Monday, 5 December 2005
Our guy of type
A recent (5 Dev 2005) edition of The New Yorker has an article on Matthew Carter, who according to the article is one of the, or just the, most prolific typeface designer around. In the article, it notes that Carter was the designer of Verdana, the font included with Windows and the designated font for this blog.
Here's some interesting history:
Carter enjoyes designing type for inhospitable environments. "Many of the projects that have interested me most," he says, "have involved somehow the instruction, Make a typeface that will work at tiny size when printed on newspaper at very high speed in ink composed of kerosene and lampblack--all the lowest standards of production." Before he designed Verdana for Microsoft in 1993, the typefaces on computers were adapted from type used in magazines and books and newspapers. Because the resolution on computer screens is so imprecise, the letters look scrawny and thin.It surprises me that people continue to work with typefaces that don't look so hot on computer screens. The default font for Internet Explorer appears to be Times New Roman, which of course is a typeface derived from print. How many Web pages have we seen where no effort is made to specify a font, and it ends up with serif 12-point Times? According to my research, the answer is: many.
Screen font legibility is an issue when you work on-screen most of the time. Jeff Atwood, who thinks about programmer productivity and human factors a lot, has written a couple of blog entries on the issue of fonts for programmers. In one, he muses on the comparative readibility of popular fonts like Arial, Verdana, Tahoma, Courier, Georgia, and Times. Courier, perhaps not surprisingly, really sucks. Jeff also recommends to programmers that they "pimp the IDE" to enhance their on-screen experience as much as possible, In another entry, he compares the legibility of monospace fonts, monospace being more-or-less required for writing code.
And with that in mind, back to Carter:
Microsoft wanted its new typeface to be as legible as possible. Carter was aware as he worked that the point might soon be reached where more text was read on computer screens than was read on paper, and that the purpose in designing this face was not simply that it print handsomely but that it also look good on the screen. "If you're working on something such as a screen font, you have to get yourself into a certain frame of mind, because of the coarseness of the situation," he says. "What you're designing can never be perfect--you're not looking for a platonic ideal. You're looking at two lowercase 'e's and trying to decide which is less bad."
"It's plain there are constraints here. You haven't got the fittings to make it right. When you paint a portrait, you have the brushes and the paints, and how you make the image is up to you, but if you're making a mosaic, you have a harder time to capture a likeness. If that's what you're doing, there's no point in complaining you're not using oil paints."
On a computer screen, Carter would display writing set in his design, and, on another screen beside it, he'd display the same words set in Microsoft's face, MS Sans. Then he would back up slowly until he could no longer read one or the other. "It's a crude way of doing it," he says, "but it works. If you degrade it, you learn."
Verdana is a sans-serif face. Carter couldn't be sure that it would be used to make words--it might simply appear in a line of code--so he put serifs on the capital "I." "Disambiguating is what psychologists call it," he says. "Making sure that people know what they're reading."
readings, technology, language