Thursday, July 25

The subtle change to Microsoft Word’s typeface has affected millions of people. Have you noticed?

When you read – a book, a street sign, a billboard, this article – how much do you really notice the letters? If you’re like most people, the answer is probably no.

But even if you don’t really notice them, you might sense if something has changed slightly. That’s the feeling some people have had in recent weeks when they turn on their Microsoft Word programs.

After 17 years of Calibri as Word’s default typeface, many users suddenly found themselves typing a new typeface called Aptos. The change also affects the appearance of PowerPoint, Outlook and Excel.

Letters are letters, but to designers and typography enthusiasts they matter a lot.

Why the change?

“We wanted to come up with something new and fresh that was truly designed natively for the modern age of computing,” said Jon Friedman, the company’s corporate vice president of design and research, who led the initiative.

(Technically Aptos and Calibri are typefaces, while a “font” refers to a particular character or size, such as italic or bold. But in practice, “font” is often used as a synonym for “typeface,” even by Microsoft employees interviewed for this article.)

The big divide in the world of typefaces is between serifs, or letters with small lines or tails attached to the edges, and sans serifs, letters without those lines that have a smoother appearance.

Like Calibri, Aptos is a sans serif font but with a little something extra, Microsoft says.

Centuries ago, in the early days of printing presses, almost all typefaces had serifs. “Sans serif was meant for billboards,” Friedman said. “They were big, blocky letters and they called them ‘grotesque.’ They were bold and easily read from afar. At the time, sans serif was rarely used for more than one or two words or a single sentence.

Aptos would be classified as a “neo-grotesque” character.

“Neo-grotesque was the beginning of art,” Friedman said, referring to an era in the mid-20th century. “Designers started choosing sans serif fonts. That was the birth of Helvetica and Arial which were used more widely and were sans serif fonts.”

It helped that most people thought sans serifs looked better on a computer, which was quickly becoming the writing instrument of choice around the world.

As for Aptos, “we wanted it to be a little more quirky and whimsical” even though it was a sans serif, Friedman said. “Sans serif fonts are pretty straight, clear, easy to read, but sometimes they lose some of the whimsy that serif fonts might have.”

The designer, Steve Matteson, “brought something extra, which he called ‘imperfections’: little bits of change that were slightly different from a typical sans serif font,” Friedman added.

“You know, you have to try to introduce some humanity,” Matteson said in a Microsoft statement about the change. “I did it by adding a little swing to the R and the double g.”

In most sans serif fonts, “the uppercase ‘I’ is a line, and the lowercase ‘l’ is a line,” Friedman said. “The weight is a little different, but most people can’t see it. In Aptos, the lowercase “l” has a small curve at the bottom. Illinois. Illustration. It’s very clear what you’re reading, even in sans serif.”

“It’s both quirky and creates a more natural feel that adds some of the ‘je ne sais quoi’ serif fonts,” he added.

In another subtlety, above the lowercase i and j there are circular dots instead of square ones as in Calibri. You may notice this when you type “je ne sais quoi” in Aptos.

So, how exactly do you design a font? The answer is one that creatives everywhere might appreciate: “You have to start somewhere,” Friedman said.

“A font designer might start by roughly sketching out the entire alphabet,” he said. “Others might start with a particular letter that they feel is challenging.”

“You think a character is such a small thing,” he added. “They’re just letters. But it requires deep reflection; it is not a trivial concept.”

The end result, Aptos, is a trademark of Microsoft’s intellectual property.

“Even though some people can see the difference and care passionately about it, and others may seem like they don’t care, the moment we change it, people notice that something has changed,” Friedman said.

Some of these people have come forward on social media with a litany of complaints. (Others said they liked the new font.)

Switching to a familiar product often sparks protests. When The New York Times added color to its printed front page in 1997, some people complained that the serious paper had become unnecessarily gaudy, though such complaints quickly faded as readers became accustomed to the change.

As for those who never learn to appreciate the neo-grotesque, there is a solution. Remember what “default” means.

If you’re using a Windows device, go to Home and open the Font Dialog Launcher. On a Mac, go to Format and click Font. Change the font to the one you like best. Set it to Default. Aptos will no longer darken your door.

The New York Times, however, maintains its color.