Shooting the courier

Tuesday 3 February 2004
Thanks to typographica for pointing out a report on the ABC website:

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.

Samples of Courier and Times New Roman

I have admired both of these typefaces for a long time. When I first used IBM Selectric typewriters in the 1960s (yes, I am that old) Courier was my choice. It was clean and readable, despite the limitations of fixed pitch.

The older Times New Roman is a fine font, well suited for cramming words into narrow newspaper columns. Sir Cyril Burt introduces it in his little book ‘A psychological study of typography’ (London: Cambridge University Press, 1959):

On 3 October 1932, [The Times] arrived at the breakfast table set in an entirely new type, specially designed by Mr Stanley Morison (sometimes Sandars Reader in Bibliography in the University of Cambridge, and Typographical Adviser to the Cambridge University Press). A year later the design was released for general use. Here we no longer have a revival or readaptation of an old historic face, but a twentieth-century type, equal in merit (if our results can be trusted) to those of the classical designers of the best periods. At the present day it is probably more widely used than any other face. For its original purpose, to combine legibility with economy of space, it is admirably suited—large on its body, compressed in spite of its x-height, yet with well open counters, and furnished in its original form with short space-saving ascenders and descenders. We found it amazingly legible in the smaller sizes. The reader [of the book, that is — not of this website] has it before him, in 11-point, leaded 2 points, with footnotes in 7-point, leaded 1 point.

I have a copy of Professor Burt’s monograph​—​a discard from the State Library of Queensland. I enjoy its pedantic exposition, its formal design, its high quality letterpress printing, and its dark blue cloth binding with gold blocked spine title. It shows off Times New Roman nicely, in a 1959 British way.

But this is 2004, and we have moved on from cast metal type and letterpress printing. What led the State Department to choose Times New Roman? Probably plain ignorance and insensibility, I guess.

filed under Typography

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