Keith Murphy

Long live Calibri. In late fall, tech giant Microsoft began rolling out its new default font – Aptos – to the masses. What may have, on the surface, seemed a small shift, ignited lively debate across countless Office users, designers and the like – a reaction that’s not uncommon, says UCI anthropology professor and design expert Keith Murphy. “Cases like the Microsoft switch and others show that ordinary people, not just graphic designers, have some sensitivity to the meanings of fonts and logos, even if most of the time they don’t think much about what those meanings are,” he says. “But once a situation arises where something changes, where what people usually take for granted is no longer the case, they quickly start to formulate some kind of reaction.”

The co-editor of Designs and Anthropologies: Frictions and Affinities (University of New Mexico Press), Murphy shares below how such shifts shape our perception of design, trigger public debates, and reflect the ever-changing landscape of typography.

(And for those not quite ready to adopt the new standard, check out these instructions for resetting your default typeface).

Q: What influences might spur a default change like Microsoft's latest font update?

One explanation that Microsoft has given for switching its default typeface from Calibri to Aptos has to do with changes in technology, and that’s certainly an important factor. There’s a relationship between the contours of digital letters and the resolution of the screens we see them on — the higher the screen resolution, the more detail we’re able to perceive. That means that letterform details that wouldn’t necessarily show up on lower resolution screens now might look weird on 4K (and higher) displays. It can also mean that type designers have more flexibility to play with the details in creating a font, so new kinds of designs are possible. This is a change from the early days of consumer word processing technology, when digital fonts really only needed to work on a low-resolution PC monitor (and printed on paper, of course, which is another can of technical worms). Old PC monitors required important innovations in font technologies, but they were still limited in terms of how they performed. Nowadays things are different. People interact with Microsoft software on lots of devices with lots of different kinds of screens, from small smart watches to giant televisions. Microsoft — and any other company that relies on text display as part of its business — will want their fonts to look good and consistent on all those devices. That doesn’t just happen. That consistency needs to be designed into fonts and other technologies, which is one reason why new fonts keep being created and adopted.

All that said, when Microsoft originally announced that they were retiring Calibri there was no mention of the technology issue. Instead, the announcement felt more like the start of a rebranding project. In 2021 the Microsoft Design Team wrote in a post on Medium, “Calibri has been the default font for all things Microsoft 365 since 2007, when it stepped in to replace Times New Roman across Microsoft Office. It has served us all well, but we believe it’s time to evolve.” When I say “rebranding project” I don’t mean redesigning the corporate logo or changing its logotype, which are the most notable symbols connected to the company. But because Microsoft’s default font is the most ubiquitous, if not the most obvious, mechanism through which people interact with the company, it’s a critical component of how the brand experience is managed. It’s what most users will see when they open apps like Word, Outlook, or PowerPoint, and it will be the font they most likely use to create a file. And it will be what other people see when those documents are shared, emails are sent, and slide decks are projected. So, while there are definite technological things to think about when it comes to handling fonts, my guess is that Microsoft's branding needs were more important in the decision to switch to Aptos.

Q: How does a shift like this reflect or influence perceptions of design and typography - both among those who are welcoming the update and among those who are voicing strong discontent?

It’s actually not uncommon, relatively speaking, for ordinary people to react strongly when institutions change their logos or type. For example, when Ikea’s annual catalog reached people’s mailboxes in 2010, astute shoppers noticed that something about the text seemed a little off. For years Ikea had used a custom version of Futura, a modernist classic. But the 2010 catalog was typeset in Verdana, a basic Microsoft font that lacked Futura’s pedigree (though, to be fair, it was designed by Matthew Carter, a renowned type designer). Ikea customers and graphic designers complained so loudly that the company issued a few statements explaining the switch. The official reason was that Verdana was available in many more writing systems than just Latin (including, for example, Arabic), which allowed for a more consistent look across catalogs and signage around the world. But there were probably money reasons involved, too. In 2019 Ikea switched its brand typeface again — this time, with much less complaint — landing on Noto, a font family stewarded by Google and Monotype, a large font and type technology company. Noto was designed to cover every writing system in the world (it’s not there yet), but there’s something else: while I don’t know the specific terms of Ikea’s licensing of Noto, it’s supposed to be permissively licensed as an open font, and I suspect that has significantly reduced costs for Ikea.

Closer to home, there was also the notorious University of California rebranding fiasco of 2012. The UC unveiled a new logo and typeface for use in all sorts of less formal public communications, and people flipped out. They didn’t like the new logo — a swooshy C inside what looked a little like an open book, a little like a shield, and a little like a U — but mostly they didn’t like the idea of a modern logo and typeface replacing the old and “respectable” seal of the University. The internet did its thing and made a lot of memes mocking the logo, but it wasn’t all jokes. Alumni organized a petition, which got tens of thousands of signatures in just a few days. Gavin Newsom, then the Lieutenant Governor and a UC Regent, wrote a letter to the UC President requesting a reversal. Soon enough, the new logo was cancelled.

Cases like these, and the Microsoft switch, show that ordinary people, not just graphic designers, have some sensitivity to the meanings of fonts and logos, even if most of the time they don’t think much about what those meanings are. But once a situation arises where something changes, where what people usually take for granted is no longer the case, they quickly start to formulate some kind of reaction. I do think the internet helps shape those reactions, and that the “fontroversies” that do periodically arise wouldn’t be as strong without that kind of pressure. But I also think that most people’s reactions, whether they’re negative or positive, are genuine, and reveal one of the everyday ways we connect to the institutions and technologies we rely on.

Q: Can you give us some insight on the evolution of fonts in digital interfaces overall?

I think this is where I say, “read my book,” since the story is complicated, but I’ll try to be succinct. Each major change in writing technology has required carrying existing letterforms — often designed for and with older technologies — into the future. In Europe, medieval scribes developed the letters we now think of as “gothic” or “Old English” using quills and ink to draw letters by hand. Later, after moveable type and the printing press were introduced, the earliest metal typefaces in Europe were made to look like those old manuscript letters. The letterforms slowly changed over time as punchcutters — the craftsmen who designed metal typefaces — came up with new techniques for carving letterforms in metal, eventually becoming the letters we’re more familiar with today. And when mechanical typecasting took over in the late 19th century, the new machine-made letters looked essentially the same as those the punchcutters had been making for well over a century. From the 1960s into the 1990s printing relied on a new technology, phototypesetting, which used light, glass, and photosensitive chemicals to typeset text. And again, old letterforms were reformatted and adapted for use with this modern method of production.

Here’s where things get interesting. I’ve mostly been talking about the way letters look. Changes in how letters are made were, for thousands of years, mostly changes in physical materials: they were carved in stone, drawn on parchment, cast in metal, or imaged through glass discs. The creation of digital type, though, inaugurated a whole new paradigm for how letter-making technology works, moving away from physical materials toward code and pixels. The first digital type was designed for phototypesetting machines, not people. Pixelated letters would rapidly appear on a cathode-ray tube (CRT) screen to be photographed and later printed out for use in a laborious printing process. The real revolution came with the introduction of the personal computer, which brought digital screens into people’s daily lives for the first time. In the mid-1980s it wasn’t exactly clear whether these new machines would catch on with the public, but a small group of young, enterprising designers foresaw the looming need for digital type. Some of the earliest digital fonts, most of which are still in wide use today, were designed by Zuzana Licko, Chuck Bigelow, Kris Holmes, and Susan Kare (who drew the earliest fonts installed on the Mac). Many typefaces from that era looked a little like older typefaces, but still had a flavor of “experimentalism” due to how they were made. Text appeared on low-resolution monitors as chunks of relatively visible pixels. This forced designers to reimagine traditional letterforms as blocky masses of contrasting colors rather than contours and space. Technology changed again in the 1990s during what’s usually called “the font wars,” which were mostly fought over the math used to draw curved lines digitally. The outcome, though, was a new non-material type technology paradigm: nowadays a “font” is actually a small piece of software that instructs digital devices how to render letters graphically. Advances in this technology, along with the availability of increasingly high-resolution displays, has opened up a ton of exciting possibilities for what can be done with type. But it’s also really complicated the background managing of text technologies, which is part of what Microsoft is trying to address with Aptos.

Q: Tell us about your current work in the area of typography and design. Anything new we should be on the lookout for? 

I’ve written about the social side of fonts and type in a couple of pieces, including one on “fontroversies” and another on the design of fake news. But I’m right now finishing up a book about the people who make and manage writing technologies today: type designers, typographers, letterpress printers, the Unicode Standard (which allows digital writing systems to work), and even archives that preserve instances of valuable graphic design. It’s a fun and fascinating project that’s allowed me to put some real faces and voices to something that all of us use every day, but that we rarely ever think about as the result of human efforts.

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