Monotype weighs in on US State Department’s switch from Times New Roman to Calibri

The switch from Times New Roman – the department’s standard since 2004 – sparked commotion internally. Monotype’s Charles Nix offers thoughts on the change.

24 January 2023

It seems design's calls for greater focus on accessibility are not occurring in an echo chamber; the US State Department is taking notice. Last week, The Washington Post shared a cable sent from Secretary of State Antony Blinken announcing the fade out of Times New Roman – the standard departmental font since 2004 – for Calibri, giving all offices until 6 February to make the switch.

The cable cited accessibility as the driving force behind the decision. The memo shared by The Washington Post offered some more detail: “Fonts like Times New Roman have serifs (“wings” and “feet”) or decorative, angular features that can introduce accessibility issues for individuals with disabilities who use Optical Character Recognition technology or screen readers”. Despite this reasoning, the change was not wholeheartedly embraced by all at the State Department. The Washington Post shared that one Foreign Service officer expected an “internal revolt”, another heard a colleague calling it “sacrilege”.

For Monotype’s Charles Nix however, the move signals one key message to those following the story: “That typography matters”. Design, and even branding to a certain extent, has been building towards a critical mass around accessibility for a while. In recent years, we’ve even seen campaigns celebrating Comic Sans as a dyslexia-friendly super font. Charles says: “I like seeing the highest levels of the US government trumpeting the importance of typography.”

A further question remains in the switch: is Calibri really more accessible than Times New Roman? “Yes and no,” says Charles. “The number one factor, hands down, affecting legibility is the size of the type. If we take accessible to mean legible, then any typeface, serif or sans, used large enough will be more accessible.” The new guidelines from the State Department recommend 14-pt type; Charles says at which size, either typeface would be hyper accessible.

There are a range of other factors that come into play, “sans versus serif is one”, says Charles. Beyond this, Charles draws attention to one hugely important consideration: familiarity. “What the reader is accustomed to will influence their willingness to engage with the content. If I’m used to seeing books set in serif type and I’m confronted with a 400-page novel set in a sans-serif font, I may struggle to engage with the narrative. And if I’m suddenly seeing my Twitter feed in a serif font, rather than the familiar sans, I’ll balk.” Hence, the yes and no in Charles’ original answer. While Calibri is a bigger font at 14-pt than Times Roman (104 per cent larger), it is also a new font in the context of State Department papers.

Ultimately, the combination of 14-pt type, a sans serif font, and the particular pervasiveness of Calibri across computers across the world, all suggests the change will make a difference to readability. Charles concludes: “There are millions – if not billions – of world citizens who understand that the form of type helps shape the meaning of text. The State Department is now part of that contemporary club.”

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Liz Gorny

Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. After graduating from the University of Bristol, they worked freelance, writing for independent publications such as Little White Lies, Indie magazine and design studio Evermade.

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