In this series I'll be asking thought leaders around Microsoft about how they got here and where they think things are going. If there are interesting people you'd like to hear from ping me at LarryLa (at) Microsoft.com with suggestions for people and the questions you're most interested in. Today we'll hear from Simon Daniels. Simon is one of the people behind the fonts used in a wide variety of Microsoft products. If you're a Windows user, you likely look at things Simon has worked on every day of your life and not even realize it. Most recently Simon worked on the commissioning of new versions of two very well-known fonts; Verdana Pro and Georgia Pro.
Simon, tell us about your background and how you came to work at Microsoft?
I graduated from the University of Reading (UK) in 1995 with a BA in Typography & Graphic Communication. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on typography on the web, which led my professor forwarding my name to the typography group here at Microsoft. I was an intern on the typography team over the summer of 1995 and joined Microsoft full time in January 1997. I've worked within the font team for my entire time at Microsoft, so an interesting fact about me is that I didn't interview for my internship or FTE position so I've never been through a Microsoft interview loop and never had an informational interview for a job on another team. I love typography and fonts, and running the font team is still my dream job.
The team currently consists of five program managers, and we're currently part of the Windows Core Experience Team. Previously we were part of Windows International. But despite being part of Windows we have a charter to manage font production and licensing company wide. So we get to help Microsoft games studios and product groups license fonts, we create custom fonts for devices, and work with the marketing team on our corporate branding fonts, as well as maintain, update and commission new fonts for inclusion with Windows. Within Windows we partner closely with the globalization team on complex-script "shaping engines" and the Windows graphics team on font rendering, but as we're part of the Core Experience Team we get to work with the UX Designers on the way fonts are actually used in the product.
What surprised you about working at Microsoft?
I'm sure something must have surprised me in 1995, but I don't recall what.
What was your first computer?
A Sinclair ZX81 purchased when I was ten years old.
If you were graduating right now, what technologies and industries would you be drawn to?
I think I would gravitate towards typography and design, probably UX design.
Who are some of your favorite people to follow on Twitter?
I tend to follow subjects rather than people on Twitter, usually around type related technologies, and fonts.
What are some of your favorite sites to read?
I'm active on the Typophile forum, and read a variety of typography and gadget blogs. Engadget and Gizmodo are great for following UI font trends. I love to identify fonts used on other companies devices, and occasionally spot the unlicensed use of our fonts on devices.
How has typography changed over the last decade?
If you look at print and advertising typography not a huge amount has visually changed since 2001. You do see different typefaces fall in and out of style, and it's certainly much easier to do good micro typography thanks to OpenType. You no longer have to fiddle with PostScript Type 1 "expert sets". You could argue that InDesign plus OpenType has had a greater positive effect on typography than Mac, PostScript, PageMaker and the LaserWriter did ten years earlier.
On-screen type has changed drastically. Over the past ten years we've moved from jagged aliased text rendering on Mac OS and Windows to sub-pixel ClearType and similar technologies. Online we've moved from a small set of web safe fonts to CSS web fonts supported across almost all platforms, opening up creative opportunities to web designers and a whole new market to font foundries.
The mobile phone space has seen the biggest change, from clunky bitmap fonts on coarse screens, to beautiful type on small high res screens that put the typical tablet, desktop and laptop screens to shame.
What are some recent technologies that designers should be fluent with?
Although Internet Explorer supported CSS Web fonts back in 1998, the technology has really taken off over the past two years. So although that's not a new technology, designers do need to be aware of it. It brings a lot of new opportunities as well as new challenges to the web typography space. Following hot on the heels of web fonts is CSS OpenType support, which gives Web designers access to typographic font features that previously could only be accessed in high end apps like InDesign. This is a big deal, and it's not just for the Web, CSS will bring this level of typographic support to ebooks, as well as apps, so I think every designer needs to be aware of it.
What's the most important thing the average person doesn't know about typography?
Probably that typefaces are made by real people, and that it takes them a really long time to make a good font. I think there's a perception amongst the average person that fonts just exist and if there is any human involvement in font production that its minimal.
The development agreement was put in place a few years ago between Microsoft and Ascender Corp (who were acquired by Monotype last year), and some preliminary details were announced around the same time as IKEA started using Verdana in their catalogs. Back in 2008 we could see that the era of web safe fonts was coming to an end. There was renewed traction behind CSS web fonts, and evolving rendering environments meant that you could differentiate a wider range of styles and weights on screen at small sizes. We had also put our efforts into the ClearType Collection fonts, and hadn't invested in Verdana and Georgia for some time. Despite this, Verdana and Georgia were very well known, and had a great following. So rather than let these fonts decline and die out we set up an agreement that allowed Ascender to partner with Matthew Carter and the Font Bureau to expand the families to ensure they remained viable well into the future.
With the recent advent of higher DPI screens, is there still a need for ClearType?
Within Microsoft its generally accepted that at 300ppi ClearType's advantages are not perceptible. Windows Phone made the decision to use grayscale, not ClearType for Windows Phone 7, and their chassis spec called for a resolution of 260ppi. But on most desktops, tablets and laptops we still have a long way to go. Having said that the Windows graphics team is working on rendering technologies that improve grayscale rendering, with a view to getting better rendering performance and acceptable results on a range of devices.
Although when the principles of ClearType are explained you'd think that it's a pretty fragile rendering technology, but that's not really the case. Most people report that ClearType text looks better than grayscale text on CRTs and rotated displays even when the ClearType rendering doesn't take this into account. But grayscale does have some advantages, it produces the exact same pixel patterns under rotation, and doesn't require the same level of end-user tuning. The ClearType tuner really helps those who are color sensitive and those with uncorrected vision. As mentioned earlier you really need high DPI displays to make grayscale readable, but if you don't have that then picking the right font, with the right level of "hinting" and displaying at an appropriate size is critical.
Can you give a few tips for people who are not font-savvy? [i.e. What should I use in email, or on a resume?]
The Office themes and template fonts are generally good choices, but bear in mind they were picked in part because they have large character sets, minimizing the need for the templates and themes to be localized.
In email the recipient may not have the same font you pick on their machine so you probably want to stick with the web safe fonts. Font embedding/web fonts haven't made it to email yet. Verdana and Georgia are good picks, as are the ClearType Collection fonts, Cambria, Candara, Corbel and Constantia, if you're bored with the Outlook default of Calibri.
Are there any sites or books you would suggest for those who are not font-savvy?
I have to recommend The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst, it's the bible of typography. Also I'm always pulling Stop Stealing Sheep by Erik Spiekermann and E.M Ginger to explain typography related stuff to feature teams.
What font/size do you prefer to read in for long-form text?
On screen I still prefer Georgia, but Cambria and Calibri hold up pretty well.
What is the latest on Microsoft's Adaptive Layout work?
There are still feature teams working in this area, but I think most of the effort has moved to the Web.
In your opinion should newspapers and publishers use the same font online that they use in print for consistency, or are the mediums so different to discourage it?
There's definitely convergence, but licensing issues aside you really need a web-specific version of your reading font, optimized for the screen. Fortunately The Font Bureau, who specializes in newspaper fonts, have embraced the web, and understand the value of hinting.
What are your thoughts on Comic Sans?
It's not a font I would use in an email, a spec, or in business communication. It's also very easy for design students and amateur font spotters to identify. It's also clear, given the historical record that for the first few years of availability it didn't garner much if any criticism. In fact I recall being contacted by a large Hollywood digital animation studio looking to license the font on the express instructions of their senior leader. So my feeling is that a combination of misuse, overuse and it being an easy target has led to it attracting negative attention of a minority of users. It's only a font. People should get over it. I do feel that some of the personal attacks of Vincent Connare go too far. (Fonts are one of the few Microsoft product components that have the individual creators name included in the code and exposed in our UI. Contrast this with the anonymous author of the bubbles screen saver or the Windows 7 firefly animation. Maybe we shouldn't put MS employees names on the fonts they produce in-house?)
Generally when you think of fonts, the average person doesn't look at them as a way to solve problems. Tell me about Ecofont and Dyslexie.
Pretty much all the font work my team does is of the problem-solving variety, that may be finding the perfect chop suey font for an Xbox game, through to making sure a complex character is readable when only 12 pixels high. So when stories like the ecofont (an ink saving font) and Dyslexie (a font to help dyslexic readers) get mainstream media attention that's generally a good thing, although there are a thousand more interesting font related stories that don't get any publicity.
The makers of ecofont added holes to an existing sans serif font to reduce the amount of ink used when text set in the font is printed. Printer ink is expensive and the font received a huge amount of publicity despite there being easier ways to save ink, such as using a draft printing mode, making the text smaller, using a serif font, or even editing the text. Beyond these obvious alternatives the history of typography is full of innovative solutions to saving paper, everything from fonts designed for small print Bibles through to newspaper classified ad fonts, and more recently the work Microsoft and others have done to improve reading on the screen, minimizing the need to print. The document that's never printed saves the most paper and ink.
Dyslexie is the third or fourth font we're aware of that tries to help dyslexic readers by making easily confusable characters like "b" and "d" more distinct. However, since the 1970's it's been accepted that dyslexia is a phonological deficit, not a visual problem. In addition although the font's creator did test the new font against Arial, an analysis of the test results doesn't reveal a statistically significant difference between Dyslexie and Arial.
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