State Department bans Courier New 12, except for treaties

Filed Under: Inspiration , history , Article , Voice , typography

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 Times Roman.”

Whenever type or typography make the news—even in an age when everyone from our children to our butcher is seemingly familiar with fonts—it is always a surprise to designers. But such surprises are rarely happy ones.

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 Typography.)

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 details wrong.

About the Author: Paul Shaw is a calligrapher and typographer working in New York City. In his 20 professional years as a lettering designer, he has created custom lettering and logos for many leading companies, including Avon, Lord & Taylor, Rolex, Clairol and Esté Lauder. Paul has taught calligraphy and typography at New York's Parsons School of Design for over 10 years and conducted workshops in New York and Italy. His work has been exhibited throughout the United States and Europe.