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Get With the Times

As the academic year once again gets underway, I think it's time to settle an old pet peeve of mine. If you will ever teach an academic course that involves writing, I invite you to consider what I have to say when making policies.

We've all heard the jokes about Comic Sans and its evil stepsister, Papyrus. We've all laughed because we're snobby enough to know that typefaces evoke moods—they have character (no pun intended) just like the content that they express. We know secrets of nuance that vapid secretaries could never understand. We want our typefaces to look and feel as beautiful as the ideas we're expressing with them. But lurking in the margins of our academic sensibilities is a sinister malady. An evil so commonplace that we have grown to love it and nurture it. A malignancy hidden in plain sight.

Times New Roman is not a good font. It's one of the worst fonts you can use. And I'm going to tell you why.

Right now, you're probably saying "BUT WAIT MY TEACHER SAID TO ALWAYS——" and that's fine. You shouldn't have been thinking in all caps, but otherwise you're right: most teachers claim to prefer TNR. I've tried my best not to oblige them. I hope some of those teachers are reading this right now.

"i can haz human sacrifice?"

Let's start with some brief history of type to help contextualize what happened about 20 years ago and why TNR has become the "old" standby of academia. If we go way way back to the ancient world, we find pre-paper societies that used orthographies that play to the strengths of available materials. The wedge-like pictograms of cuneiform script occurred because people were writing in soft clay tablets. Later, in the Roman world, majuscules with straight, square forms were developed to be easier to carve into solid granite. In the middle ages, the popularity of parchment paper and ink allowed more flowing scripts to appear, which were mixed with pre-existing Roman stone writing to produce the many varied letterforms of modern Roman type. For 500 years, the printing press reigned supreme as the preferred method of mass produced text documents. Professional printers took great pride their art, and they knew that in order for their books to be legible and beautiful, they would have to draw on the millennia of development of hand-drawn scripts over the course of civilization. Gutenberg used the elegant calligraphic styles of his native Germany. In France, Claude Garamond designed exquisite typefaces of Roman design that are still in use today.
Ironically, she chose Impact.
The modern age of industry attempted to remove some of the vestiges of the quill and the chisel by creating "sans-serif" faces like Helvetica, but those are harder to read for long paragraphs because many of the letters look too similar to each other. For this reason, we won't discuss sans-serif fonts in the context of academic writing. Sorry, hipster Ariel. 

In the 20th century, technology developed to allow people to essentially "print" documents at home. The problem with the typewriter was that the mechanisms required that all the letters be of equal width. This is what today we call a "monospaced" typeface. Everyone knows that a lower-case "i" shouldn't take up the same amount of room as an upper-case "M," but in a monospaced universe, they do. This makes reading difficult and it distorts letterforms. It also wastes paper by making text take up a huge amount of space. Any freshman knows that if you change your font to 12pt Courier, it can go from two pages to three without writing any more words!

To prevent students from taking advantage of the wonders of post-industrial typography, many professors now require that papers be written in the most readily available proportional serif font, Times New Roman. Why is TNR so ubiquitous? Well, it's due in large part to Microsoft corporation, which, as you may have guessed, is not run by typographers. The great thing about the computer age is that the need for movable type has essentially vanished. Sophisticated software and advanced laser printing now allow anyone to create beautifully engraved pages of text at home without melting down any lead or rolling out ink onto giant sheets of lambskin. The sad part is that we're still using fonts that were packaged with computer systems before software engineers had worked out all the kinks or converted better typefaces to digital fonts.
The one on the far left is William Starling Burgess,
designer of Times New Roman.

Now don't get me wrong, TNR was a bad font even before it was digitized. It is itself a product of the industrial age—it was designed ostensibly from scratch in the 1930s by an advertising designer, who probably plagiarized the work from a yacht designer who made some sketches about 30 years before. Not a good start. The letterforms suffer from numerous internal inconsistencies and an overall unaesthetic design. The New York Times, for which it was created, no longer uses it. And neither should you. When the personal computer had its debut in the late 1980s, sophisticated font-handling on computers hadn't been developed. Most machines came pre-installed with only a few of the most common fonts, among them TNR. Over the years, technology caught up, but the standard didn't change. Nowadays most theses and dissertations are required to be in TNR even though better fonts are available on most machines. Thankfully, book and journal publishers have largely abandoned it for better typography, but it persists as the omnipresent standard for homemade documents among academics.

Take a look at the following comparison. All the examples are 12pt.
Notice in some of the examples the elegant combination of the three letters "ffi" in the word "coffin." This is called a ligature. It's a way to avoid ugly collisions when letters are spaced tightly against each other. Default Times New Roman on your word processor employs no ligatures, so letters sometimes clash, creating an unorganized appearance on the page. The designers of the Macintosh, who historically gush about typography, tried to help by including a variant of the font, simply called "Times" that fixes some of these problems. As you can see, they included an "fi" ligature, but not "ffi," so the other "f" in "coffin" is left looking forlorn and emaciated.

Notice also how TNR's generally poor letter-spacing takes up more room than most other Roman fonts. Only Palatino and Georgia are wider (they both also appeared in the computer age and have little or no historical precedent). Palatino achieves more consistency than TNR by making all the letters slightly wider and by using more regular stroke widths. The problem of ligatures is also avoided in Palatino by creating letterforms that naturally avoid collision. By far the most economical, legible, and aesthetically pleasing of the Roman fonts are those designed by Adobe Labs after centuries-old designs taken from original movable type. Garamond, my personal favorite, is over 400 years old. Note how the advanced kerning in Garamond Premiere Pro nestles the lower-case "e" in "Burgess" into the nook of the lower-case "g" that precedes it.

There is a lot more to hate about TNR—it's a "transitional" serif font, meaning that it's a deformed runt-hybrid of "oldstyle" serifs (graceful, delicate fonts that mimic the smooth globules of ink on a real printed page) and "modern" serifs (high contrast letters that fully embrace the sharp-edges of precision machinery). I won't list all the reasons I loathe it here, but take a look for yourself. Type a sentence in MSWord at 48pt in Times, Garamond, and a few others. Print it out and look carefully. Ask yourself which one you really prefer.

The current sophistication of computer typography is a tremendous achievement. I know most people don't want to spend $299 for Garamond Premiere Pro, and I'm not asking anyone to do that. But if you're a professional academic who writes articles, you should think about it. It's more legible, has significantly better historical precedent, and can actually be beautiful. It was designed by a man who devoted his life to typography, not some hack advertising agent or software engineer trying to meet a deadline. If you're a student, try using Palatino or default Garamond that come preinstalled on Windows and Mac. Don't use Times New Roman. It was created by a plagiarist after all. It's bad karma.

EDIT: Some of you have asked for recommendations for other alternatives. In my quest to find free useful fonts, I came across an open source historical Garamond project, which is causing me to poop myself right now. CHECK IT OUT!!!

Also, pretty much anything from The League of Movable Type is a solid choice, and all are free to download.