Aptos vs Calibri

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Font testDid you notice the change? Microsoft has made the typeface Aptos the new default for its Office programs, replacing the venerable Calibri after 17 years. Aptos has been rolled out to users since December, 2023, and, at least for me, finally made it to my versions of Office in February.

I. like so many others, didn’t notice it right away. I do a lot of my writing online, like this blog, where other typefaces are used. I only twigged onto the change last week when I was working on an older document in MS Word and thought the spacing looked odd in the new content. And when I saw the name “Aptos” I had to search online to find our how it had come onto my system without my intervention (often, programs, apps, and even games install typefaces or fonts automatically with their core content).*

Calibri’s still in the font list, but is no longer the one that automatically gets used in these apps. You have to scroll down the list to find it. What, you didn’t notice? I’m not surprised, even though the upcoming change has been in the news since last July. Perhaps you had other things on your mind (like the increasingly frightening MAGA-style politics in Canada’s rightwing parties).

Outside the fields of typography and graphic design, where it was a tsunami event, the changeover wasn’t even a ripple. For most people, typography is a rarefied discipline up there with quantum mechanics for opacity. I don’t expect many Microsoft Office users were writing letters to complain they didn’t like the stem weights or bowl sizes of the new glyphs. Yet the change affected an estimated 1.2-1.4 billion users. Yes, that’s billion with a “B”.

Microsoft actually announced they were looking at several sans-serif candidates as the new default back in 2021. Microsoft even made a little joke of the upcoming change with this faux letter written in Calibri (the original typeface name was Beirstadt but the designer changed it to Aptos):

Calibri had been the default typeface since 2007 until the suits at Microsoft decided that a new typeface would make the Office programs seem fresh and new. If you’re like me, you’re an annual subscriber to Office and a new default typeface isn’t a make-or-break deal. You don’t head over to download the freeware LibreOffice in a huff (although it is a damned good suite of programs for no cost!).

As for the reasons behind making the change, Microsoft announced:

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.

The announcement added that the competing typefaces, “Grandview, Seaford, Skeena, and Tenorite are still there.”

As you can see by the little font test graphic I made on the right top, the change is noticeable if you’re paying attention, but, methinks, hardly enough to send the average user into a tizzy.  You’ll notice I also included Arial, another previous default. I didn’t include the nonagenarian typeface, Times New Roman in use as a default since Windows 3.1 until 2007 when Calibri took its place. As for Times New Roman, it was also the default for the US State Department from 2004 until 2023, when they finally, grudgingly made the switch to Calibri, just in time to see it replaced with Aptos. Oops.

Does it matter? Yes. Type and typography matter and they matter a lot, even though you probably don’t pay much attention to them. They affect what you read, how you read, how you react and respond to the content, and how you comprehend it, although often subconsciously like subliminal advertising. In a very Mcluhanesque manner, the medium is the message as far as typography is concerned. What gets communicated is also how it gets communicated.

As Sarah Hyndman writes in Why Fonts Matter:

We are all type consumers; we all interact with, and consume, a vast array of typefaces every day of our lives and most of the time we do this without being consciously aware of it. Type influences what we read and affects our choices because we all instinctively understand what it is communicating to us, and we have been learning to interpret the references all our lives.

I’ll have more to say about reading and type in a future post, but suffice to say that if you’re one of the billion-plus users of Microsoft office, you could do a little reading online about what graphic and type designers have to say about the change and the controversy around it. If nothing more, it might heighten your awareness about the use and importance of type in your life.


Notes:

* While many people use the terms typeface and font interchangeably, and while we usually understand what is meant, they are not the same thing. A font is a subset of a typeface in a specific size and weight. For example, 12 pt. bold italic Lato is a font, 16 pt regular Lato is another. Lato, the typeface used here in this paragraph, is the whole family of fonts created from it, including all its characters (“glyphs”) with common design elements. Professionals in the type/design/graphics industries often use the word “font” to refer to digital type only. See Font vs typeface: the ultimate guide by Garrick Webster for more details.

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