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Times (New Roman) are changing: How fonts can boost accessibility

Fonts are everywhere, and you probably like some better than others. But their use is more than just design; it also can help in reader accessibility.
Posted at 9:13 PM, Mar 06, 2023

Fonts, or typefaces, are just about everywhere, but they're not something the average person thinks about every day, although they have a surprising importance to nearly every aspect of life.

It's a choice that underpins how well a person can understand any message and even conveys a message itself depending on how it’s set up. They're everywhere from emails to street signs to advertisements and play a crucial role in both design and accessibility — and even national security.

Earlier this year, the U.S. State Department announced it would be switching its standard typeface from Times New Roman to Calibri — a switch that ruffled some feathers.

The Washington Post broke the story that Secretary of State Tony Blinken sent a message out to U.S. embassies with the subject line: “The Times (New Roman) Are A’ Changin’.”

Accessibility played a big role in the the State Department's decision.

The switch to larger font makes it easier for people with varying degrees of visual impairment, including those with near or farsightedness, to read what’s been typed out. Calibri is also considered a better font for people with dyslexia to read, and it’s easier to interpret for screen readers, which is technology that reads on-screen text as audio.

Microsoft Word made the same switch from Times New Roman to Calibri from its 2007 edition onward.

Side note: The terms “font” and “typeface," while related, are different, though they're used largely interchangeably today. Graphic designer, YouTuber and font expert Linus Boman can help explain.

"The distinction used to be much more clear before digital fonts or digital typefaces. A typeface would be something like Helvetica, and a font would be a specific size and weight like Helvetica bold, 10 point," Boman said. "These days, the files that you install on your computer are all fonts... In an analogy, think of a typeface like an album and a font like a track on that album."

There are several key factors that go into a font and how it looks — including the spacing inside letters or between letters, for example — but let's focus on what are known as serifs.

Most fonts you may use fall into two categories: serif and sans serif.

Serifs are the little lines or strokes that hang off letters in certain fonts — like in Times New Roman, the capital letters “T” and “N” or the lower case “i” have little edges hanging off them. But for that same lower case “i" in Calibri, there are no extra lines, which is why fonts like Calibri are known as “sans serif.”

The prevailing thought is that sans serif fonts are easier to read. Scripps News uses a sans serif font on our website.

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It’s that kind of information that plays a role in the development of new fonts that cater to people with disabilities. 

"A project that I had a small part to play in was a project with the Braille Institute of America on their font called Atkinson Hyper Legible," Boman said. "That was developed for people with low vision and was focus-grouped with those users in mind, with certain kind of character choices and design features that made it easier to distinguish different letters from each other. That was a particular project with a focus on making something almost like a Helvetica style typeface, but with more accessibility features."

Depending on who you’re looking to accommodate, a font can be tailored to address their specific needs.

"There are other kind of projects out there for other problems like dyslexia, which another problem for them is distinguishing different letters, and they might having an exact mirror, like a P and a Q or a B and a D."

It’s not always the case that sans serif fonts are the most helpful.

"There's also the context... so are we reading short form? We're looking at single words and lists or short things, or are we reading a book where we get into a flow of reading?" said Gareth Ford Williams, co-director of Ab11y. "Your peripheral vision is picking up the letters, and it's starting to, you're focusing on word shapes instead of letters, shapes for recognition. And that's long-form because it's in flow state. So you have different needs, but a serifs are supposed to support that."

Williams said he had to think about that a lot when he spent a decade as head of accessibility across multiple divisions of the BBC. He worked on designing BBC Reith — the font used across digital, print and television on the British public broadcaster. BBC Reith is a sans serif font, but Williams cited Amazon as an example of a company that relies on both types of fonts depending on the context.

"Amazon is a great example of where they've thought about that, because this is why you see that predominantly online when you're shopping," Williams said. "This is short-form reading. You may be reading descriptions, but that's the longest thing that you've got. It's very, very short form, and in those contexts, then often sans serif works incredibly well because you're dealing with a single word. You're not in a flow state, you're not necessarily looking for word shapes and yet then when they go to the Kindle, Bookerly is a serif font because it's supporting people's flow state and reading."

There generally aren’t laws requiring the use of particular fonts, but there are guidelines that exist for how fonts can best be accessible in line with the Americans with Disabilities Act. For example, the Justice Department’s ADA standards for accessible design asks for signs with raised characters or display screens to use sans serif fonts.

At the same time, there’s a design element to fonts; not every TV ad is going to use only Times New Roman. But that’s a big reason why there might be a greater incentive for the development of a wider range of accessibility-friendly fonts. Boman said he thinks there should be more hyper-legible fonts that aren’t just in the style of a pretty plain font like Helvetica. 

"We're hoping that actually this inspires more projects like this in different styles because not every font is Helvetica. Like, sometimes actually a Serif font is the right choice," Boman said.

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