26 May 2011

Invisible Art

Cooper-Hewitt just awarded type designer Matthew Carter a National Design Award for lifetime achievement in the typographic arts. You know his work very well. You've seen it countless times. You're looking at it right now. He is the designer of the ubiquitous Microsoft system fonts Georgia, Tahoma and Verdana. I usually prefer Trebuchet for TLP, but in honor of Mr. Carter, today we're sporting Georgia.

Georgia and Verdana (Tahoma is very similar to the latter) are notable as being designed specifically for high-legibility on computer screens. Both are very extensively hand-hinted, meaning that the characters are carefully encoded with rasterization data for screen display. They are easy on the eyes and legible at very small point sizes. That's why countless Web pages have Georgia or Verdana set as their default fonts. You and I unknowingly drink in Carter's invisible art every day.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Carter's landmark fonts is that they have achieved a ubiquity and acceptance that very few fonts do, but are seen by designers as appropriate for screen-only use. Ikea caused a big dustup in 2009 when they adopted Verdana as their print catalog typeface, wanting to unify their Web and print look. Critics dubbed it Verdanagate, both miffed and bemused that so savvy a design company would willfully disregard good design, in some attempt to appeal to pedestrian comfort. It's like a worldclass print design firm decorating their offices in American Colonial because that's what most Americans have in their living rooms.

Ikea blew it off. Said a spokesflunky, "I think it’s mainly experts who have expressed their views, people who are interested in fonts. I don’t think the broad public is that interested. . . . [Verdana is] a simple, cost-effective font." Lame, Ikea. You did a Gap. Just own it. You know very well that good design isn't some when-convenient option. It's a way of life. You live the aesthetic life or you don't.

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