Story of Verdana, Part 1 - Getting in Trouble

Working on Green Data Centers can be a little frustrating at times, pushing for changes to do the right thing.  One of the regular stories I enjoy telling is the story of Verdana.


The Verdana typeface family consists of four TrueType fonts created specifically to address the challenges of on-screen display. Designed by world renowned type designer Matthew Carter, and hand-hinted by leading hinting expert, Agfa Monotype’s Tom Rickner, these sans serif fonts are unique examples of type design for the computer screen.

image Tom Rickner photo

The Verdana family resembles humanist sans serifs such as Frutiger, and Edward Johnston’s typeface for the London Underground, and Carter himself claims to see the influence of his own Bell Centennial in the face. But to label Verdana a humanist face is to ignore the fact that this family isn’t merely a revival of classical elegance; this is type designed for the medium of screen.

But, Dave why should I listen to your story as you are not referenced in any of the Verdana material? Because I can tell you how the pieces fit together and the bigger story of the social network required to get the font done in an environment that was against Verdana.  Also, I was the one who brought Matthew and Tom to the Verdana project as I had worked with both while I was at Apple and knew I wanted the best to work on Verdana. A tidbit from Tom’s meticulous note taking.

7/26/1994 Later in the afternoon, Dave Ohara called, with Matthew Carter and Tom Stephens in the room, to talk about the Verdana face. Matthew said that he was sad to read my note the other day, but found out soon after that we would still get a chance to work together on the Verdana face.

So, let’s start off when the first time I got in trouble for Verdana. One afternoon, my Microsoft general manager Steve Shaiman came looking for me, and he yelled “what the hell did you do?” What? BillG (Bill Gates email alias, back then we called people by their email alias, I was DaveO) thinks we should be doing fonts for screen and Pan-European typefaces.

I didn’t talk to Bill or send him e-mail. How did he find out about my typeface idea? Steve explained I talked to Peter Pathe. Yeh, I was walking through building 16 in the morning and ran into Peter who was my hiring manager into Microsoft, and the general manager of Word at the time. Steve continues you told Peter your idea for typefaces for the screen and pan-European. Well, he asked me what I was up to, and I told him. It turns out Peter had a BillG review for Word later that morning, and Bill asked Peter who was the ex-TrueType Director “what’s new in fonts?” Peter said we are looking at fonts for the screen and pan-European character sets. Bill said that’s a great idea!

What’s the problem? My general manager Steve Shaiman, typographer Robert Norton, TrueType Architect Eliyezer Kohen, and many others had no involvement with this project, and had current plans to digitize hundreds of typefaces Microsoft had licensed for preserving historical typefaces, bringing the rich history of type to the Win3.1 user base with more font packs.

Uhh, what users wanted this?

This was just the start of the internal battles to ship Verdana. Why were there battles? Verdana was a disruptive typeface that changed the typeface development models and who was in charge. How serious was the disruption? This was the last typeface I ever worked on, and I was asked to leave the group as I refused to cave in to the politics. Leaving type was one of the best career decisions I made. As time has proven the ideas were right and social networking was a power that was difficult to beat.

The viral strength of the ideas and network of people is the story I am going to tell. This is part 1. Part 2 is on the people who were involved and their relationships. The relationships of the team, the network effects are what the “plan of record” could not stop. And, now users recognize Georgia, Tahoma, Calibri, and the infamous Comic Sans were all developed for the screen. 

Story behind a Viral Font, Comic Sans

WSJ has a front page article about the typeface Comic Sans.  I can give you an interesting insider story on this as I worked in this group at Microsoft and can provide some history.

Typeface Inspired by Comic Books Has Become a Font of Ill Will

Vincent Connare designed the ubiquitous, bubbly Comic Sans typeface, but he sympathizes with the world-wide movement to ban it.

[Vincent Connare]

Vincent Connare

Thanks to Microsoft shipping Arial, Helvetica is history far many and a movie.

Who cares that Microsoft didn’t ship those other 300 historical typefaces it licensed.

In these times, the typeface in your browser, iPhone, and Blackberry are more important.

Fonts for the screen wasn’t a bad idea, just a little controversial in 1994.