Charles Nix: Uproar Over State Department Font Switch

By Charles Nix is Executive Creative Director at Monotype. Nix was born in Ohio and studied art and design at the Cooper Union in New York. For two decades he taught design and typography at Parsons School of Design where he also served as the Chair of Communication Design. He has worked as a designer and art director, producing hundreds of books, specializing in publishing for science and nature and creating information-rich typographic systems. He served as President (and later Chairman) of the Type Directors Club. His work continues to focus on the trinity of typography: about type (teaching/writing), of type (designing type); and with type (communication design). He Joined Monotype’s New York office as a Senior Type Designer in May 2015.


UPROAR Proves IMPACT of Typography!

If you’re a designer (or God forbid, a typographer), the typefaces Calibri and Times New Roman are now inextricably linked by the State Department’s February decision to switch to sans serif. Do we need more words about this? God knows I’ve spilled enough ink/pixels about it already.

Uproar and impact are relatively new territory for typography. Not so long ago, the words “font” and “typeface” were anything but common. Back then, typographers numbered in the mere thousands (maybe hundreds) in the U.S. The PC, of course, changed that. Now my 80-year-old Mom has a favorite font (Hope Sans). Suddenly (at least in the long arc of typographic history), everyone is waking up to the idea that typography matters.

As the State Department’s infamous Times (New Roman) Are a-Changing Memo demonstrates, typography is about more than just typefaces. It’s also about how those typefaces and fonts are used. While most of the reporting has framed it as a cage match between Calibri / sans and Times New Roman / serif, the memo isn’t just about the typefaces (the form of the type). It’s also about the use. It’s not just Calibri; it’s 14-pt Calibri. I’ve made that point elsewhere, but there’s something else. Something I think we’ve all missed up to this point: the machinery of accessibility. Not all State Department memos are printed, but printing provides a level of physical security that’s sometimes at odds with accessibility.

When one typesets a memo in Times Roman and feeds that printed memo into a scanner to save it as a PDF, the result is just an image of the text wrapped in PDF. To make it accessible, it needs to be converted back into text — not typeset text, but just the digital bits representing the content. That conversion is typically done via OCR (optical character recognition). The output of OCR software is only as good as the input. Very clear originals produce nearly 100% accuracy. Unclear originals? Not so much.

The link between OCR and accessibility may not be obvious. Digital content can be read aloud by a computer. That’s great for people who may not be able to see printed text. Digital content can be reformatted on screen (or in print) for people who have difficulty with the size of the type (and yes, the typeface). Making the text digital (again) — makes it more accessible.

So why 14-pt Calibri? Increasing the size of the type in the original memo and setting it in a typeface with no extraneous details and unambiguous letter and number shapes (like Calibri) will increase the accuracy of the OCR.

The Memo is saying that to all of us. Go ahead. Have a field day discussing the unresolved legibility issue in sans versus serif. Discuss the relative merits of Calibri and Times New Roman. Discuss the minutiae of legibility factors. It doesn’t matter. (It does, of course. Of course, it does.)

What matters is what the machine thinks is more legible. And that matters because it’s performing the minor miracle of making information accessible to people of all abilities. The machine is converting text into speech, converting typeset text (historically leaden) into the modern version of itself: a malleable, popular, accessible form of language. And here’s the kicker: Accessible means accessible to you too. So, if you want to read The Memo from the State Department in Times New Roman, it’s your prerogative. But if you’re writing The Memo, please use 14-pt Calibri. Your machine overlords will thank you.