I saw a tweet on Thursday from Matthew Butterick about a state supreme court case that turns, believe it or not, on whether a party complied with a font-size rule.
The dispute is about a ballot initiative. (( The political details are recounted by the Detroit Free-Press. )) Michigan law requires that signatures be collected on a form with text that is 14 point boldface type.
The group that collected these petitions (Stand Up For Democracy) prepared its petition forms using Microsoft Word — and stuck with the font that Microsoft has made the default since 2007, Calibri. Unfortunately for them, Calibri bows to modern sensibilities and so is a relatively small font.
This font choice has become central to a Michigan Supreme Court case (briefs and summary), with this scene unfolding at oral argument:
Chief Justice Robert Young, holding up a diagram of a piece of printer’s type, or “letter block,” from an earlier era, said when Michigan’s ballot laws were written in the 1950s, font size meant “the block.” “Has that measurement been faithfully translated to the digital world?” he asked Mr. Pirich. The lawyer contended the answer is no. (WSJ)
A Chief Justice holding up a typographic drawing from the 1950s as potentially controlling authority must be a typographer’s dream, although for one side here not a pleasant one. The Calibri font, released in the mid-2000s, does not comply with the traditional “point” scale:
The letters in the Calibri font used by Stand Up For Democracy, when measured using an “E scale” ruler used by type designers, were less than 14/72 of an inch tall, which is the definition of 14-point type … (WSJ).
Reporting on this story, the Wall Street Journal reached out to Lucas de Groot, the type designer responsible for Calibri, who defended his font as being quite readable even at small sizes. Along the way, he also seemed critical of the statutory requirement, saying that the traditional 14 points was “huge” for modern tastes: “[F]rom a typographer’s point of view 14 point is huge for reading text. It is big enough for people with bad vision or for elderly without reading glasses.” (( Before you conclude that Mr. de Groot’s comments are a reason to oppose the proposed change to 14-point font in Texas appellate practice, consider that the physical size of an iPad screen is about half that of a piece of paper. ))
Comic Sans to the rescue
The other font that made headlines this month was our old friend Comic Sans, which crashed the party at the Higgs boson announcement.
That led the designer behind Comic Sans to boast that this felt better than dunking over LeBron James: (( If you follow sports, you’ll realize that his LeBron James reference works at two levels. ))
Better than a slam dunk on @KingJames RT @KeithOlbermann: @verge CERN scientists present boson findings in Comic Sans bit.ly/MTEioM
— Vincent Connare (@VincentConnare) July 4, 2012
Perhaps Mr. Connare would have felt even better if he’d known that his font could also help cure America’s divided politics. Not only is the font quite readable, but it is also much larger than Calibri:
If only the folks behind the petition drive had been farsighted enough to use the larger font Comic Sans, then this whole lawsuit might have been avoided.
Sources: “A Typeface Spells Political Trouble in Michigan” (Wall Street Journal); “Michigan Supreme Court considers font size on emergency manager petition” (Detroit Free-Press)