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New Fonts in Windows Vista

By Tony Self

People can get very worked up about fonts. It's hard to believe the detailed shape of letters and numbers can be the cause of passionate and often heated debate. An Australian man from the sophisticated city of Melbourne, Stephen Banham, conducted a survey of signage in the centre of the city. He looked at one thousand signs on cafes, street signs, illuminated signs, posters, and shop signage. The results of Banham's survey confirmed his hunch; 30% of all signs were in Helvetica. Of the literally thousands of fonts to choose from, the creators of signs chose the blandest of fonts, with no distinguishing features. Banham, a graphic designer and typographer, has a hatred for Helvetica, describing the font's proliferation as a kind of plague. He discovered that Helvetica was used as the corporate font of Lufthansa, Toyota, Evian, the New York Subway, the Commonwealth Bank, the US Tax Office, and even the Italian Communist Party. The fear of Helvetica taking over the world prompted Banham to write a book about the dangers of Helvetica, and he started making money selling t-shirts emblazoned with the slogans and “Helvetica Thin - Just Say No”. Banham doesn't believe there's anything particularly wrong with Helvetica, other than its overuse. He believes it's being used as a “lazy way to be cool”.

For every Banham, there is a Lars Muller. A Norwegian graphic designer and typographer, Muller wrote a book called Helvetica, Homage to a Typeface. He believes the font is an icon of modern design. (You can buy his 160 page book from Amazon.) Muller founded his graphic design studio in Switzerland, the birthplace of Helvetica. The font was designed by Max Miedinger in 1957 to be a clear, clean and legible font; the face was so bland and neutral, it was named after the Latin word for Switzerland, Helvetia. A neutral name for a neutral font.

It's not just Helvetica that gets people hot under the collar. In an article in The Age newspaper, James Button pointed out the chequered history of arguments over typefaces. George Bernard Shaw demanded that his books be produced in the Caslon font, although in the 18th Century, Caslon was thought to make readers go blind! Adolph Hitler banned the use of some fonts because he believed they were Jewish in origin.

Yes, people get mighty passionate about fonts. And not just in the world of paper. In the world of online publishing, a question about which font is most readable on screen will generate a passionate discourse that can run for weeks. The trees are about to be shaken again, because Microsoft is making changes to the fonts it uses in its Windows interface.

When Windows 95 was introduced, the font used for the user interface (for the Western locale versions at least) was “MS Sans Serif”. It was a Helvetica-like font, which remained legible at very small resolutions. When Office 97 was introduced (in late 1996), it used a different interface font: “Tahoma”. Tahoma was different in that it was designed specifically for display on screen. (The most common fonts are centuries old, and designed for print.) The typographer commissioned by Microsoft, Matthew Carter, optimised the font for on-screen reading at small point sizes. Tahoma spread to become the primary font used in the Windows 98 interface, and in most Microsoft software through to Office 2003. Meanwhile, Verdana, the font (also designed for Microsoft by Carter) on which Tahoma was based, became the font used throughout Microsoft's enormous Web site. In the Help world, WinHelp's standard of Helvetica was replaced by the HTML Help standard of Verdana.

Since Verdana and Tahoma were designed, an important reading technology has been developed: ClearType. Monitor technology has also improved, and LCD displays have now almost entirely replaced CRTs in new computer sales. The change in environment has resulted in Microsoft rethinking the use of fonts. In fact, Microsoft commissioned the design of a number of new fonts:

  • Segoe UI

  • Consolas

  • Calibri

  • Cambria

  • Constantina

  • Corbel

  • Candara

These new seven fonts will make their public appearance in Office 2006. Segoe UI will be used as the Office user interface, and will also be the font used throughout the Windows Vista user interface. For documents produced by Office, Calibri (a sans serif font) is recommended for headings, with Candara (a humanist sans font) recommended for sans body text, and Cambria for serifed. Consolas is a monospaced font, while the remaining two having characteristics that suit particular types of paragraphs.

A description and screen shots of the new fonts can be found at the Blog of Jensen Harris (a Microsoft User Experience manager).

From a Help or Web developer's point of view, the big news is “Segoe UI”. The use of this font is not being restricted to Vista and Microsoft products. To quote from the lead fonts manager at Microsoft, It “can be specified by third party applications running on Windows Vista that may wish to take advantage of it in order to have the Windows Vista look and feel”. This means that it can be used, if necessary, for Help systems and Web pages. However, bear in mind that Segoe UI is designed for the user interface, and this usually means being best when displayed small bits of information at smaller sizes. It may not be the most appropriate for larger tracts of text, but will be well suited for tool tips and other small items of user assistance information.

Microsoft didn't design Segoe; it is licensed from Monotype. As well as Segoe UI, there are three related fonts in the Segoe family: Segoe TV, Segoe Print, Segoe HW, and Segoe Script. Segoe UI is a TrueType font, optimised for ClearType 8pt, 9pt and 10pt.

If you've just started getting used to Tahoma, then prepare for some changes. Perhaps you can take a position, get some t-shirts printed, and put a bit of fervour into your life!

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