Typography: Revisiting My Choice of Calibri

In December 2007 I underwent a Damascene conversion and switched typefaces—for purposes of contracts and pretty much everything else—to Calibri, one of a new suite of Microsoft typefaces. Calibri has been designated the default typeface for body text in Office 2007, and the Word 2007 default font for body text is 11-point Calibri. (Click here for a pdf sample of Calibri.) For more on this change, see chapter 15 of MSCD and this blog post (and its 31 comments).

Flash forward to now, or rather yesterday. I had occasion to revisit Typography for Lawyers, a handsome and informative site maintained by Matthew Butterick, a solo litigator based in Los Angeles. (I’ve corresponded briefly with Matthew.) On this page of the site, I read the following:

Avoid using the core operating system fonts in printed documents.

On Windows, that includes Arial, Calibri, Cambria, Candara, Comic Sans, Constantia, Courier, Georgia, Helvetica, any flavor of Lucida, Palatino, Trebuchet, and Verdana. On the Mac, that includes Arial, Courier, Helvetica, Palatino, Skia, and Verdana. Subject to a few exceptions, you should also avoid Times New Roman.

Operating system typefaces have three problems:

  1. They’re overexposed. The fact that they’re included with the operating system for free means that people who are lazy and cheap tend to use them. You don’t want to be lumped in with those people.
  2. They’re not very good. This is less a problem on the Mac. But certain typefaces included with Windows are among the most god-awful on the planet. I don’t want to name names, but my least favorite rhymes with Barial.
  3. They’re optimized for screen display, not printing. The Mac and Windows system fonts have been meticulously engineered to look good on screen (for instance, website text). But often, that means that subtle design details have been sanded off, and the typeface looks clunky on the printed page (e.g. Georgia).

Here’s my take on these matters:

  • I don’t care that Calibri is overexposed. In fact, that’s an asset. When I send someone a draft, I don’t want them to be unnecessarily distracted by the typeface. And I certainly don’t want my contract to be displayed on their system in a fallback typeface because their system didn’t recognize my exotic typeface.
  • I’m not going to claim that Calibri is king among typefaces. All that matters to me is that I find it a big improvement over Times New Roman and Arial, the typefaces almost invariably used for contracts before Calibri came on the scene. And more to the point, my informal research and discussions suggest that typography professionals broadly agree with me.
  • I do an inordinate amount of my reading on screen, and I suspect the same applies to transactional lawyers generally. So it makes sense for me to use, for my benefit and for the benefit of anyone else who’ll be reading my document on screen, a typeface designed to read well on screen. Calibri is one such typeface. And it would be inconceivable to use one typeface for reading a document on screen and another when you print it out.

More generally, Matthew’s typeface needs differ from mine because he’s a litigator and I’m a transactional lawyer. His writing seeks to persuade; mine regulates conduct and is akin to software code. And he submits finished documents to courts or to opposing counsel; transactional lawyers send drafts to lawyers on the other side of the deal, and they want to be able to make changes or mark comments and send them back.

The net effect of those differences is that any if any transactional lawyer were to use for a given contract Sabon, Goudy Old Style, or any other typeface recommended by Matthew, others working on the transaction would, I suspect, be baffled.

So I’m sticking with Calibri.

[Update April 22, 2010: Matthew kindly pointed out to me that on this page of his site he acknowledges that if you’re sharing drafts of a document, you’d be best off using an operating system font. My apologies to Matthew for not having noticed that.

And Bob’s comment below reminded me that I could afford to be less one-size-fits-all in how I use typefaces. One reason I like Calibri for contracts is that it isn’t assertive; as such, it’s in keeping with contract prose, which shouldn’t have a voice. But just as other kinds of prose differ from contract prose, typefaces other than Calibri might well work better for other kinds of documents. It so happens that I have little room for experimenting, as documents for on-screen reading and drafts for sharing account for the vast majority of my output. But perhaps at some point I’ll take for a spin some of the typefaces that Matthew recommends.

So I feel a little sheepish that although at origin this post was intended to highlight how Matthew’s recommendations didn’t apply to my needs, it turns out that I’m left with nothing to disagree about! But speaking selfishly, the most interesting posts are those where I end up in a slightly different place than where I started.]

A reminder: When it comes to matters of typography, people like what they’re used to. So your reaction to a given typeface is perhaps less relevant than your reaction after having considered the opinions of typography professionals. For example, studies have cast doubt on the assumption that serif typefaces are easier to read than sans-serif typefaces, so I have no qualms about recommending Calibri.

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.

26 thoughts on “Typography: Revisiting My Choice of Calibri”

  1. I don't understand your fascination with Calibri. I just checked it out and it is more difficult to read on my screen than Arial. I noticed immediate eye strain

    • Mike: I don't mean to sound unduly rigid about this, but your response is a classic example of the subjective way that people approach typography. Your instaverdict on Calibri can't represent a dispassionate view of its technical and aesthetic pros and cons. Ken

  2. We went through a surprisingly robust discussion here at the Minnesota State Bar two years ago about what typeface to use for most of our forms. In the end we picked Franklin Gothic Book, which is widely available, for a couple of reasons that you and others mention: 1) it's clean and simple and is not "overexposed", thus making our forms distinct; and 2) it's easier on the eye on screen (most san-serif typefaces are). We've heard a few complaints here and there but otherwise the switch from Times New Roman (way overexposed!) has been successful. I'm with you on getting away from Times New Roman and Arial (though I like Arial on websites where you have limited choice).

  3. Arial is awful. I switched to Calibri at your suggestion and have had only one awkward result;. The parties were going to exchange signed counterparts of an agreement that I had distributed in Microsoft Word. I had prepared the document in 11 point Calibiri. The lawyer for the other side apparently did not have Calibri; his client's signture came back on a document printed in 12 point Arial. The pagination did not come close to matching. The awkwardness was compounded when a slight change had to be made and the parties wanted to insert a correction page. Now I make sure to use Adobe when I am emailing counterparts for signature.

  4. Jack: Using Adobe for signature copies is a sensible precaution. But if someone doesn't have Calibri, it's probably because they're not running Office 2007 and haven't installed the Microsoft Office compability pack for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint 2007 file formats. (My December 2007 post contains a link to the page for the compatability pack.) If you're exchanging drafts with someone you haven't worked with before, it's perhaps a good idea to check that they're seeing Calibri. Ken

  5. The current default font for Office MAC 2008 is Cambria. I am not sure why Microsoft used Calibri for the PC version and Cambria for the MAC version, but I have recently switched to Calibri as my default font. I was tired of having to select all the text and converting it every time a PC user sent a document.

    On a side note, does anyone know what the next version of Microsoft Office (2010, I believe) is going to use?

  6. Ken,

    I agree with you. Calibri is clean, simple, easy to read, and does not distract. It looks good in print and on the screen. It's my typeface of choice for all transactional documents.

  7. Sorry Ken

    I have to agree with Mike. Call me rigid; but I still prefer Arial. I find Calibri too thin for easy reading on screen.


    • You can get a full run-down on the history of Times New Roman and some of its shortcomings here –http://www.typographyforlawyers.com/?p=687 – from the Typography For Lawyers site.

      The "house" font for my (solo) firm is Arno Pro (http://www.adobe.com/type/browser/landing/arno/arno.html). If I'm trading documents back and forth, I'll use operating system fonts. But my correspondence and other documents controlled by me go out in Arno. I think it's very readable on both paper and screen and it provides a bit of branding on my work product.

      I prefer serif fonts and, from what I've read, it seems that there is still a slight preference among typographic professionals for serif fonts with respect to readability. Calibri is a perfectly fine choice for a sans-serif font. But it's just a subjective choice. (It's my personal opinion that any choice of a font is, in the end, a subjective and emotional decision.)

    • B.: Your comment simply confirms the extent to which people like what they're used to. All that matters to me is that typography professionals join me in not liking Times New Roman. And I suspect that they, and most readers, would find unorthodox your notions of "softness." Ken

  8. I personally like Garamond's conservative look. However, I'm also a fan of Calibri, for it has a similar flavour to Garamond.

  9. I would like to introduce another aspect to the discussion, which is the economic and environmental costs of font choice. It has recently come to my attention that fonts use differing amounts of ink and therefore some are better for the enviroment and less expensive to use than others. While I do not see this as the primary driver for selecting a particular font, it is something to consider.

    Calibri came in fourth in this study (http://blog.printer.com/2009/04/printing-costs-does-font-choice-make-a-difference/) of printing costs, about 10% higher than Century Gothic which was rated best. Time Roman, mentioned in one of the earlier posts came in third and Franklin Gothic, another font mentioned earlier, came in 10th.

  10. A banking vendor of ours uses Times (not Times New Roman). I adopted it for no other reason than I think it looks polished and professional. I never considered that the recipient's system may not recognize the font. Hmmm

  11. I would like to introduce another aspect to the discussion, which is the economic and environmental costs of font choice. It has recently come to my attention that fonts use differing amounts of ink and therefore some are better for the enviroment and less expensive to use than others. While I do not see this as the primary driver for selecting a particular font, it is something to consider.

    Calibri came in fourth in this study <a href="http://(http://blog.printer.com/2009/04/printing-costs-does-font-choice-make-a-difference/)” rel=”nofollow”><a href="http://(http://blog.printer.com/2009/04/printing-costs-does-font-choice-make-a-difference/)” target=”_blank”>(http://blog.printer.com/2009/04/printing-costs-does-font-choice-make-a-difference/) of printing costs, about 10% higher than Century Gothic which was rated best. Time Roman, mentioned in one of the earlier posts came in third and Franklin Gothic, another font mentioned earlier, came in 10th.

  12. Butterick is a little picky about what “looks clunky.” I’ve been using Georgia for my briefs for about a year now, and even on the printed page, it is superbly readable, while also compact enough that it doesn’t add five or ten pages to my brief like Century and similar “book” fonts can.

    That said, I agree with your choice of a clean, sans-serif font for contracts. Calibri is good; you might also look at Corbel (an OpenType font that’s on pretty much every Windows machine nowadays).

  13. Calibri is fine, but is normally (I mean without doing something extra) not present on Mac, iPad nor iPhone. Trebuchet is VERY similar and available on all platforms I know. Calibri 18 ~ Trebuchet 16.

  14. It seems to me that readability is the primary factor in choosing a font. How many newspapers and books use Calibri or any of the other faddish fonts? There are several mathematical measures that determine whether or not a font is readable and what size font to use. And one of those is certainly not overexposure!! I certainly want the recipient to read and understand what is being presented without noticing the font.

    • What you want in a font for books and newspapers is very different from what you want in a font for word processing.

      And I don’t see what makes Calibri faddish. Note that the prevalence of Times New Roman and Arial is due to an accident of technology history rather than their inherent worth.

      I too am not worried about overexposure: because contracts don’t aim to convince anyone of anything, nothing is accomplished by font novelty. But typography specialists point out shortcomings in Times New Roman and Arial.


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