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.