Font Design 2030: How the Marine Corps can win its war on words
To build a more lethal force, the Marine Corps needs a font for the 21st century.
Over two years into the implementation of Force Design 2030, the Marine Corps is in the midst of “transform[ing] our traditional models for organizing, training, and equipping the force to meet new desired ends, and do[ing] so in full partnership with the Navy.” It is well established that “[o]ur ability to innovate is a hallmark of the Corps,” but it is also accepted that “[d]eep institutional change is inevitable when confronting modernization on this scale, and that type of change is hard.” Through significant efforts, the Marine Corps has implemented a seismic change in shaping our force to increase its lethality, mobility, and resiliency.
While Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David H. Berger has set the priorities of what needs modernizing, it is also incumbent on the rest of us to see if there are better ways of doing business that fall within the innovative intent of Force Design 2030. One such change to consider is the font we use for our correspondence.
Although small in comparison to what Force Design 2030 proposes, there are better options that could improve the readability, efficiency, and persuasiveness of our documents which would ultimately make us a better force. And while this may sound like a mundane and minor concern, rest assured, it is anything but. Consider this month’s revelation that the U.S. State Department is shifting from Times New Roman to Calibri, a change undertaken in the name of accessibility that launched a flurry of responses from observers within and outside the department. Regardless if one agrees with the State Department’s ultimate choice, the change itself proves our point: font choice matters.
So where does the Marine Corps stand on this issue? According to the Department of the Navy Correspondence Manual, we are currently instructed that “Times New Roman 12-point is the preferred font style and size for official correspondence, but Courier New may be used for informal correspondence.” But within the Marine Corps, there is an astounding refusal to abandon Courier New for something better. Talk to almost any staff officer, and they are still working almost exclusively with Courier New for executive summaries, routing sheets, and possibly still with official correspondence despite this font being expressly limited to less formal matters. One likely reason is that old templates die hard; formatting with a new font, as we all know, is a nightmare, especially when a command has an established preference.
Ultimately, as recognized in Force Design 2030, there remains “a certain ruthlessness to abandon familiar ideas, capabilities, and platforms which no longer provide a relative advantage,” explaining the likely reluctance to cut ties with Courier New. But familiarity aside, we have to recognize that Courier New provides no advantage, and there are vastly superior options. Words matter; font does too.
The Courier New age has passed
In 1955, International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) commissioned Howard “Bud” Kettler to create a new typeface for its typewriters called Courier (Courier New is the identical font on computers). Originally bearing the name “Messenger,” Kettler finally settled on “Courier,” because “a letter can be just an ordinary messenger, or it can be the courier, which radiates dignity, prestige, and stability.” Like many of the emerging social conveniences of the 1950s and 1960s, Kettler’s new typeface represented the cutting edge of American innovation and design. Especially when, as Slate put it, “[c]ompared to previous typewriter fonts, Courier looked streamlined, rational, efficient, a move away from the ‘Antique’ past — the perfect face for IBM.”
Courier New once represented the cutting edge of typography, but time has rendered it a relic of a bygone era. What used to be at the forefront of artistic endeavor and scientific discovery is now quaint by comparison. For context, since the release of IBM’s Courier, we’ve put humans on the moon, made landmark scientific discoveries, and brought TVs and personal computers into nearly every American home.
Indeed, Courier New and other typefaces like it which belong to the family of “monospaced” typefaces are a vestige of the physical limitations of the typewriter. Because of the design of the first typewriters, where physical pieces of “type” (the small pieces of metal in the shape of each typable character) struck ink onto a piece of paper, advancing horizontally with each press of a key, it was necessary for each character to be of uniform width. That way, the mechanical element in the typewriter that advances the paper with each press of a key would be in the proper position for the next character to be struck onto the page.
This structural rigidity appears to have translated into how Courier New is perceived by readers. A 2006 study performed at Wichita State University asked participants to read selections set in different typefaces and report their feelings about typeface itself. It may be that Kettler set out to create a typeface that “radiates dignity, prestige, and stability,” but respondents surveyed certainly did not describe it as such. Instead, the respondents used words like “dull” to describe the selections printed in Courier New. At the study’s conclusion, Courier New had received the highest scores for the following adjectives: “dull,” “unimaginative,” “plain,” and “conformist.”
While the Marine Corps still regularly employs Courier New despite the Correspondence Manual’s limitation to informal matters, other federal agencies retired the font almost two decades ago. Specifically, in 2004, the State Department switched from Courier New 12 to Times New Roman 14, partially to increase readability but also because Times New Roman 14 “takes up almost exactly the same area on the page as Courier New 12, while offering a crisper, cleaner, more modern look.” As noted above, this is not the last time that this agency has changed font usage.
Times New Roman is adequate
In contrast to the monospaced Courier New, proportional typefaces, such as Times New Roman, have letters taking up various degrees of horizontal space and are crafted so words have a smoother, more visually balanced appearance: slimmer letters (like “i”) naturally take up less horizontal space than others (like “w,” for example). As such, nearly all the most commonly used typefaces in print and on screens today (e.g., Bodoni, Baskerville, Arial, etc.) are proportional, not monospaced. The typewriter was a remarkable feat — it gave the power of the printing press to the masses, but that power came with the limitation of monospaced typefaces. Now, with computerized word processing, we possess that same power with none of the limitations.
It is well established that Times New Roman is one of the more readable fonts. For example, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (“D.C. Circuit”) recently elevated Times New Roman as a “preferred typeface” over Garamond – a more “compact” font that had been gaining popularity amongst attorneys working with strict page limits. In revisions to its Handbook, the D.C. Circuit expressly encouraged “easier to read” typefaces, such as Times New Roman, while discouraging the use of the smaller Garamond, which “can be more difficult to read.”
In addition to increased readability, there is a practical consideration for abandoning Courier New in favor of Times New Roman. Ultimately, when using 12-point font size as required by the Correspondence Manual, you will notice the difference between the informal font – set in Courier New 12 – and the more official font – set in Times New Roman 12. Let’s take a look at the below selection (page 17) from MCDP-1, Warfighting:
As you can see, the selection, set in Times New Roman, is almost three lines shorter. This is due to the difference between monospaced typefaces (like Courier New) and proportional typefaces (like Times New Roman and almost every other common typeface). Simply adding three extra lines of text for this paragraph is not enough to abandon Courier New. The added context, however, of cutting multiple lines from multiple paragraphs creates a more compelling case. If they both contain the same information, would you rather read a 100-page document or one that’s only 70 pages? In addition to this shorter document being an easier read, this simple font change will result in significant savings in paper, toner, and cloud storage for the Marine Corps.
There are better options
This is not the first time that the naval services have sought to improve readability of documents. Before 2013, the Navy previously used ALL CAPS for the text in the bodies of its ALNAV and NAVADMIN messages. Ultimately, the Navy (and later the Marines with MARADMINs) chose to abandon the all caps format in favor of mixed-case characters for increased readability, shareability, significant cost savings (eliminating the Defense Message System infrastructure), and avoiding the appearance of shouting. So there is precedent for such change.
Given the current limited selections between Courier New and Times New Roman, the naval services should make coordinated efforts to fully retire the former and exclusively employ the latter. When assessing other possible options, however, we should question whether Times New Roman is good enough.
One commentator notes that “Times New Roman is a workhorse font that’s been successful for a reason.” Although reliable, Times New Roman’s prevalence and wearer of the Font Title Belt may be more out of apathy than out of excellence: “[it] is not a font choice so much as the absence of a font choice” and is the “the default font of everything.” Some legal practitioners have dubbed Times New Roman as “the beige of fonts.” Ultimately, it is suggested that “[i]f you have a choice about using Times New Roman, please stop.”
If we are to stop using Times New Roman, what should we use? Of note, in an effort to “make the correspondence easy to read and understand,” the Army’s preferred font is Arial (Section 1-19). The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) also encourages Arial or Times New Roman for military correspondence (Chapter 1, Section 8). Recently, the State Department switched from Times New Roman to Calibri “in a bid to help employees who are visually impaired or have other difficulties reading.”
Looking to other options outside the military, the Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) mandates in Rule 33(b) that briefs “shall be typeset in a Century family (e. g., Century Expanded, New Century Schoolbook, or Century Schoolbook).” SCOTUS and several federal appellate courts, including the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, require filings in the Century family because this font is “designed for books” and is “the most legible face.” This font is chosen over Times New Roman, according to the Seventh Circuit, as it “was designed for newspapers, which are printed in narrow columns, and has a small x height in order to squeeze extra characters into the narrow space.” Ultimately, the fonts chosen by our highest courts come down to function over style because reading high volume of materials “is a chore; remembering it is even harder,” and “[y]ou can improve your chances by making your briefs typographically superior.”
In addition to Courier New, Times New Roman, Ariel, and Century Schoolbook, several state appellate courts authorize alternative fonts. For example, the Supreme Court of Maryland through Rule 8-112(c)(1) allows court papers to be in other fonts such as Antique Olive, Book Antiqua, Bookman Old Style, Britannic, Century Gothic, CG Times, Footlight MT Light, Letter Gothic, MS LineDraw, and Universal. The Supreme Court of Virginia through Rule 5:6(a)(3) also authorizes Cambria, Constantia, Franklin Gothic Book, Georgia, Palatino Linotype, Tahoma, and Verdana.
Conversely, the Supreme Court of Florida recently amended its rules regarding document formatting by eliminating page limits in favor of word counts for computer-generated documents as well as limiting font options to those most readable on computer screens – Arial 14-point or Bookman Old Style 14-point. As the force becomes increasingly digital, a similar move may prove beneficial.
Currently, there are limited font options pursuant to the Correspondence Manual. For now, we should pick the lesser of two evils and exclusively use the more readable and efficient Times New Roman while completely abandoning Courier New. As recognized by Force Design 2030, institutional change is hard, but we should not settle for half-measures when more readable and persuasive ways of communicating are available. It is time for a better font design.
Marine Lt. Col. Geoffrey G. Hengerer is the Reserve Staff Judge Advocate (“SJA”) for Training and Education Command (TECOM) at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia. He is also the Administrative Judge for the District Court of Maryland for Baltimore City.
Marine Capt. Steven J. Arango is a Deputy SJA for TECOM. He has published commentary in the Wall Street Journal, SAIS Review for International Affairs, Marine Corps Gazette, and on Fox News.
Army Capt. Zach W. Smith is a Special Assistant United States Attorney and Military Justice Advisor for the United States Army Combined Arms Support Command and Fort Lee. His primary focus is the intersection of technology and the law.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Army, Department of the Navy, Department of the Army, Department of Defense, the U.S. Government, the District Court of Maryland, or the Maryland Judiciary.