Verdana Pro (and Con)

Although Matthew Carter is overseeing the project and David Berlow of The Font Bureau is leading development, I’m feeling twitchy about Verdana Pro, a new print family from an old screen face.

Start there: Verdana was born of the screen. In particular, as all reading this know, it was born of the needs of the crude, non-anti-aliased, 72/96 ppi desktop screen of the mid-1990s. At Microsoft’s behest, Matthew Carter created the original cross-platform Verdana with its generous x-height so computer users, whether PC- or Mac-based, would have a sans-serif that was easy to read at small sizes.

Verdana Pro, a new print family from an old screen face.

Verdana is a font that looks gorgeous at 11px in a non-antialiased environment, and handsome at 9px and 10px in that same setting. Make it any bigger than 11px, and it looks grotesque. Set it via ems or percentages rather than pixels—as most accessibility-conscious designers do—and you ding its perfection. View it in a sub-pixel antialiased environment (i.e. on a modern platform) and, if it is small enough and near enough to an exact pixel size, it still looks nice and reads well … but not nearly as nice or as well as it does in the environment for which it was originally created.

Yes, if you are a genius like Matthew Carter or David Berlow, you can take a screen font, even one of the two definitive screen fonts of the 20th century—the other being Carter’s Georgia, which also looks best at exactly 11px in a non-antialiased environment, though it survives handsomely in modern environments and at inexact, percentage-based sizes—and build a true print family around it. But the idea makes me twitchy.

And that screen guy’s twitch I can’t quite shake makes me start to understand how type designers may be feeling as they watch their gorgeous high-resolution creations, rooted in hundreds of years of craft and technology, take the first small steps toward a new world of web fonts.

18 thoughts on “Verdana Pro (and Con)

  1. I have to admit, it does nothing for me (but I’m not print designer). I agree that it really shines at a small res on a screen (I don’t mind if it’s AA’d or not); however if used well it can even work at a larger res.

    My question here is why? I don’t see why anyone would choose to use this as a type face, as imo there’s always a better alternative.

  2. ^^ Shoddily written comment; I meant to finish with “why would anyone choose to use it as a print type-face.”

  3. Thanks for the explanation of why Verdana and Georgia behave as they do when sized utilizing ems and percentages – I’ve not read as clear an explanation before. As for specifying a print version of a screen font, I think I’ll keep riding out this transition from the sidelines and maintain my late-adopter status.

  4. Now think about licensing web font versions of Verdana Pro. And think about what they type designers will have to do to get their newly hewn Verdana Pro print fonts to display beautifully on the web. Whee!

  5. I can understand this and agree that in a utopian world we would only use typefaces for which they were originally meant. But we print designers have a history for taking typefaces meant for more specific media and using them elsewhere. I’m specifically thinking about the trend in the 90s of using Bell Gothic [1] and Bell Centennial [2]. Both of these were originally designed for use in phone books when you needed to be able to cram as much type as possible on a page so the type had to be as small as possible. But print designers liked the quirks, we liked how the letters were distorted—from what we considered the norm to be—at larger sizes. [3] We took these typefaces and used them on advertising, packaging, record albums, etc.

    While I’m not, at this moment, a huge fan of Verdana Pro, I will admit to the fact that IKEA using Verdana in their print has begun to grow on me. Verdana
    becomes something different in print. I appreciate that David has taken the time to finesse it. Maybe now is a good time to re-read Steven Heller’s essay, “The Cult of the Ugly” again.

    1. Designed by C. H. Griffith, 1938; meant for AT&T phone directories.
    2. Designed by Matthew Carter, 1978; meant to replace Bell Gothic.
    3. Now we all know those weird “cavities” are ink traps designed into the letters specific to the need of “trapping” ink from the low quality of the paper and presses at the time of design. Today there is very little need for ink traps beyond an aesthetic purpose.

  6. Tiffany Wardle de Sousa:

    Thanks for your informative and illuminating comment! :)

    To clarify, I’m not opposed to one medium grabbing type from another. I’m skeptical about this specific font, because of its particular strengths and limitations as described above.

    I’m more hopeful about Georgia, because Georgia works beautifully in antialiased and sub-pixel antialiased settings in a variety of sizes (including in-between sizes) for which it was definitely never designed.

    OS X shows me that Georgia works in higher resolution than that for which it was designed. Therefore I am confident about its transition to print.

    But I don’t get the same feeling about Verdana, as Verdana is ugly in many settings—and always has been, even before antialiasing was the norm. (As one who sinned in the past by using Verdana as an occasional headline font, I can attest to said ugliness through my own tears of contrition.)

    That said, never underestimate David Berlow and Matthew Carter to create reason, balance, and beauty.

    So we’ll see.

  7. At work we’ve had clients that request that we use Verdana for their web/print/brand font because “everybody has it” (this has happened with Arial too).

    It’s really tough getting the account management and client on the same page as to why this is a terrible idea. Then it just gets awkward because I’m usually too far down the food chain to win the argument. And then we all lose.

    At least next time I can insist they upgrade to Verdana Pro.

  8. Eric Peacock:

    At work we’ve had clients that request that we use Verdana for their web/print/brand font because “everybody has it” (this has happened with Arial too). … At least next time I can insist they upgrade to Verdana Pro.

    That is an excellent point and a good use case.

  9. Terminology-wise, is there a difference between “non-antialiased” and “aliased” when referring to screen font display? I’ve only ever considered aliased or antialiased… is “non-antialiased” a third variant?

    Just curious…

  10. Dave B:

    “Non-anti-aliased” is the correct term. “Aliased” is incorrect—though it is commonly used by plenty of smart people.

    Although the correct term is awkward (non-anti-aliased is a word only a mother could love), I use it because, well, because it is correct.

  11. I actually really like the Idea of a print-optimized version of Verdana.

    Although Verdana was initially designed for the web, I think that set of constraints birthed a typeface with a very specific feel. For me, I see Verdana as “the functional typeface.” It sacrifices beauty for legibility throughout, from the high x-height and wide characters, down to the crossbars on the capital I.

    And, if we agree that the typeface conveys a meaning beyond just answering the constraints of the early web—even if we disagree on what that meaning is—then it seems logical to assume that some people might want to utilize the font for that purpose.

    I think IKEA is actually a great example. Although I wish they’d left Futura for headlines, I think Verdana works very well for them. It well supports their mission of bringing functional, innovative, and cheap design to the masses by leveraging the properties of standardization and economies of scale.

    Just my .02

  12. @Dave B:

    To expand, when we convert analog (curvaceous fonts) to digital (pixels) the conversion process necessarily introduces artifacts, and this process is referred to as aliasing. This is true even for antialiased fonts and images. It’s just that with antialiasing the artifacts are visually less severe. This is similar to anti-icing or anti-skid devices (or dare I say antiperspirant) which do not eliminate icing or skidding (or perspiration) under all conditions but attempt to reduce the magnitude or duration.

    And so we generally speak of antialiased and non-antialiased images (including glyphs).

  13. >rooted in hundreds of years of craft and technology

    By and large, the font-designers I talk to don’t seem to be comfortable with the utilitarian notion of fonts as a tool. Me, I get a kick whenever anybody uses anything I’ve created – even if they use it to create something that, to me, looks like crap. That’s my impression – FWIW.

    Regarding the need to create fonts that look good onscreen and in print: my personal belief – and I’m not alone – is that the browser will also be the prevailing desktop publishing app of the future.
    If DaveB doesn’t mind my using @font-face as a verb – all you have to do is @font-face a font-family that works well for print, make sure there’s a print stylesheet, and you’re ready to publish via dead trees, too.
    In a web with @font-face, I question the premise of asking the same font to do double-duty for print and screen. With the OS in charge – with web safe – it had to be that way, but no more.
    It really is a new paradigm. Take some getting used to.

  14. I’m twitchy about something completely different. Is this not all just about the money? So much of where big companies spend their money these days are about the returns they can receive. What is the catch here?

  15. Dear all,

    Thanks to Mr. Zeldman for bringing Verdana (Pro and Con) to the table. Some fonts, you might not want to see evolve regardless of how much culture grows around them, like maybe Comic Sans, Arial or Hobo? But others fit growth and diversity as the culture around them grows.

    We were not thinking of ideal print families when we plotted to expanded Verdana and Georgia. The general idea was to expand this successful pair of 4-style families so that users would not be confined by the existing simplicity 4-style families mean. One could for example, use Verdana Bold Condensed for web headlines, in PDFs or web graphics never to be printed.

    Yes, the original faces were designed for pre-antialiased Windows environments. But the basic principles in the design of Verdana and Georgia: large x-heights and widths, a bigger than usual difference between regular and bold, and clear stylistic direction, are the basis of all readable faces, independent of rendering.

    We also felt Microsoft’s generous licensing to Apple should be extended to users on all platforms, and that the evolution of these fonts should continue to kerning, advanced typography and whatever might be next.

    So Ascender, Font Bureau and Carter & Cone agreed on a proposal and made it to Microsoft, a company not in the habit of continual font development. To all of our delight Microsoft accepted, and our three (small) companies took the risk on this long fly ball. ( There is no catch, we hope :))

  16. Verdana is a font that looks gorgeous at 11px in a non-antialiased environment, and handsome at 9px and 10px in that same setting. Make it any bigger than 11px, and it looks grotesque.

    On Windows with ClearType, Verdana looks great – readable, open, light – up to and including 16px. Beyond that it starts to break down and look heavy, as it does in Safari, making it tiring to read in large doses. From this I’d like to make two points:

    1. Designers need to test, test, test on Windows and become intimately aware of how ClearType (and soon DirectWrite) renders. I’ve noticed sites recently that employ fonts that look great in Safari/Win and on OS X, but look terrible on Windows. I can only assume the designers of these sites have not tested sufficiently on Windows, or simply don’t care. We need to care.

    2. We need to be able to specify a typeface based on the type rendering engine in use and perhaps the screen dpi. Just sniffing the OS or browser isn’t enough. To be able to create legible, attractive web typography, I need to be able to choose my typeface based on whether I have ClearType, no ClearType, DirectWrite or Safari/OS X available to me. I don’t know if iPad or iPhone or Mobile Device X have their own text rendering characteristics; I’d like to be able to take them into account if they do.

  17. On the web, I think one reason to use Verdana Pro is that it will do very nicely as a display font to be combined with standard Verdana, when you want your headings to be sans-serif too and don’t want to use another sans font that is too similar (e.g. Helvetica).

    Verdana is a very good option if you need a sans-serif web-safe font for body text. As noted above, it is readable and looks good at such small sizes. So when you need a sans-serif display font for headings, logos, etc what do you do? Mixing in a different sans-serif (like, say, Helvetica or whatever) doesn’t always look very good. Maybe you want to keep the result more ‘uniform’.

    Such headings can be rendered using Cufon or sIFR or @font-face or whatever (which work well for headings but not body text). In this case, using Verdana Pro will work really nicely with Verdana body text.

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