Verdana Pro: Not just another pretty face

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.

In Ikea's 2010 catalog, the company replaced the venerable Futura font family with Verdana, which has just four styles: regular, italic, bold, and bold italic.

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.

Today, Carter is overseeing the re-working and expansion of the Verdana and Georgia font families, with David Berlow of The Font Bureau leading the effort to develop Verdana Pro, and Steve Matteson of Ascender Corp. leading the effort to develop Georgia Pro.

What's new in Verdana Pro

According to Ascender's Bill Davis, the new Verdana Pro and Georgia Pro font families will be available by the end of March 2010 from both Ascender and The Font Bureau, and priced similarly to other premium quality fonts with similar character sets and features. At this writing, that means somewhere between $370 and $598 for the complete family.

Verdana Pro's new weights and styles.

The designers have several goals for this redesign, including more styles. According to Davis, "We are extending each family to 20 fonts. We are creating a Light, Semibold, and Black (each with matching italics), and we are creating a new Condensed family with all the same weights and styles. We are going to hint all these fonts so they look great on-screen, and also add extensive kerning for use by creative professionals in print and various text and display uses."

Matthew Carter adds, "Verdana and Georgia were commissioned by Microsoft to provide the basic necessities of type on screen—sans serif and serif, in regular and bold weights with italics, designed for maximum legibility. The new additions to the font families are a natural and timely progression; they offer a wider range of typographic versatility, both on screen and in print, while remaining consistent with the originals."

And there's more:

Extended character sets Each of these fonts have an extensive character set with support for all European Union languages.

Professional OpenType features This includes small caps, ligatures, old-style numerals, and more.

Enhanced kerning Letters fit together more organically on the printed page.

What's in a name?

Anyone who has seen a document get reformatted because a different font of the same name replaced the font used in the original document will recognize the challenge of creating a new font to replace an old one. If the new fonts were simply named Verdana, that would create extreme confusion in the design world. With their new letterspacing and kerning pairs, lines of text using the new Verdana would wrap differently.

To address this identity problem, the new font families will be distinguished from their earlier counterparts by including the word "Pro" in their names: Verdana Pro, Verdana Condensed Pro, Georgia Pro, and Georgia Condensed Pro.

Verdana Pro and Ikea

According to Ikea spokeswoman Camilla Meiby, Verdana was chosen as the new company face because of its extended character set and universal availability. This makes it efficient for Ikea to produce its Web and printed materials in many languages without having to reformat the text to accommodate different media.

Verdana Pro shares all these advantages with the original Verdana, except for universal availability—people will have to buy it. Because this one missing piece eliminates its cross-media efficiency, it's doubtful that Ikea will use it. So, we're probably stuck with strange letterspacing and limited font weights in Ikea's catalogs for some time to come. I tried posing this question directly to Ikea, but the company did not respond.

For those of us who simply want to use an improved version of Verdana, with more style options and far better printed appearance, Verdana Pro will be a very welcome addition to our font arsenal.

[Jay J. Nelson is the editor and publisher of Design Tools Monthly, an executive summary of graphic design news.]

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