US Department of State will soon change its default font from the staunch, boring Times New Roman to the more youthful and cool Calibri. The move, according to the State Department, is intended to improve the readability of internal correspondence between embassies and other divisions of the department. The order came in the form of an email sent by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. intercepted by John Hudson in Washington Post. After Hudson tweeted about the email, font fanatics online went on a rampage, either praising the move, condemning it, or reacting with a loud “Huh?”
As a 21st century update, Calibri makes sense. It is a digital font, unlike Times New Roman, which was created in 1931 for print newspapers and then converted to a digital font. Calibri also has a larger character set, allowing it to be used for more languages and more use cases than Times. But although Calibri is younger than Times, it is not the most modern typeface. Microsoft adopted Calibri as its default font in 2007, but in 2021 the company announced plans to phase it out.
Fred Shalkrass is a type designer at a New York based studio. Frere-Jones type who helped develop Seaford, one of the fonts that Microsoft is considering making its own new default font. He says people get addicted to typefaces, even if they don’t realize it right away. “When you change the font, you change someone’s subconscious understanding of the text,” Shalkrass says. “We get very attached to these things.”
This move re-ignited a long debate about the merits and readability of serif and sans-serif fonts. Times New Roman – serif font; it has slight bulges, capital letters, and curls around the edges of the letters that give the typeface a distinctive look. Calibri is a sans-serif font; it has much cleaner letterforms that lack all the flags. In the modern era, the prevailing view is that sans-serif fonts are easier to read on screen, which is why the State Department says it initiated the change.
“Complex serifs get a bad rap,” Shalkrass says. “The new screens are crisper, so it’s a lot less of a concern than before. In some ways, this is an outdated approach. It would have made more sense if it had been 10 years ago.”
No font will work for every experience. It can be convenient for our brain to read text written in a font where some characters are complex or similar to other characters. But people with reading comprehension difficulties or visual impairments may find this font a challenge to navigate. No font is perfect for all types of visual or cognitive impairment, but the State Department’s choice of Calibri should make text much easier to read for almost everyone.
“The fact that the government is having these kinds of conversations about affordability is kind of heart warming,” says Jason Santa Maria, designer and book author About web typography. “You want your government agencies to take care of this sort of thing if that kind of thinking seeps into other places where text and accessibility are paramount.”
Fonts adapt to the technology we use to read them. What works on screens today may seem outdated in a few years. The State Department’s decision to adopt a font that’s already falling into disuse might raise concerns among typeface advocates, but government agencies are known for being slow and tedious, so the move to Calibri is hardly surprising. However, it’s entirely possible that no default will ever be perfect forever.
“Fonts are in the same category as clothing, furniture, and decor,” says Santa Maria. “Fashion changes, moods and feelings change over time. Fonts also need to be adapted.