Microsoft’s next upgrade: Fonts for the future

If you’re able to read this article without getting a headache, you may have a small but dedicated team within the Microsoft empire to thank.

The 10-member Advanced Reading Technology Group have been working since the early 1990s to create and design fonts that are easy on the eyes, particularly for documents on-screen. The almost undisputed champion in the Microsoft font race has been Times New Roman since its inception in 1990 (for example, this article was written in that font on Microsoft Word 2004 for Mac). But its reign will shortly be over. Starting with the next version of the Office suite, a handful of new fonts will take over for Microsoft’s killer app, Word.

“Our group has been together as a unit for about 16 years, which is pretty unusual,” said Greg Hitchcock, an architect within the Advanced Reading Technology Group. “We kind of differentiate ourselves from a lot of other companies in the industry by really focusing on the screen as a medium.”

In 1998, the group created a technology called ClearType, which is designed to perfect the science of legible on-screen fonts. Through a process of subpixel rendering, ClearType shapes the appearance of text, taking advantage of certain pecularities of human vision. Three years ago an international team of designers was assembled to create new fonts that would make the most of ClearType technology.

“We felt that it would be a good time to design some fonts from scratch that were really targeted for the ClearType environment,” said Hitchcock.

Geraldine Wade, Program Manager for the Advanced Reading Technology Group, got in touch with an old friend and colleague, John Hudson, to help her assemble the team.

Hudson, who lives in B.C., runs a font foundry called Tiro Typeworks. He suggested some professional acquaintances of his own, including font professionals in the U.K. and the Netherlands.

Out of a total of 30 font submissions, six were chosen, including Constantia, designed by Hudson himself.

“We were able to demonstrate with this project that small, independent foundries and type designers, who very much represent the new face of the type business, were able to produce and develop and deliver stuff to the very exacting standards that Microsoft has in this area,” said Hudson.

“All these fonts worked together, almost like a disparate family,” said Wade. “We felt like it was a very strong start to our project.”

The winning designers were gathered together at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Wash., for a two-day meeting. There, they were given a briefing on ClearType and then the work really started.

“We were agnostic at first. We were just wanting to see what typefaces work really well on screen and hint well, and are robust enough to render well,” said Wade.

“Hinting” is a process that analyzes each character and applies rules that make them look attractive, uniform and consistent.

A lot of font professionals are good at design but don’t know the technology, said Wade. “It’s rare to find those people who can design the outlines but have some knowledge of hinting and be able to produce the whole font from start to finish,” she said. “John’s got a lot of skills in this area. I chose him as my main lead liaison with the rest of the team.”

The end result is: Calibri, Cambria, Consolas, Candara, Constantia, Corbel and a Japanese font called Meiryo, which was designed by Eiichi Cono, a Japanese man who lives in the U.K. and is fluent in both languages.

Together they comprise the ClearType Font Collection but Calibri and Cambria will be the two main fonts for future Microsoft applications, including 2007 Office. In addition to Western languages, Cambria also supports mathematical typesets.

“When we proposed the project, the Office team was very excited about this,” said Hitchcock. “We wanted these fonts to have a fresh new look, but still have the classic features and be very readable on the screen.”

There’s little chance the older fonts will ever be phased out, he added. Times New Roman may have been superceded in Microsoft’s world. but it’s here to stay.

“One of the things about fonts is, they will very often be the oldest piece of software on your system. I have fonts on my system from the mid-1980s,” explained Hudson.

Documents that were created in an older font usually have to be read in that font, meaning that a library has to be built up over time and still maintained.

“If you go back to the fonts that we used for Windows 2.0, they’re kind of phased out. They were old bitmap fonts, but it’s taken us forever to get them out of the system,” said Hitchcock.

For Microsoft, font maintenance and creation has been of prime importance since its very first Windows operating system. In 1995, Microsoft developed Verdana and Georgia for reading documents online. In 1999, the company debuted its Microsoft Reader, a free download for reading e-books, largely in a Pocket PC handheld environment.

The font fervour goes all the way to the top. Microsoft chief software architect Bill Gates made readability “one of his personal Top 5 priorities, which gives you some idea of how important he thinks this topic is,” said Bill Hill, the director of the Advanced Reading Technology Group.

“I always check my e-mail on a Saturday night, because that’s the night I’m most likely to get an e-mail from Bill,” he said. “I got a mail from Bill asking me about ligature support in Windows and Office. It totally astonishes me that Bill should even know what a ligature is, never mind care enough to send a mail on a Saturday night.”

For the record, a ligature appears where two or more characters are written or printed as a unit. A common example is where “fi” appear together in a word. If you can see those two letters clearly, then chances are, Hill and his team have done their job.

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