Verdana at the Design Museum

Verdana at the Design Museum

Well I doubt it’s the ‘most popular typeface on the internet’. Probably Times New Roman is first.

But the real story of Verdana is that Matthew Carter was asked to make a screen font for Windows 95 at the last minute. The reason this happened was Steve Ballmer said something shocking when he saw the final release candidate of Windows 95. His first reaction was ‘It looks like OS/2!’ IBM had just released OS/2 and it used Microsoft’s system font MSSans. MSSans is a bitmap font that comes in many resolutions and sizes. Dave Ohara a program manager in the Microsoft Typography group told Steve that the only way to change the look of Windows dramatically was to change the system font.

Dave called on Matthew Carter to look at the existing MS Sans and see if he could improve the system font. At these small sizes the only thing he really could do was to fix some of the spacing, increase the x-height one pixel and increase the ascenders. MS Sans was made by a programmer many years ago and it did not scale linearly through all screen sizes. Specifically the word space and the small ‘i’ were the biggest problems.

Matthew made some test bitmaps on his Mac with Fontastic+ (a very old Mac bitmap editor). Matthew sent me the Mac disks and I had to remake these bitmaps on Windows with a developer tool to make .fnt bitmap font files. In some cases Matthew made some of his bitmaps with negative sidebearings. This was allowed by Fontastic+ but it was not possible in the .fnt bitmap font format. So I had to correct some of these characters, primarily the lowercase ‘i’.

I then sent these bitmaps to the Windows development team for them to test. The change was evident but one major problem existed. All the developers who saw the new font claimed that MS Sans was still more ‘readable’. This is the common problem that what reads best is what you read most and the developers were all so use to seeing MS Sans that no matter what you said they would still claim it was better.

The second problem was with character widths. All the dialogs of applications had dialogs with set fields for the text. By increasing the white space between letters Matthew made the text more legible but he also increased the line length. This was a serious problem. The main problem was that MS Sans had a word space that was very thin and didn’t scale linearly meaning at a small size like 8 point it may be 3 pixels wide but at 9 point is maybe only 2 pixels wide and 10 point it may be 3 pixels again. This is what is meant by ‘nonlinear’ to be ‘linear’ the character’s width would grow as the point size grows.

The new font could not be used because there were already thousands of applications already with existing dialogs that would be broken because the text is larger than the field they have already allocated.

Eventually it was decided it was not possible to change the system font in time for the release of Windows 95.

The decision was made to continue developing the font and create a bold typeface to be used for menus. This font had a development name of ‘Ohana’ loosely based on Dave Ohara’s surname. This design was peculiar with a rounded capital A and looked very different than the lighter weight typeface that eventually was named ‘Tahoma’ after the native name for Mount Rainier in Washington State.

We had interest from Microsoft Office’s manager Peter Pathe to use Tahoma most likely for the Help files and in Outlook. The Ohana font was scrapped and a bold font was created that closer resembled Tahoma and eventually it became one of the members of the Verdana family. At the time at Microsoft we were using combinations of names of people for some of the development fonts and this is where the Verdana name really
comes from.

The original proposed name of Ventana could not be used. Sticking with the ‘V’ because this represented the first names of both Virginia Howlett and myself adding a bit of Simon Earnshaw’s surname and finishing it with the Dave Ohara inspired Ohana we came up with Verdana.

In the original Tahoma Font Specification dated March 07 1995 which is the date the original bitmaps in the form of a .fon library were delivered to the Windows 95 development team.

This specific spec is for the first use of a font using the name Tahoma. It actually was the protype font ‘Ohana’ renamed.

I supplied a bitmap font in a .fon form for 18, 22 pt VGA that would be used during the Windows 95 installation process. The reason a bitmap was necessarily was during system installation there isn’t a rasterizer present so static bitmaps were used for text and graphics.

Outlines were made and a .ttf created Sept 02 1994 to a full Win/ANSI character set. This font was fully hinted in TrueType.

The original idea that Matthew had was to do something like Geneva on the Mac but the final result was a bit too close and it got scrapped.

I also made some bitmap only TrueType fonts of the original Tahoma bitmaps which had 3 sizes of bitmaps (11,12 and 14 ppem) and only circles for outlines. These were the ones used in testing and later when Tom Rickner was hinting he had to match the bitmaps I put in. The font at that time was called Tahoma Condensed.

Tahoma Condensed

Embedding bitmaps can be a bit tricky since in TrueType the advance width of a glyph is stored in the ‘hmtx’ and changes recorded in the ‘hdmx’ and glyph data. These embedded bitmaps need an glyph to be present for this reason, adding a box or circle also help show that the character has been typed and if there isn’t a bitmap for a requested size something should appear to show that it is missing.

In the case of Tahoma we only had bitmaps at 3 point sizes. So to calculate outline metrics I had to calculate what values would equal all the bitmap sizes when the font units are scaled to these point sizes and resolutions. In some cases the metrics of the bitmaps did not scale linearly so using TrueType Delta hints on the advance widths of the affected characters and generating a new ‘hdmx’ table to reflect this change to the scaled metrics I could make an outline font that would correctly match the bitmaps that Matthew Carter supplied.

2 Comments on “Verdana at the Design Museum

  1. You of course know all the development details, but I distinctly remember standing around the hallway one afternoon with you, Matthew, and probably Steve S., Robert, and/or Simon and talking about the names–and I think *I* was the first one to utter the name “Verdana.” (Something about using natural inspiration–Ventana Canyon in Tucson, Tahoma/Mount Rainier–and then Seattle being the “Emerald City” -> verde -> Verdana.) It’s my only claim to fame in fonts–don’t take it from me!

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