When Microsoft approached acclaimed typographer Matthew Carter to develop fonts explicitly for computer screens in the 1990s, Carter demurred. “My first reaction was, ‘I don’t want to do this,'” he tells Co.Design. “‘I think it’s philosophically a problem. No sooner have we made something for a special screen than you improve the screen so you don’t need special fonts any more.'”
Microsoft assured Carter that screen technology wouldn’t evolve significantly for another 10 years or so. In the meantime, people desperately needed typefaces that would be legible on a monitor. Carter acquiesced, and Verdana and Georgia went on to become two of the most widely read digital typefaces in the world, as prominent on nytimes.com as in the pages of the Ikea catalog. More than a decade later, though, Microsoft’s prophecy has come true: Screens have changed drastically. Verdana and Georgia have not–until now.
Today, Monotype Imaging Holdings Inc. is releasing expanded families of both Verdana and Georgia. It is the fonts’ first major update since Microsoft released them as part of its “Core fonts for the Web” pack 15 years ago. The typefaces have long been dismissed as the unlovely workhorses of the Internet.
Verdana in particular is like a clunky old car: It’ll get you from point a to point b, but it doesn’t look terribly pretty doing it. Verdana Pro and Georgia Pro are being marketed as a way to make the typefaces more appealing to both print and web designers. Each includes additional character sets and 20 weights (the original versions had just four), which can be used to create more sophisticated layouts; it’s the car souped up with rims, leather, hydraulics–the works. The enhancement is an effort to thrust two relics of personal computing’s stone age into the iPad era, a tacit acknowledgment that Carter was right about his initial misgivings.
“I hope it means that web designers who tend to be a rather frustrated crowd because of lack of typographic control will have a much better palette that they can use,” Carter says. “Because I’m responsible for Verdana and Georgia, I’m rather unpopular with web designers. They say, ‘That’s all I’ve had to work with for the past 15 years.’ My name is mud in the web design business for that.”
In Mud’s defense, he was only responding to the technology of the day. Monitor resolution was crude by today’s standards, exaggerating the difficulty of reading typefaces onscreen. Letters like i, j, and l were often confused with the number 1. So Carter designed Verdana, a sans-serif typeface, and later Georgia, a serif typeface, with tall x-heights, wide letter forms, and lots of space between letters–in effect, he made the fonts big and bulky so that they’d be easy to read on big, bulky screens.
But he also didn’t have much of a choice: “The resolution was so coarse, I couldn’t do everything I wanted to do,” Carter says, referring to both screen and type-rendering technology. More to the point, he was designing for black-and-white bitmaps in which pixels were either on or off. That made it impossible to use the semi-pixels required to render letters in, say, semi-bold–a weight print designers like to use for sub-headlines and other typographic variance. “If you come to screen design with a background in print, you’re used to having a whole army of different weights and widths and so on within a type family,” Carter says. “But with Verdana and Georgia, it was very limited.” What that’s meant for web designers all these years is that they’ve had a couple of great web fonts at the ready, but no real room in which to play around with them.
Fast-forward to the aughts. Screens are higher resolution. (Compare the iPad, say, to the Mac Classic.) They’ve also shrunk, thanks to the proliferation of handheld devices. People expect to scan more content on less real estate. So what made Georgia and Verdana great for old computer screens has suddenly become a liability: “Big and bulky” doesn’t fly on an iPhone.
At the same time, the technology for designing typefaces has advanced rapidly. “We’re doing this now because we have the ability to create extended character sets with OpenType,” says Steven Matteson of Monotype Imaging. “Now we have sub-pixel rendering, we have shades of gray, we have red, blue, and green elements. This gives you a chance for greater subtlety in how you render. You have more fidelity in shapes and more accurate spacing.”
The revamp was a collaboration between Matteson; Tom Rickner, also of Monotype Imaging; David Berlow of the Font Bureau; and Carter, who acted as a consultant (“I was the cheerleader on the sidelines,” he says happily). Microsoft owns the pro versions, but Monotype Imaging and the Font Bureau will distribute them. As for the fonts’ particulars: The updated families include light, semibold, and black weights, each with matching italics. They have small caps, ligatures, and old-style figures. And of course they feature condensed widths, which allow you to pack in more text on smart phones and tablets.
Those of us who don’t earn a living designing type probably won’t notice a big difference. But in Carter’s telling, the enhancements could quietly alter how we consume information online. “There are a lot of sites that use Georgia,” he says. “So now you can have a heading in Georgia bold, then text in a regular weight and maybe a subhead in semi-bold, or even a bolder version. The ordinary person will see a much subtler presentation of information, and subtle adjustments of the hierarchies. It’ll make the presentation of news stories more articulate. That’s a really good thing.”
The question, of course, is, what happens when screens improve even more? Or when/ if we get rid of them altogether and start projecting our email and Facebook feeds onto our own hands? Typography–and its ability to convey text clearly and beautifully–has always been at the mercy of technological progress, whether it was the advent of the mechanical printing press in the 15th century or the first personal computer in the 20th century. What’s different today is the pace of innovation. For years it trotted along gently; now it’s at a full gallop. Will Verdana and Georgia have to be reconditioned again? Guess we’ll check back with Carter in 15 years.