By John Gruber
Turn your developer product into a movement. Get your DX Checkup.
Si Daniels, principal program manager for fonts and typography, Microsoft Office design (my god do people at Microsoft have long titles), in a much-noted post last week on Medium,1 “A Change of Typeface: Microsoft’s New Default Font Has Arrived”:
Dear every human on earth that’s ever typed text,
I know this is just a lighthearted salutation, but it’s not the typing of text that exposes “everyone” to Office’s default font, it’s the reading of text. I have never regularly used any Office app other than Excel, and that was over 20 years ago. But it’s impossible not to encounter documents created with Office, whether you personally use it or not. Thus, Microsoft’s typographic choices affect us all. (I’ve never once set anything in Arial, for example, but it’s a near daily irritation thanks to its ubiquity.)
For 15 years, our beloved Calibri was Microsoft’s default font and crown keeper of office communications, but as you know, our relationship has come to a natural end. We changed. The technology we use every day has changed. And so, our search of the perfect font for higher resolution screens began. The font needed to have sharpness, uniformity, and be great for display type. It was exciting at times, but also intimidating. How do you replace Calibri? How do you find that one true font that can take its place as the rightful default?
As we shared before, Microsoft commissioned five new fonts: Bierstadt, Grandview, Seaford, Skeena, and Tenorite. It was our hope that one of them would be our next default font for Microsoft 365. All of them were added to the drop-down font picker. From there, as you got a chance to use them, we listened to your impassioned feedback and chose the one that resonated most which was Bierstadt. But as there was a change of guard so too the name. Bierstadt is now known as Aptos.
I don’t know if Microsoft actually chose Aptos (née Bierstadt) based on customer feedback, but it says a lot about the company either way. Companies that have taste do not conduct design via surveys. (My guess is they’re full of shit and probably knew all along they were going to go with Aptos/Bierstadt, the obvious choice, from the start. The “survey”, such that it was, seemingly consisted of just reading people’s replies on Twitter.)
What I find weird about the whole thing is that Microsoft still hasn’t really shown any of these new fonts. They’ve provided glimpses of them, but mostly at large display sizes, not text sizes, which is where they really matter in the context of Office documents. I’m not the only one to find this curious.
So I took matters into my own hands, and created rudimentary specimens for each of Microsoft’s five new typefaces (and Calibri to boot). A–Z in upper- and lowercase, 0–9, and the most common punctuation marks. Then a paragraph of sample text at 11 points. Dear reader, you really owe me for this one, because I had to use the web app version of Word, by way of Microsoft 3652 to produce these PDFs. To describe this software as brutal and frustrating is an understatement. Herewith, the PDF specimens, and my brief comments:
Aptos — Designed by Steve Matteson. I don’t know why Microsoft states as fact that Calibri somehow needed to be replaced as their default font just because it’s 15 years old. A good default font should stand the test of time for decades, if not a literal lifetime.3 But if Microsoft feels the need to chase fleeting fashion rather than timeless style, Aptos is the trendiest of the bunch: grotesque sans serifs are having a moment. Aptos is by no means a rip-off of Apple’s San Francisco, but it is, by far, the most San-Francisco-esque of any of these typefaces. Noteworthy characters: J (stunted and ugly), Q (small tail), R (inspired by Univers?), g (double-story, reminiscent of Franklin Gothic’s), and the numeral 1 (curved hat, à la, of all fonts, Arial). But the most distinctive character is the lowercase L, which has a curve to differentiate it from the uppercase i and numeral 1.
Grandview — Designer Aaron Bell admits Grandview was largely inspired by DIN, and it certainly looks like it. Far too mechanical to serve as the default font. For chrissake look at those quotation marks and apostrophes.
Seaford — Designed by Tobias Frere-Jones, Nina Stössinger, and Fred Shallcrass. Seaford strikes me as the only other font in the bunch that might conceivably have been chosen as the new default. If Microsoft had better (any?) taste, they would have chosen Seaford. Seaford strikes my eye as most similar to Martin Majoor’s rightfully renowned and beloved Scala Sans, with — maybe — a wee dose of influence from, of all typefaces, Frere-Jones’s ex-partner Jonathan Hoefler’s aptly-named Ideal Sans.4
Tenorite — Designed by Erin McLaughlin and Wei Huang. Admittedly inspired by Adrian Frutiger’s hall-of-fame typeface Avenir, and looks like it. Too friendly, bordering on childish (see the single-story lowercase “a”), to serve as the default for Office.
Calibri — Designed by Lucas de Groot. It’s not my bag, personally,5 but Calibri is both a very good sans serif and a fine default for Office. There’s no reason Microsoft couldn’t have stuck with Calibri for decades to come.
Here’s a zip archive of all 6 specimens, if you’d prefer to download them all.
The kerning is rather awful in all of these PDF specimens, at times jarringly so. I suspect, or at least hope, the problem is with the web version of Word (which I presume has its own text rendering engine), not the fonts themselves. Look, for example, at the words milliner and Uncle (which looks like “Unde” in some of them) in the sample text. If these fonts were available for download, I’d have typeset the specimens using better software, but they’re not, so I can’t. I suppose I could fish out the web fonts used by Microsoft 365, but this whole endeavor has consumed enough of my time as it is.
The kerning problem with the original PDFs I produced was indeed, ultimately, caused by the fact that I was using the web version of Microsoft Word. Friend of the show Glenn Fleishman used the native Mac version of Word to produce new PDFs from my Word documents, and the kerning problems are gone. All of the above links now go the updated PDFs. (And of course Glenn, of all people, cared enough to lend a hand.) If you’re curious, and I suppose I would be if I were you, here’s an archive of the original PDFs with the perverse kerning.
Apple’s default font (as seen today in apps like Pages, Numbers, and TextEdit, and in bygone times in apps like MacWrite and SimpleText) has been nearly unchanged since 1991 or so, switching only from Helvetica to its superior expanded sibling Helvetica Neue. Prior to Helvetica, the default font was Geneva, Susan Kare’s pixel font homage to Helvetica. No one is going to make a movie about Aptos. ↩︎︎
De Groot’s Consolas, which he designed as a fixed-width counterpart to Calibri, is my most-used monospaced font. This entire article, right down to this footnote, was drafted using Consolas in BBEdit. ↩︎︎