occurred without help from a major player in the computer industry. For the first few years of the Web, the only fonts that were universally available across platforms were Times or Times New Roman, Arial or Helvetica, and Courier. Then in 1996, Microsoft bundled Verdana with its Windows operating system and encouraged its proliferation by allowing free downloads in TrueType format.

Subsequently, Microsoft bundled Verdana with the Internet Explorer browser and Microsoft Office, and Apple included it with the Mac OS. This made Verdana a new font standard that could safely be used on Websites with little concern that a viewer wouldn't have the font on their system.

Matthew Carter, the designer

Verdana was designed by Matthew Carter, the typographer behind many popular typefaces that can be read for long periods of time. In the mid-1970s, he designed Bell Centennial for AT&T, which the company still uses in many phone books. Publications such as Sports Illustrated, Wired, and the New York Times also have commissioned Carter to customize typefaces for them. In 1998, Carter created the font for most of the headlines in the Washington Post by reworking Bodoni. He named it Postoni.

Some of Carter's other fonts you may recognize include Georgia, New Century Schoolbook, Shelley Script, Snell Roundhand Script, ITC Galliard, Mantinia, Miller, Nina, Olympian, Sophia, Tahoma, Alisal, Auriol, Cascade Script, Big Caslon, Skia, and Cochin.

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