In a heartwarming callback to the absurdly low-key controversies of the Obama era, the State Department is making extremely small waves by officially removing the old workhorse Times New Roman font from official communications. It will be succeeded by Calibri, a typeface now best known for being publicly retired in 2021.
But really, there’s no furore (let alone furore) about this, because if anyone cares enough about fonts to say anything, they’re probably so tired of TNR by now that their only complaint would be “what took so long?” But it’s funny that it’s in the news at all.
The Washington Post heard about the change of a leaked cable sent by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken – not quite the operational security I had hoped for, but we would have found out soon enough. The reason for the change is accessibility and readability: a sans-serif font (i.e., without the small bits at the end of letters) is considered by many to be easier to read in smaller sizes on digital devices, especially for people with visual impairments.
It’s a commendable goal, even if it’s not that simple: a more readable font is a good idea, but accessibility should be built into processes from the start, not as a layer on top. Yet small steps also count.
Funnily enough, the State Department is taking the same step that Microsoft did way back in 2007, when it also replaced Times New Roman with the then-new Calibri as the default font for documents. The reasoning was much the same: sans-serif was easier to read and people printed less.
But that was a long time ago, and Calibri is now on his way out for a variety of reasons, perhaps due to his distastefully weakened terminators. It’s not like it’s going to be removed from Earth or anything like that – “not the default” isn’t a death sentence – but it’s definitely a bit odd to choose it as your “new”, highly official font given the circumstances.
Understandably, the federal government generally prefers a product that has proven itself over many years. I don’t really expect them to switch to Roboto, or Source Sans, or even my favorite font from the Microsoft replacements, Bierstadt. Although this one could be based on gerrymandered districts:
A font was created just for this purpose: Note. The collaboration between mega foundry Monotype and Google is a completely free sans-serif font built from the ground up to meet all languages, symbols and common typography needs. It’s great for any government application that may need to be printed in multiple languages, but even more so for the comprehensive Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But maybe they have their reasons for preferring a Microsoft standard to a relatively exotic Google font. “Keep it simple, state.”
Design proficiency isn’t exactly a federal strength, but they seem to be improving – better than many state governments, I must say, which often have agency and official pages that themselves seem straight out of 2007. In this case, it’s a good move to move to a more appropriate font, even if it’s outdated and uncool, and perhaps the trickle that precedes a flood of good, thoughtful design — of which accessibility is a part and a consequence , not just one part.