“The Times (New Roman) are a-Changin,” read the subject line.
Blinken’s cable said the shift to Calibri will make it easier for people with disabilities who use certain assistive technologies, such as screen readers, to read department communication. The change was recommended by the secretary’s office of diversity and inclusion, but the decision has already ruffled feathers among aesthetic-conscious employees who have been typing in Times New Roman for years in cables and memos from far flung embassies and consulates around the world.
“A colleague of mine called it sacrilege,” said a Foreign Service office in Asia who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal policy changes. “I don’t mind the decision because I hate serifs, but I don’t love Calibri.”
At institutions like the Pentagon, the bureaucratic currency is fighter jets, tanks and missiles. But at the State Department, words are the coin of the realm and how they are used matters.
“I’m anticipating an internal revolt,” said a second Foreign Service officer.
Another said the water-cooler talk ranged from strong approval to lighthearted banter to mild grumbling. “It definitely took up like half the day,” said the official.
The department has used Times New Roman as its standard typeface for memos sent to the secretary since 2004.
In recent years, the decorative “wings” and “feat” of serif fonts have gone out of fashion in design circles and consumer brands have opted for cleaner sans-serif fonts in their logos such as Helvetica. “Millennials Have Killed the Serif,” hailed a New York Magazine headline in 2018.
The Washington Post uses the serif-friendly typeface Miller Daily in print and Georgia in digital versions.
The secretary’s decision was motivated by accessibility issues and not aesthetics, said a senior State Department official familiar with the change. It is the latest big copy edit shake-up under Blinken in just a few weeks. Earlier this month, the State Department announced it would start spelling Turkey as “Türkiye” in diplomatic and formal settings at the request of the Turkish embassy.
Many experts agree that serif typefaces — categories of fonts with added strokes — are more difficult to read on computer screens. (The difference is lessened when it comes to printed materials.)
Size is important too: Best practice, according to the University of Edinburgh’s Disability and Inclusive Learning Service, is to use 14-point font and avoid writing in block letters or italicizing or underlining text. “Good practice would be the use of a sans serif font,” the service said in an accessibility guide. “Fonts such as Times New Roman are much less accessible.”
But there is no one-size-fits-all accessibility solution, says Jack Llewellyn, a London-based designer who specializes in typography, and a change in font that could help some readers may actually make reading more difficult for others.
In its cable, the State Department said it was choosing to shift to 14-type Calibri font because serif fonts like Times New Roman “can introduce accessibility issues for individuals with disabilities who use Optical Character Recognition technology or screen readers. It can also cause visual recognition issues for individuals with learning disabilities,” it said.
While Calibri may improve the experience of readers who use screen readers or OCR — technology that can convert the image of a text into editable text — it could make reading more difficult for others, Llewellyn said.
Other design factors, including the alignment of the text, the spacing between lines and the contrast in color between the text and the background can make a bigger difference in accessibility than font type or size, says Ian Hosking, a senior research associate at the Engineering Design Centre at the University of Cambridge.
Hosking says those seeking to make text accessible to the largest number of people should allow personalization. “Pick a good default font, go to one-and-a-half line spacing, consider a baseline off-white background with black text, and then guide” readers to increase or decrease the contrast or font size based on what feels most comfortable to them.
This approach comes with trade-offs, Hosking points out: Increasing the line spacing, for example, makes a document longer. For institutions like the State Department that prize succinct and standardized memos, that could be a problem.
Overall, designing a functional, usable and readable document is a “complicated” and “individual” process with no “simple solution,” he says.
The debate over fonts and design is long-running. In its memo, the State Department cited Microsoft’s use of Calibri as a default font as a reason for its shift. But in 2021, Microsoft announced it would phase out Calibri as a default font in favor of one of five new custom sans serif fonts.
“Calibri has been the default font for all things Microsoft since 2007, when it stepped in to replace Times New Roman across Microsoft Office,” the company said in a memo. “It has served us all well, but we believe it’s time to evolve.”
Still, the fact that the State Department, with its tens of thousands of Foreign Service officers, civil servants and local staff, and more than 270 diplomatic missions around the world, would seek to make its documents more accessible is a “good thing,” said Llewellyn, who argues a broader debate is overdue. “Why wouldn’t they be recognizing that there’s an important issue to address there?”