A staggering number of people around the globe use Microsoft Office, representing $143 billion in revenue for Microsoft a year. The vast majority of users never click the font menu to change the style to one of its 700+ options. So that means a significant percentage of the human population spends its days living in Calibri, the default font of Office since 2007.
Today, Microsoft is moving on. The company commissioned five new fonts, from five different typeface designers, to replace Calibri. They are available to use in Office now. And by the end of 2022, Microsoft will select one of them to become the new default option.
“We can try them out, have people look at them, use them, give us feedback as to which direction to move forward with,” says Si Daniels, principal program manager for Microsoft Office Design. “We don’t feel Calibri has an expiration date, but no font lasts forever.”
Why was Calibri a big deal?
When Calibri debuted 14 years ago, our screens ran at much lower resolutions. This was a time before Retina Displays and 4K Netflix streaming. And that meant it was tricky to make small letters legible on a screen.
Microsoft had long been dealing with this problem, and it developed a system called ClearType to help solve it. ClearType debuted in 1998 and was improved upon over the years, garnering 24 patents as it went.
ClearType was highly specialized software, aimed at making fonts more legible by using software alone (because higher resolution screens didn’t even exist yet). It deployed all sorts of tricks to do so, such as adjusting the separate red, green, and blue elements inside each individual pixel to make letters crisper and applying special anti-aliasing (a trick used to smooth jagged edges in computer graphics). Basically, ClearType allowed fonts to be fudged to appear more legible than they really were.
And in that sense, ClearType wasn’t just a neat visual trick. It had real ramifications for users, allowing people to read 5% faster in Microsoft’s own research.
Calibri was a font that Microsoft commissioned specifically to take full advantage of ClearType, meaning its glyphs were constructed from the ground up to work with the system. Calibri is a sans serif—meaning it’s a modernist font, like Helvetica, without hooks and edges on the ends of letters. Sans serifs are often considered content-agnostic, like a visual Wonder Bread your brain can forget about so as to focus solely on the information in the text. And for Office, with its many different use cases, Wonder Bread is just what Microsoft wanted.
Why ditch Calibri now?
Calibri is a fine font. I say that not as some typographical critic, but as an objective observer: Calibri has done some of the heaviest lifting of any font in human history, and I certainly haven’t heard anyone complaining. When I dread opening Excel, it’s not because of the default font; it’s because it’s tax season.
But Daniels points out a few shortcomings. For one, Microsoft doesn’t use ClearType anymore
“Screen resolutions have increased to the point it’s not necessary,” says Daniels. “So Calibri was designed for a rendering technology which we no longer use, and font technology has moved along since then.”
The other issue is that, in Microsoft’s opinion, Calibri isn’t quite neutral enough for Microsoft’s tastes.
“At small sizes on screen, it looks great,” says Daniels. “Once you make it larger, [you see] the ends of character fonts are rounded, which is quirky.”
Ironically, Calibri’s designer Luc de Groot originally suggested to Microsoft that his font not have rounded ends, as he didn’t think ClearType would be capable of properly rendering the fine, curved detail. But Microsoft told de Groot to keep them, as ClearType had just developed a new technology to render them properly.
In any case, Daniels and his team commissioned five studios to make five new sans serif fonts, each aimed at replacing Calibri: Tenorite (by Erin McLaughlin and Wei Huang), Bierstadt (by Steve Matteson), Skeena (by John Hudson and Paul Hanslow), Seaford (by Tobias Frere-Jones, Nina Stössinger, and Fred Shallcrass), and Grandview (by Aaron Bell).
At first glance, I’ll be honest: These fonts will look largely the same to most of the population. They’re all sleek sans serifs, much like Calibri.
“A lot of customers, they really don’t even think about fonts or look at fonts. It’s only when they zoom in, that they see a g is different!” says Daniels. “It’s really [about], once you use them, what feels natural? Are there quirky characters that get in the way? Do the numerals feel right, and readable? I think we’re stretching what’s acceptable to the limits. But they do feel similar.”
If you do study the fonts more closely, you’ll see differences. Tenorite, Bierstadt and Grandview, in particular, home in on traditional modernism. That means the letters share relatively restrictive geometries, designed with the goal of being as undifferentiated as possible. The circles of Os and Qs are identical, as are the loops in Rs and Ps. The goal of these fonts is to be built upon a perfect, replicable design system. And in this regard, they are beautiful.
Skeena and Seaford, on the other hand, work in a bit more character. Skeena plays with line thickness to embrace asymmetry in letters such as X. Seaford quietly rejects the strictest modernism, adding tapering to many glyphs. That means every letter looks a bit different. The quirkiest character is Skeena’s k, which has the upper loop of an R.
As Tobias Frere-Jones explains, his goal wasn’t to make a completely anonymous font. He thinks the challenge is impossible to begin with. “We spend a good time talking about what a default is or could be, and for a long time in a lot of environments, [sans serifs such as] Helvetica or things near it were the default, described with the idea that Helvetica is neutral and colorless,” says Frere-Jones. “We don’t believe there is such a thing.”
No. For Jones, even a sleek modernist font carries its own meaning. So for Seaford, Frere-Jones admits that his team “abandoned the goal of making something neutral or colorless.” Instead, he says they opted to make something “comfortable,” a word that became the anchor for this project.
Comfortable meant a typeface that was easy to read and not squeezed too tightly onto a page. That led his team to create letters that felt different from one another on purpose, to make them easier and more distinguishable to read. Traditionally, Helvetica is a beloved typeface, but it was designed for large signs, not for long blocks of text. Frere-Jones says Calibri was better at small sizes and could squeeze a lot of letters onto a single page, but it never lent itself well to long reading.
And so they created Seaford to feel like a Calibri that was less focused on letter density. In the digital age, printed pages are rarely a limitation. So Seaford stretches each letter out, to focus more on reading comfort.
“Think of it less like a ‘default’ and more like the chef’s recommendation of what’s good on this menu,” says Frere-Jones. “Because as we read more and more on screens, I think that level of comfort is going to be more urgent.”
Of course, while Frere-Jones gave me a convincing sales pitch, the vast majority of Office’s users will never hear the logic behind his or any of the other competing fonts. They can simply select the fonts (which should have auto-downloaded to Office by the time you read this) from the dropdown menu in Office apps. Microsoft collects minimal data about font use. The company knows how often fonts are selected by its users, but not how they are actually deployed within documents and spreadsheets. So Microsoft will solicit user opinions on social media and in polls.
“We want customers to give us feedback, let us know what they like,” says Daniels. Not only will this feedback inform Microsoft’s final decision on its next default font; the company is very open to tweaking these new fonts to please its audience before finalizing the decision. For all of the effort behind this project, Microsoft is in no rush, which is why we shouldn’t expect to hear more until the end of 2022.
“We’ll look at adjusting numerals so they work really well in Excel, and [large] display typography for PowerPoint,” says Daniels. “And then that font will be a fully baked font that will live alongside Calibri for a while, so we’re completely confident, before we flip the default.”
But no matter what Microsoft ultimately picks, the good news is that all of the new fonts will still stick around within Office, right alongside good old Calibri. While Microsoft is choosing a new default, it is not eliminating choice.