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As of February 1, 2004, the standard typeface
for all official State Department correspondence is to be set in New
Times Roman 14 [sic], reported the Associated Press. The previous
standard font, Courier New 12 [sic], has been banned from further use as
obsolete. The three exceptions to this mandate are “telegrams, treaty
materials prepared by the State Department’s legal affairs office and
documents drawn up for the President’s signature.”
The AP report was picked up by The New York Times which ran a small, wry
squib about the event—“Retired Font Seeks New Opportunities” was the
headline—on February 8th in The Week in Review section. Its author,
Lawrence Downes, responding to the State Department’s contention that
“New Times Roman 14” had a “crisper, cleaner, more modern look” than its
predecessor, called the decision “a crushing reversal for Courier New,
which itself was the essence of modernity in the early 1960s.” He
claimed that “Courier New” had been created originally by “a Swiss type
designer, Adrian Frutiger” for the IBM Selectric typewriter. While
noting it was a “link to a vanished technology”, Downes still found it
ironic that the allegedly more modern “New Times Roman” was actually an
older design. According to the AP storywriter, “New Times Roman” is
“based on one of England’s most celebrated typefaces, Stanley Morison’s
In this case, a good-faith attempt by everyone—from the anonymous memo
writer at the State Department to the equally anonymous AP writer to
Downes—to make a simple story richer resulted in a horrible mangling of
the true nature and histories of both typefaces involved in this epochal
changing of the fonts.
Courier was originally designed in 1956 by Howard Kettler for the
revolutionary “golfball” typing head technology IBM was then developing
for its electric typewriters. (The first typewriter to use the
technology was the IBM Selectric Typewriter that debuted in 1961.)
Adrian Frutiger had nothing to do with the design, though IBM hired him
in the late 1960s to design a version of his Univers typeface for the
Selectric. In the 1960s and 1970s Courier became a mainstay in offices.
Consequently, when Apple introduced its first Macintosh computer in 1984
it anachronistically included Courier among its core fonts. In the
early 1990s Microsoft, locked in a font format battle with Adobe, hired
Monotype Typography to design a series of core fonts for Windows 3.1,
many of which were intended to mirror those in the Apple core font
group. Thus, New Courier—lighter and crisper than Courier—was born. (In
alphabetized screen menus font names are often rearranged for easier
access so now we have Courier New MT in which the MT stands for Monotype
Courier’s vanquisher was Times New Roman, designed in 1931 by Stanley
Morison, Typographical Advisor to the Monotype Corporation, with the
assistance of draughtsman Victor Lardent. The Times of London first used
it the following year. Linotype and Intertype quickly licensed the
design, changing its name for their marketing purposes to Times Roman.
Times Roman became an original core font for Apple in the 1980s and
Times New Roman MT became one for Windows in the 1990s. (Ironically, at
the same time IBM invited Frutiger to adapt Univers for the Selectric
Typewriter, they asked Morison to do the same with Times New Roman.)
Whether superior to Courier or not, neither of these digital renditions
of Morison’s original design is the best one available today—in the
opinion of information design specialist Erik Spiekermann that honor
goes to a version called Times Ten.
Both the AP and The New York Times left several aspects of the State
Department’s decision unexplored. In putting Courier out to pasture in
favor of the studlier Times New Roman, the State Department
unobtrusively changed font sizes as well, going from 12 pt to 14 pt.
This was a significant factor in their determination that the latter was
more economical and “easier to read” than the former. The larger Times
New Roman is as economical as the smaller New Courier because one is a
regular typeface while the other is a typewriter typeface. With a few
exceptions, typewriter typefaces—in order for the hammers of a
typewriter to avoid jamming—have always been composed of monospaced
characters (ie. every character takes up the same horizontal space).
Courier, despite being designed for a golfball instead of a hammer, is
still a monospaced font. In contrast, regular typefaces such as Times
New Roman have always been created with differing widths of characters.
(That is one of the brilliant aspects of the adjustable hand mould
originally used to cast lead type.) Consequently, at the same point
size, the “older” Times New Roman takes up less space than the “newer”
Courier; and, at a larger size, is easier to read.
Finally, what about those three exceptions to the State Department’s new
font rules? Retaining Courier for telegrams may be a case of matching
vanishing technologies—or maybe using a monospaced font makes it easier
to count words (and thus calculate costs). But why is a banned and
obsolete font considered acceptable for the highest-level documents?
Could it be that the typewriter look is so closely identified with legal
and diplomatic documents that to switch to a regular typeface might
make these items look fake?
The story of the State Department’s font mandate is further proof—as if
any was needed—that type remains such an arcane subject that even today
both our government and the nation’s newspaper of record can get the
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