State Department Font Change Sparks Debate


What’s in a typeface? The State Department’s announced font change for correspondence prompts that very question.

The U.S. Department of State recently announced it will change its official typeface. With the change, the department switches from serif to sans serif. So what’s prompting the font change and why is one better than the other?

The change is leading to many questions, some serious, others far from it.

Say goodbye to Times New Roman

The Times New Roman typeface, which served as the standard typeface, is out. The font was commissioned by the British newspaper The Times in the 1930s. Times New Roman is a serif font. Serifs are little strokes added to letters. Picture a capital I. If you see a straight vertical line with a short horizontal line at each end, you’re picturing a serif font. If, on the other hand, you picture just the straight vertical line, you’re picturing a sans serif typeface.

Serifs date back to old Greek writings. The age alone might be enough to make some assume that serifs must be outdated.

Are serif typefaces easier or harder to read? Well, that’s the real question here. Some insist that a serif font is easier to read. Most books and newspapers, for example, use serif typefaces, particularly for body text. Newspapers are more likely to use serif typefaces for headlines as well.

Consider this Instagram entry from The Washington Post:

That headline is a serif typeface.

When you go to the actual story on the Post’s website, you’ll find that the body copy does indeed use a serif typeface as well. But if you look at the captions under the photos and even the meta data including the reporter’s byline, you’ll see sans serif font as well. The mix adds a little variety, but it also suggests that since those captions and meta data are in smaller sizes, a sans serif typeface might be a bit easier to read after all.

Say hello to Calibri

You probably have already run across this typeface. As a sans serif font, there’s nothing that particularly jumps out about it, other than its clean and uncomplicated lines, perhaps.

It seems to be the default font now for software like Microsoft Word and Microsoft Outlook. So you probably use it every day at the office without even thinking about it. (That is, of course, unless you intentionally switch your font to something annoying like Comic Sans just to drive your coworkers nuts.)

But just so you can see the two side by side, here’s what they look like:

For the purpose of illustration, I used the same font size, weight and drop shadow for both.

Which one is easier for you to read? I suspect it depends on which camp — serif or sans serif — you belong to in the endless typeface debate.

Calibri is a much younger typeface. It was only released to the public in 2007, so it’s still a teenager.

Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, the State Department’s first chief diversity officer, told The New York Times that the change will help make the department’s paperwork more “fully inclusive.”

What makes Calibri so accessible?

“I do consider Calibri more accessible than Times New Roman for a portion of the reading audience, and no less readable for the majority of the reading audience,” accessibility advisor David Berman told The New York Times. “Some people with cognitive differences, some people with learning differences, and some people with low vision will benefit.”

Not everyone agrees that sans serif fonts are easier to read. Consider the word ILL, which I intentionally spelled in all-caps. If that word were to start a sentence in a sans serif font, it might look like the Roman numeral III. In a serif, the tails on the I and the different, smaller tails on each L would make the word immediately more recognizable.

The website GatherContent cited a study by Thomas Bohm that found that for people between 13 and 45 with no visual impairments, certain pairs like clear and dear, turn and tum, and 105 and IOS could be confusing. But at age 45, or for those with visual impairment, it can get even harder to distinguish words if fonts aren’t clear.

It then refers its readers to the Bureau of Internet Accessibility, which lists several fonts it considers most accessible. Among them, both Times New Roman and Calibiri.

Of Calibiri, GatherContent says this:

  • Calibri is a font designed for Microsoft. While it does have an x-height that’s not particularly large, it offers a good distinction between most characters, making it an excellent choice for those looking for an easy-to-read font.

Font feud brews over the big switch

Columnist Alexandra Petri wrote an editorial in which she expressed hope that the State Department at least considered a few other contenders. One of them, and I hope she was kidding, was actually Comic Sans.

But she lost me when she said this:

Lots of people have rightly pointed out that Comic Sans is unjustly maligned. It is a perfectly good font for some occasions!

It’s not unjustly maligned. It’s not a perfectly good font for any occasion.

But I digress.

Do you think Calibri is a better font and easier to read than Times New Roman? Do you agree with the State Department’s choice?

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.