[FoRK] Foggy Bottom finally abandons monospaced fonts!

Rohit Khare khare at alumni.caltech.edu
Mon Feb 23 23:30:30 PST 2004

[great, great slate piece hidden in there... 
http://slate.msn.com/id/2095809/  original AP wire story follows... RK]

Courier, Dispatched
How the U.S. State Department put the kibosh on the typewriter font.
By Tom Vanderbilt
Posted Friday, Feb. 20, 2004, at 12:50 PM PT

In late January, an announcement from the U.S. State Department 
generated certain chatter along the generally indiscernible 
diplomatic-typographic axis. This was the news that as of Feb 1, the 
department was ditching Courier New 12 as its official 
font-in-residence and taking up with Times New Roman 14. Courier 12 had 
been put to pasture after several decades of honorable service, like an 
aging, elegant diplomat whose crisp, cream-colored linen suit and 
genteel demeanor now seem winningly old-fashioned. Times New Roman 14, 
as the State Department put it, "takes up almost exactly the same area 
on the page as Courier New 12, while offering a crisper, cleaner, more 
modern look."

Courier New 12, created in 1955 by IBM, is perhaps the most 
recognizable typeface of the 20th century—a visual symbol of 
typewritten bureaucratic anonymity, the widespread dissemination of 
information (and a classification of documents), stark factuality, and 
streamlined efficiency. Designed by Howard "Bud" Kettler, a small-town 
printer and typographer hired by the company to create typefaces for 
its products, it became the country's reigning typewriter font almost 
immediately—not only because of IBM's dominance in the industry but 
because IBM failed to take a proprietary stake in the font. Soon 
adopted by other typewriter makers, Courier was an early version of 

  Compared to previous typewriter fonts, Courier looked streamlined, 
rational, efficient, a move away from the "Antique" past—the perfect 
face for IBM. With its "modern, progressive look," Courier exemplified 
the "trend toward the long, low and extended in an age of ranch houses 
and stretched-out cars," according to one ad. Kettler was a natural, 
innovative typographer, as one co-worker recounted: "One thing he did 
that no other font designer did was to rotate the mock-up page a full 
180 degrees. I asked him why he did that. His answer was that he wanted 
to make sure that no one character stood out." In its prototype phase, 
Courier was called Messenger. But as Kettler later said in an 
interview, "A letter can be just an ordinary messenger, or it can be 
the courier, which radiates dignity, prestige, and stability."

Kettler was successful in his mission. By the 1960s, Courier had become 
the herald of all stripes of dignified officialdom; indeed, it is still 
de rigueur for filing certain types of legal documents. It is not 
surprising, as Rick Poynor points out, that Courier should play a 
starring role in Errol Morris' recent documentary The Fog of War about 
former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Anyone who has done 
Freedom of Information Act research will inevitably find black marker 
lines obscuring lines of Courier type.

  But today, its design principles are little more than phantom limbs: 
Like any other typeface, it is whisked from the digital ether without 
regard for its original use. On the one hand, Courier New is the voice 
of raw clarity and transparency. It can be absorbed quickly, with 
little relative effort, which is why it is still the preferred font for 
screenplay drafts (many film festivals require copies of scripts in 
Courier 12). On the other hand, precisely because it has become the 
visual connoter of the kind of government doings executed by McNamara 
and his ilk, it has come to serve as blunt shorthand for secrecy or for 
the chilling revelation brought to light. Witness the appearance of 
Courier (or similar typewriter fonts) in places like the film poster 
for Costa-Gavras' Z, or the "X" in The X-Files, or any number of 
History Channel documentaries dealing with espionage.

What is most remarkable of all, of course, is that a typewriter font is 
still being used at all in a post-typewriter age. In technical terms, 
Courier New, like all typewriter fonts, is a "monospaced" typeface: 
Each letter takes up the same amount of space on a line, essential for 
tabular uniformity as well as, say, replacing an "i" with a "w" during 
the correcting process (no longer an issue, of course). In the early 
days of computer printing, courier made the jump simply because of its 
dominance as the official typewriter font. (One would not expect a 
visual style built up over a half-century to be eroded overnight, with 
legal documents suddenly flowering with Palatino or bristling with Big 
Caslon.) For most of America (and for many fledgling typographers), 
Courier was the only font they had had access to in their daily lives. 
In the PC age, it still stands as some kind of ur-font, nervously 
invoked as default when something goes awry, such as, "Font not found, 
substituting Courier." In the 1990s, moreover, typographers who were 
now working in a thoroughly digital medium began crafting rigorous 
homages to typewriter fonts (e.g., "Trixie"). Rather than functional 
necessity, these were created as joyful pastiche, possessing a 
nostalgic, analog power, as well as visual freshness, in a world of 
frivolous, overexposed LaserWriter fonts (e.g., the dreaded Comic 

  Oddly enough, though, the State Department's "more modern" Courier 
successor, Times New Roman, actually predates the font by more than two 
decades. Times New Roman was created by the esteemed British 
typographer Stanley Morison for the Times of London in 1932. Sir Cyril 
Burt, in his 1959 work A Psychological Study of Typography, described 
Times New Roman as "a twentieth century type, equal in merit ... to 
those of the classical designers of the best periods." As a newspaper 
font, it was intended to fit more articles and more ads onto costly 
newsprint while still retaining maximum legibility.

According to Jonathan Hoefler, a New York typographer, the State 
Department is wrong when it says that Times New Roman 14 "takes up 
almost exactly the same area on the page as Courier New 12." In fact, 
it takes up much less space, as he showed me in a comparative sampling. 
It should be stressed, too, that the State Department is not simply 
switching type styles but point size. This, as Stanley Morison argued, 
does not necessarily engender further clarity, however: The larger the 
type, the fewer letters the eye can absorb at once; the eye has to work 
more to read than it would at a smaller (but not too small) font. Times 
New Roman 14 may take up less space than Courier 12, but it is a rather 
large font. (As Hoefler notes, 14 point is generally reserved for 
children's books.) Will U.S. diplomacy improve as the visual 
signal-to-noise ratio along the chain of affairs of state is reduced, 
or will ambassadors actually suffer from eye-strain as they absorb the 
larger characters of official correspondence? History, by the way, from 
Charlemagne to Hitler, shows that government edicts in favor of 
standardized typefaces are often one of the first steps in creating an 
empire: Is there something that the State Department isn't telling us?

Tom Vanderbilt is the Brooklyn-based author of Survival City: 
Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America, and writes for many 
publications including the New York Times, Nest, the London Review of 
Books, and I.D.

Last Update: Friday, January 30, 2004. 11:22am (AEDT)

US bans time-honoured typeface

  In a sign that no matter is too small to affect international 
diplomacy, the US State Department has issued an edict banning its 
longtime standard typeface from all official correspondence and 
replacing it with a "more modern" font.

  In an internal memorandum distributed on Wednesday, the department 
declared "Courier New 12" - the font and size decreed for US diplomatic 
documents for years - to be obsolete and unacceptable after February 1.

  "In response to many requests and with a view to making our written 
work easier to read, we are moving to a new standard font: 'Times New 
Roman 14'," said the memorandum.

  The new font "takes up almost exactly the same area on the page as 
Courier New 12, while offering a crisper, cleaner, more modern look," 
it said, adding that after February 1 "only Times New Roman 14 will be 

  "This applies to diplomatic notes," the memorandum said tersely.

  There are only three exceptions to the draconian new typographical 
rules: telegrams, treaty materials prepared by the State Department's 
legal affairs office and documents drawn up for the president's 
signature, it said.

  The memorandum offered no explanation for the exceptions, leaving 
foreign service officers to speculate as to whether the White House, US 
treaty partners and telegram readers are not yet able to handle the 

  -- AFP

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