Wading into a debate that has divided designers and accessibility experts for decades, the United States Department of State said this week that it would stop using the Times New Roman typeface, replacing it with the sans-serif typeface Calibri.
The change will go into effect Feb. 6 and apply to all of the department’s formal communications, Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, the department’s first chief diversity officer, said in an interview on Wednesday. The change will help make the department’s paperwork more “fully inclusive,” she said.
“They made a good decision in switching,” said Bonnie Shaver-Troup, the creator of the Lexend font who has studied typeface for more than 20 years.
Designers choosing a font are focusing more on accessibility in recent decades, and considering whether characteristics of some popular fonts can make them more difficult for people to read and understand. That applies especially to those with visual or learning disabilities.
(Though often used interchangeably, fonts and typefaces are not the same thing. Calibri is a typeface, while fonts include other factors, like size or bolding. A 12-point Arial is a different font than a 14-point Arial, but they use the same typeface of Arial.)
The long-running divide: serif v. sans serif
One debate has taken place over typefaces that use serifs, or those with the little wings and feet at the edges of many characters (as in the typefaces used by The New York Times). Several experts said the research now leans strongly toward the conclusion that sans serif fonts are more readable, but there is a decades-long history of disagreement.
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Some researchers have argued that serifs help guide readers and reduce confusion — the word “Ill,” for example, can be difficult to read if the three characters look identical, but serif fonts help distinguish between a capital I and a lowercase l. The letters q, p, d and b are all shaped identically but rotated, and some have argued serifs make them easier to identify.
But increasingly experts are finding the ease of reading sans serif fonts wins out, and was a large part of the reasoning behind the State Department change, which was earlier noted by a reporter for The Washington Post. The department has used Times New Roman since 2004, when it switched from another serif font, Courier New.
Serif fonts “have an extra flourish that makes it look pretty for many people, but can clutter what is on the page,” Ms. Abercrombie-Winstanley said in an interview, echoing the dominant thinking among researchers. “And that’s what makes it harder to distinguish for people with visual disabilities than just having a very clean font with no extra bits and pieces around it.”
Times New Roman — which was named for The Times of London — is a serif font. Calibri chops off the limbs in what is known as a sans serif font.
Calibri and Times New Roman are two of the most widely used fonts. Calibri has been the default font in Windows systems since 2007, when it unseated Times New Roman, though Microsoft said in 2021 it had commissioned five new custom fonts to replace it as the default.
But Calibri, like Times New Roman, will remain available on Windows, and its wide availability on both Windows and Mac helps make it a solid choice, said David Berman, the principal of David Berman Communications, which advises on accessibility.
“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,” he said. “Some people with cognitive differences, some people with learning differences, and some people with low vision will benefit.”
That doesn’t mean everything is settled: Calibri is not the perfect font, the experts said. Ms. Shaver-Troup said the characters could be spaced further apart.
Mr. Berman pointed to a series of fine details that most people wouldn’t notice that he said make Calibri less than ideal: The capital I and the lowercase L look the same. The lowercase i should have a larger gap between the dot to make it more distinct. Commas and periods should be bigger. The lowercase a and g are shaped differently than most people are taught to write them.
And a major decision remains ahead for the State Department: what size the font should be. Ms. Abercrombie-Winstanley said the department has not decided yet, but it was likely to be between 14 and 16.
Mr. Berman said bigger fonts, including 14-point, can come with trade-offs, like needing more paper to print documents, or fitting fewer words on the screen. Bigger fonts can help those with impaired vision, but he said a better solution would be to ensure people have the ability to adapt them to their own needs.
Picking the right font does not affect only those with disabilities, Ms. Shaver-Troup said. Everyone’s ability to process information empirically changes just by switching the font. There’s a reason most children’s books are written in sans serif fonts, she said.
And many adults who are literate are not necessarily proficient in reading, making everyone have a need for more clarity.
“I can change the font and change the outcome,” she said.