Interview with Virginia Howlett, mother of Verdana.
You may not know the name, but trust me: if you use the web you've had reason to thank Virginia Howlett. Why? Because she was Microsoft's Program Manager in Typography, working with Matthew Carter to design what is still the best web font, Verdana.
In addition, if you've ever used Windows in the last 9 years, you've come across her groundbreaking work on User Interface Design. Windows 95 was the operating system that brought personal computing to the mass market.
In this interview we discuss Verdana, Win '95 and what Bill Gates is really like ...
DMX Why's it called Verdana?
VH: At one point, some people from the Typography group and I went out to Boston to meet with Matthew and look at the early outlines of Verdana. They were gorgeous. (The type designer draws outlines for the shape of each character in the font.) Matthew had settled on a process where he designed the bitmaps for the 8 & 10 pt. sizes first, and then drew the outlines to fit them. This was quite novel at the time. (The process is usually the reverse.)
I remember that it was at this meeting when we named the font. We wanted to call it Ventana, but the lawyers had rejected that idea, because it means Window. We had been brainstorming words that mean green, because Washington is the Evergreen state and Seattle is the Emerald City (if you've been to the Northwest, you're aware of how green it is here). So we were thinking of Verde and Verdigris - and then Matthew mentioned the tradition of type designers naming fonts after their daughters. My eldest daughter's name is Ana (pronounced Ah-na), so we settled on Verdana - a combination of Verde and Ana.
DMX: How does Ana feel about having a famous typeface named after her?
VH: I think she feels somewhat flattered - she has told a few people about it, but not many.
The hard part is that I have another daughter, who doesn't have a typeface named after her, and she feels a little bad about it. It's a good lesson in how important it is to be equal as a parent.
DMX: You were also intimately connected with the design of the Win 95 UI - the UI that caused the explosion of consumer PC ownership. Can you describe Microsoft's goals with the Win 95 UI and your role in its development please?
VH: Whoa. This is a VERY long story! I could go on for pages & pages. Here's the short version: As Manager of the Graphic Design team in the User Interface group, my team designed a fully "3-D" interface for Windows 3.1. (The majority of the real design work was done by Allison Grauman.) We met with Billg, who approved it, but the VP of the Windows team, Brad Silverberg, decided not to ship it.
This design was then used as the basis for Cairo - an NT-based future OS. Once the Windows team shipped Windows 3.1, they started working on Chicago and appropriated much of the Cairo design. (Chicago became Win95.) I continued working on both projects - Cairo was eventually shelved.
Our design goals were to make a fully 3-D interface, with as simple and clear a visual presentation as we could. We wanted to make the UI more intuitive with clear affordances, and an elegant use of color, fonts & icons. Windows 95 was the most extensively usability-tested software product ever built, at that point. UI design is always a compromise, but we were pleased with the overall usability of Win95, and the visual presentation was a key part of that.