What’s the Big Deal About the U.S. State Department Font Change?

Posted inType Tuesday

Almost immediately after our last Type Tuesday interview about accessible fonts in classrooms, The U.S. State Department announced they’re replacing Times New Roman with Calibri to make government documents more legible. Of course, the announcement came with many opinions. To get a better sense of the inner workings of the changing typefaces, we recently sat down with Tom Rickner, Creative Type Director at Monotype.

Rickner has worked in type design and font production for over three decades, including designing some of the first Multiple Master fonts for Adobe and TrueType GX Variations fonts for the Font Bureau and Apple.

So what does he think about the typographical change? Read on to find out.

Can you explain why the State Department moved away from Times New Roman and towards a sans-serif typeface like Calibri?

The shift certainly appears to be well intentioned, with the driving force being the Secretary’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion’s assertion that Calibri is a more accessible typeface than Times New Roman.

As type designers and typographers, we appreciate the stated desire of making their written communications more accessible.

In your opinion, is Calibri a more accessible typeface? Why or why not?

It’s a great question, and one that I think would require some actual research to discern. My follow-up to your question is, “more accessible to whom?” Who is in the sample we are measuring? Are we talking about people with impaired vision, people with corrected vision, or perhaps a neurodivergent population? As type designer Zuzana Licko once said, “We read best what we read most.” I would agree with that, and the opinion is supported by certain eye tracking studies published in The Journal of Eye Movement Research.

There are some measurable attributes which one might think make Calibri a better choice. The x-height, which contains the bulk of information in a Latin typeface, is only about 2% larger than Times New Roman, but it is bigger. Combined with more open proportions and larger default leading (that is the vertical space between the lines of type) all make for a font that appears larger. And size is the biggest single factor in making something more accessible. But put these two faces side by side in certain print environments, and I’m not convinced Calibri will universally beat Times New Roman in reading speed or reading comprehension.

What does the future of accessible type look like in a corporate setting?

This topic is coming up more and more often from our customers looking for type out of our library, or those engaging Monotype to create a custom type for them. As an example, I’m often asked about what typefaces are ADA compliant. That isn’t a thing. ADA compliance is really focused on the typography— that is, the use of the type, not the type itself. Currently we have no concrete measures that determine whether a typeface is or is not accessible. More research is needed, and with a broader audience than simply people who fit in the middle of a normal distribution in terms of visual acuity.

Why do you think people become so upset over what should be an inclusive change, especially with something like typography?

Type can invoke a strong emotional response. We’ve known this for some time, and our research with Neurons last year confirmed that.

Can you explain how point size of a typeface can be as accessible, if not more accessible, than the font change itself?

As I said earlier, size matters. We are now living in a world where pinch to zoom is taken for granted. We can customize the default type and typography in our devices to meet our own needs. But there is still content we as users and readers of type can’t control. Printed State Department briefings are just one example. Increasing the size of the type in their communications is the bigger takeaway for me. 

In your opinion, what is the most accessible typeface and why?

I don’t think there is one most accessible typeface. I’m certain that there is a broad distribution of responses to any typeface. And while this switch to a sans like Calibri may work for many, I still prefer serifed typefaces. And of course, I’m partial to the faces I’ve worked on and know so well.

Are there any typefaces you think shouldn’t be allowed in certain settings? If so, what are they and why?

This could easily get me in trouble naming specific fonts, a couple come to mind that many would like to pile on and complain about. I’ll simply say that it is critical to first know your audience and the goals of the specific communication. From there, one can make some informed decisions about what typefaces may be most appropriate for the circumstances. There is a type for every occasion.