‘The Times (New Roman) are a-Changing’: The State Department Switches from Times New Roman to Calibri

The State Department switched the typeface in their memos from Times New Roman to Calibri, prompting the reemergence of discussions around the accessibility of serif and sans serif typefaces.

Typeface trouble has sent ripples out from the U.S. Department of State into the halls of higher education, plunging educators into debates over how to make reading more accessible.

On Jan. 17, a cable was sent out to members of the State Department with the subject line, “The Times (New Roman) are a-Changing,” instructing them to switch all further memos to the typeface Calibri from Times New Roman by Feb. 6. 

The switch was made because of concerns that serifs, the little lines that jut out from the tops and bottoms of letters in certain typefaces, weren’t accessible to those with low vision or learning disabilities, according to The Washington Post. A sans serif option was chosen because of the lack of the little “feet” in serif fonts, making them easier to read for some individuals. 

Given the ambiguity in research regarding the accessibility of serif and serif fonts — and whether one is better than the other for people with low vision or learning disabilities — Kelli Evans, an associate professor of fine arts in visual communication at Loyola said she was perplexed by the State Department’s decision.

“I’m confused why the government would decide to go from Times New Roman to Calibri because, again, every time I’ve heard any sort of debate or read research, it’s not that clear cut,” Evans said.

One of the main issues with Calibri and other kinds of sans serif typefaces that causes some designers and accessibility experts to pause is the similarity of some of the letters in these typefaces, according to Evans.

For example, the letters “p,” “q,” “d” and “b” are all the same basic letter form, except rotated or flipped. This can make them especially confusing to someone whose dyslexia manifests in a way that switches any of those letters and creates an extra barrier to reading texts using the fonts, Evans said. 

The best typefaces are the ones that can differentiate between those letters, as well as the uppercase I (i) and the lowercase l (L), Evans said. 

Most importantly, what the State Department did is a step in the right direction, said Ted Yee, senior director for university branding and Loyola. 

Accessibility is important to consider in all communication and by taking this step, the State Department is laying some of the groundwork for other institutions to follow suit in ways they think would best suit their audiences.

The question of typeface accessibility is also on the minds of some educators, especially at the higher education level. 

Dianne Rothleder, a professor for the Honors Program with a background in political science, also finds the decision made by the State Department somewhat confusing given the accessibility issues both kinds of typeface can present.

“Calibri is hard for some people, Times New Roman is easier for some people, Calibri is easier for some people,” Rothleder said.

Instead of switching the font, which can ignore the other dimensions of accessibility that go into picking typefaces like size and spacing, she proposed making an electronic copy of every document so people can switch the typeface and enlarge it to their needs. 

“Everybody should have a chance to deal with texts,” Rothleder said. “Whatever way you bring the sense of the world into your head, you have a right to do that because that’s what education is for.”

The review from the Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness recommends the use of sans serif typefaces no smaller than 12-point, but the American Council of the Blind specifically recommends Arial, Verdana, Helvetica and Tahoma so long as they are at least 18-point, according to their website

The two typefaces are equally beneficial in certain situations, according to David Berman Communications, which advises companies in making their material more accessible. Serif typefaces aid readability in longer texts while sans serif typefaces are more useful for those with certain disabilities.

Evans said a potential alternative to Calibri is a middle ground between serif and sans serif fonts — the slab serif. In her prior readings into the research when typeface accessibility first crossed her radar, slab serif typefaces looked like a viable option to improve accessibility.

Characterized by its comparatively simple serifs and blockier elements, the slab serif can distinguish between the lowercase “p,” “d,” “q” and “b” in a way that sans serif typefaces can’t.

Dr. Lester Marzano, the Assistant Vice President for Student Academic Services and ADA Coordinator, was not available for comment at the time of writing.

Audrey Hogan

Audrey Hogan