In a move that threatens to destabilize typographic relations with the serif-rich regions of western and southern Europe, the U.S. Department of State has announced that Calibri, rather than Times New Roman, will henceforth be the font selection of choice for all its documents. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, citing the need for “a clear roadmap to p’s,” defended his choice on grounds of legibility and clarity. The shift in policy takes effect immediately, and the entire effort will be known as Operation Ligature.
All right, joking aside: It really did happen this week. Is Calibri really worth changing your standards over? Traditional typography lore, backed up by some iffy studies, holds that serifs (the little “feet” at the end of each stroke or curve constituting a letter) make long body text easier to read, drawing the eye across the line, whereas serifless (a.k.a. “sans serif” typefaces like Calibri) are best for short, graspable words and brief phrases like signs or declarations of war. In my own reading experience, a book set entirely in (say) Helvetica is fine for a couple of pages but then becomes wearying to the eye. Switching to Calibri would seem to fly in the face of that set of circumstances — questionably so because government documents, as a rule, don’t keep it brief.
I called up Tobias Frere-Jones, who is one of America’s best-regarded type designers, to hear what he had to say about all this. He explained that it’s really a question of where you’re reading, more than the old “serifs or no serifs” question. “As more documents are viewed onscreen, Calibri will fare better because it was designed in that environment and Times Roman was not,” he told me. “What’s often left out of discussions about legibility is that the space between letters is massively important, not just the black parts, and that’s one of the things that Calibri, or any face designed for a screen environment, acknowledges more thoroughly. Faces for use onscreen need more space to breathe between one letter and the next — more than you’d need on a printed page. And if you look at Calibri, it’ll have that. Verdana too: On the page, it seems to be really spread out, but if you see it onscreen at low-res, it’s just right.”
Will a sans-serif face wear down readers? Not necessarily, Frere-Jones told me. “I used to subscribe to that idea, that you really ought to have serifs for text to be more legible. But I’ve come to believe that this isn’t necessarily true. Having serifs or not is further down the list of importance. The more important factors are things like the spacing and proportions of spaces inside letters and the modulation of stroke weight — how thick are the thicks, how thin are the thins. That’s much more important. It’s not that serifs are better or sans-serifs are better; that’s the wrong question.” And when you ask the right one, Calibri probably wins, at least in this particular face-off.
In terms of message-sending rather than pure function, he offered, it’s a slightly iffier choice. “It wouldn’t have been my first pick, mostly because it has a personality that’s informal. A lot of that comes from the rounded corners.” (Unlike many sans-serif typefaces, Calibri has slightly smoothed edges at the ends of the strokes.) “That informal personality is terrific for a home user, and it projects that personality very clearly and consistently. But it seems like an odd match for the U.S. State Department.” Remember, though, that the department was choosing not from a wide range of typefaces but from the few system fonts that come with Microsoft Word, in which Calibri is the default. And within that small set of constraints, Frere-Jones said, it’s a decent call. “Calibri is really comfortable on the eyes. It’s been the default in Microsoft Office for so long, and that choice wasn’t arbitrary either. They picked it for good reason.”