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The arrival of Aptos and the fuss about fonts

Microsoft’s Aptos has stirred debates about font preferences. Why does the look of lettering matter so much?

Tidy fonts ensure ease of reading and are designed not to draw attention to themselves.
Tidy fonts ensure ease of reading and are designed not to draw attention to themselves. (iStockphoto)

The poem was ready to be sent, but when writer and poet Priyanka Sacheti looked at the submission guidelines of the literary journal, she realised she had one last alteration to make: the font had to be changed from her usual Times New Roman to Arial. 

“It was difficult to put a finger on why, but the poems sat differently on the page in Arial than in Times New Roman,” she recalls of the incident from a few weeks ago. 

Sacheti’s feelings resemble what many users of Microsoft Office Suite experienced recently. On Reddit, X and Instagram, users began saying they felt unsettled while using Word, Excel or Outlook email; that their work looked and felt different. When they realised this was due to Aptos, MS Office’s new default font, the rollout of which started earlier this year, many passionately objected to or advocated for Calibri’s typographic successor. 

Also Read: When Twitter's (now X) font change caused meltdowns 

In her book Why Fonts Matter, UK-based typographer Sarah Hyndman suggests that experiences in the physical world can influence how we interpret a font. “Type can be seen as mirroring the emotions we display...through our facial expressions and gestures,” she writes. Hydman goes on to say that typography reflects how handwriting can show our mood: “When writing quickly, your mood is italicised and when angry it becomes bold and deliberate.” 

For those who still write extensively by hand, transitioning from page to screen becomes easier with fonts that look like their own handwriting. 

K.C. Janardhan, calligraphist and founder of Bengaluru-based J’s La Quill, a museum of handwriting and lettering, says that he only uses ITC Galliard Italic while typing “because it’s close to the way I write”. On his website, he uses Optima for the comfort of clarity that it offers others.

This is the same reasoning that software developers and companies follow when planning default fonts for applications that are used by a diverse, global audience.

THE DUTY OF A DEFAULT 

“A default font must be clean, legible and neutral, devoid of a strong character...,” says Satya Rajpurohit, co-founder of the Indian Type Foundry, which has designed Indian and Latin fonts for Apple, Google and Amazon. 

The visual elements of the alphabet’s design, “can significantly impact our interaction with text”, adds Rajpurohit, also the founder of Fontstore, a subscription font service for designers. These elements not only influence readability but also perception of the tone of the content.

Steve Matteson, the American typographer who designed Aptos, says something similar in an email interview with Lounge: “A default font should not impact the tone of what the writer is going to communicate because it can’t predict the writer’s intent.… It simply needs to show the writer the words in a clear and neutral tone and not hinder their writing process.”

Matteson adds that Times New Roman, which served as the default font on Microsoft apps from 1992, exhibited an “institutional formality”, while Calibri, which was adopted in 2007, has an “overt friendliness” about it—both of these could “skew the visual meaning before the message was even read”, he says. 

Also Read: How to learn art history through typography

To him, “Aptos is an attempt to temper that effect and draw the reader in to read first without any presupposed sense of the message”.

The other challenge that a default font has to rise up to, is the task of supporting “all kinds of documents—from essays to technical documents, from business letters to invoices and newsletters,” says Rathna Ramanathan, a children’s book author and graphic designer who researches intercultural communication design and typography. 

“Given how global the use of MS Office is, the default font needs to cater to different kinds of users with different technical fluencies,” she notes. For her, the perfect default font is “functional, not fussy, and easy to use”. 

A font also needs to adapt well to the technology that displays it. So far, decisions concerning a font change on the MS Office Suite have coincided with milestones in technological advancement. Calibri dethroned Times New Roman around the time that Apple launched its first iPhone, which was an industry disruptor. Now, more than 15 years later, the demand is for a font that holds its own on UltraHD and 4K screens. Microsoft specifically mentions as much in a post on Medium that announced the roll-out of Aptos. 

“We very rarely print documents anymore—we are instead viewing them on our phones, tablets or on our computers,” notes Ramanathan. To her, Aptos “is born for reading on a screen”. 

Also Read: The man who brought flourish to Indian typefaces

PERSONAL PREFERENCES 

When dealing with chunks of text on a daily basis, however, typographic preferences go beyond defaults.

“Obsessed with fonts”, India-born, US-based writer Nishanth Injam, writes with a different font each time he starts a new story. “At least for the first draft, as I fine-tune the voice, I run through different fonts, matchmaking till I find something that clicks,” he says. The idea is that with every new font, he can make a “clean break” from work he’s done before, to make way for “something new to emerge”. 

For some others, changing a font—even midway through a draft —is an instinctive act as they work through mental blocks. Editor Gayatri Goswami reformats files to Times New Roman before she works on them. “When dealing with so much text on a daily basis, tidy fonts that ensure an ease of reading are critical,” she says. 

Also Read: How to organise your work life like a monk

This leads back to Rajpurohit’s observation on the design of each alphabet of a font. He explains that factors like the width of letters, the height of the lowercase letters compared to capital letters and the spacing between each letter can lead to users nurturing specific, personal font preferences. 

Even a change from a serif font to a sans serif font makes for a huge shift in mindset. He lays out the difference: “Serif fonts are the ones with little feet or lines attached to the ends of their letters (like Times New Roman). They often give off a classic, formal feeling, like what you’d see in a book or newspaper. Sans serif fonts (like Arial, Calibri and Aptos) don’t have those extra bits; their letters are plain and simple. They feel more modern and straightforward, kind of like the text you’d see on websites or signs.”

While writer Daribha Lyndem describes her preferred fonts EB Garamond or Palatino—both serif types—as “fonts that look like something I would find in a novel”, translator Arunava Sinha finds that he prefers a sans-serif type, Gill Sans MT. He explains that “flaws in my text jump out at me when I read in Gill Sans MT. The problem with (a serif font) is that things seem to flow into each other so beautifully, I gloss over any errors,” he says. 

That fonts are essentially designed to support creation and consumption of content without drawing much attention to themselves, marks the act of designing them with a certain altruism. “Fonts are akin to air; vital yet often unnoticed,” says Rajpurohit. “The best font is one you have read without even realising it was there.”

Also Read: Why watchmakers need to invest more in typography

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