Calibri — The Font That Avoided Cult Status

CALIBRI IS A SANS SERIF FONT that Microsoft has used as a default on their Office products, starting from the 2007 version. You may know it when you first type out your Word document without any text formatting. Unfortunately, Microsoft announced back in April last year that they are retiring Calibri from its default seat, with five new contenders contesting to take over the throne as the next new default font.

Throughout these fourteen years, Calibri came and went (a little more obscure in your Windows operating system) with little fanfare surrounding it. That is not the case for other default fonts that Microsoft has introduced in the past. If you have read a previous article I wrote about Times New Roman, you’d have known how it received contentious opinions due to its massive, accessible use in Microsoft Word. There was seemingly no neutral standpoint about this aged serif. Arial was brutally pitted against its older Helvetica counterpart. Even non-defaults like Comic Sans and Impact were abused by the hands of meme-makers, with the former by school teachers too. But Calibri suffered no similar extremes of glory, shame, or exploitation of such sort. As we explore the possible reasons why Calibri missed such outcomes, we shall also see what we can learn about font rationale and their reactions by the masses.

1) It’s too game-changing
Calibri, by Luc(as) De Groot, is part of the ClearType Font Collection that Microsoft debuted in its Windows Vista operating system. It’s meant to complement the ClearType technology that the company had created to render texts more smoothly on LCD screens, called subpixel rendering. By recognising the original use for Calibri, we can see why there may be a purpose for the subtly rounded ends this type has; to showcase how well the curves perform even under small point sizes that ClearType technology can afford to do.

Rounded fonts are typically associated with child-likeness. You can easily see the link when you notice how often alphabets on children’s toys are either rendered in Cooper Black, VAG Rounded, or Arial Rounded. Thus, it is even more surprising why De Groot would have even considered rounding the ends of Calibri to dangerously tread itself into kiddish territory as opposed to its professional use on emails.

But there’s a curveball. De Groot allowed Calibri’s terminals to not curve so much that it straddles the line between juvenile and adult. Only the corners are blunt by a bit, whereas the ends remain flat, something you’d see more of in the Grotesque category. Its type anatomy also belongs itself to the Humanist Sans kind, attaining stroke width variations ever so slightly to manifest as a new alternative to the 1990s creations, like FF Meta and FF Scala Sans.

With the small, currently renderable curves on a modern Humanist silhouette, Calibri presents itself as something formal yet a little casual that it doesn’t give typographers a well-founded reason to rope it with old typefaces, since it isn’t trying to mirror them. It nevertheless has inspirations from the past. It adorns a business look by making use of the double-storey ‘g’ and a calligraphy-inspired ‘f’ in its italic iteration. Calibri’s typographic style hence is neither here nor there genre-wise, or you can perhaps deem it as it’s trying to bear a new subset of typeface categories. Well, a subset that not the majority may like.

2) It didn’t have a fighting chance
With its ClearType-oriented, semi-roundness glory, Calibri is only known within the 21st century belonging to Microsoft Office. No one has witnessed this typeface being used in any other setting in the past since it didn’t exist back then. Typefaces like Impact and Cooper Black already gained traction in the pre-digital era’s public media. As such, it is not unfamiliar faces when Microsoft decidedly bought and brought them to consumers. People can also consider these fonts as safe choices to pick and use for personal projects since it has worked well commercially before.

Calibri didn’t have this opportunity to be “in use” (eg. adverts, movie posters) by design agencies before having been accustomed to the public eye. Even when it is being used thereafter, the majority of it is done by ordinary people who wanted a fuss-free way to place impromptu signs on A4 papers. With Calibri being the default font, it is almost without a doubt the font of choice (or rather non-choice) to use in makeshift signs. So, when people start to notice Calibri from such examples, a negative connotation has been formed; that it is a lazy response to creating quick, printed announcements.

With a debut that has no pre-usage in professional public media and is now blasted everywhere frugally on photocopy paper, Calibri didn’t have a fighting chance to be its best. It was portrayed as the worst when it’s easily accessible to everyone as a default in Microsoft products, which would’ve caused lacklustre reception to this font overall.
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