Goodbye, Calibri! Say Hello to Microsoft’s New Default Font
Microsoft has finally decided to change its default font—and it’s doing so in a most democratic fashion. Not only are they replacing Calibri, they are offering five new possible default fonts. People can try them out and vote for their favorite on social. Given that an estimated 1.2 billion people use Microsoft office, the change will affect a considerable percentage of the worldwide population (approximately 15%).
What Is a Default Font?
A default font is the primary font that’s used by a company and its products. If you open Microsoft Word, for example, you automatically get Calibri as the font in your document. Most official Microsoft advertising has also been in Calibri—since 2007. Whether you love it or hate it, Calibri is going away.
According to The Microsoft Design Team, “Default fonts are perhaps most notable in the absence of the impression they make.” They need to be readable and understated—in other words, decidedly lacking in personality. There is a great reason for this: nobody is meant to notice the default font. When you start a new computing project, whether it’s a spreadsheet or a letter, the default font should not interrupt your working process.
Associate Professor Bryan Leister, MFA, who teaches typography in CU Denver’s College of Arts & Media, explains the parameters for a good default: “I think it should be a simple, readable font with good built-in kerning pairs (space between letters).” (Warning: More on kerning later.)
Meet the Contenders
But first, a little lesson in typography. There are two basic font families: serif and sans serif. A serif font, like the popular Times New Roman, features strokes at the edges of the letters that are particularly noticeable in a letter’s ascenders (as in the top of h) and descenders (as in the bottom of f). A sans serif looks more modern, but it also means that I and l can be difficult to differentiate. Calibri is a sans serif font with letters that resemble traditional serif font shapes, which makes it very readable.
But not exciting (at least not after 14 years in use). Meet the five possible default alternatives: Tenorite, Bierstadt, Skeena, Seaford, and Grandview. Tenorite is a geometric font with round forms and large punctuation. It is fatter than Calibri, to put it plainly. Bierstadt, which is named after a Colorado fourteener, combines thin and thick strokes with no fussy flourishes.
On to the contenders with some interesting details. Skeena is a humanist font that resembles traditional serif typefaces. It has long ascenders and descenders, clipped ends, and thick and thin letter parts. The cut-off letter ends give it some personality, which could take it out of the running as a default font! Lastly, Grandview is modeled after German road and railway signs. The letters are of uniform thickness, and they are taller than many other fonts, making them readable from a distance. It too may be a little too memorable to serve well as a default.
X-Height, Kerning, and Troublesome Pairs
The x-height, or corpus size, is the height of a lowercase letter without ascenders and descenders. The letter x, along with v, w, and z show the x-height clearly. Leister believes Tenorite is the most readable due to its “large x-height, which means the o shape is proportionally large when compared to the capital letter height.” He added, “This makes it easy to read at smaller sizes and creates a clear distinction between letters as part of a large block of copy.”
Rachel Brown, MArch, Director of Professional Development & Internships in the College of Architecture and Planning, agrees. “These new options, especially Tenorite and Bierstadt, afford students a fresh, current aesthetic that will quietly complement their designs,” she said.
A good default font is complex. Not only should it have a generous x-height; it also needs to separate and nest letters in a way that makes words readable. “A font designer needs to specify kerning pairs so that for example an ‘AT’ pair will have the T tucked up tightly against the A, avoiding an unsightly gap,” Leister said. “Conversely, a pair of straight lines need to be spaced further apart to avoid blurring together as if touching, for example ‘IL’.”
Don’t Vote for Tenorite
Whichever default font is chosen will quickly feel tired, simply because so many people will see the default font so often. “In a way, I feel sorry for whatever is chosen as the default as it will quickly be grossly overused with little consideration for how appropriate it is for the given use,” Leister said.
As a designer, Leister is voting for the font he doesn’t like: “I would be happy for one of the other fonts to be chosen, since I genuinely like Tenorite and would like to use it without judgement down the road!”