The Quest For Microsoft’s Next Default Font

Fonts are something that I assume most people don’t think about too often, myself included. Despite how much time many of us spend staring at screens reading text, we don’t frequently spend many cycles considering how that text is rendered to us. I assume that I do think about them at least a little more than average, though, given that I run several websites and have to select the fonts for them. It’s surprisingly easy to lose hours on Google Fonts trying to find something that perfectly fits. A former coworker of mine used to curate a collection of locally installed fonts he would use for presentations; when he retired, he ended up scrambling to come back to the office and copy his font collection before his corporate laptop was wiped.

Despite how frequently they just sit behind the scenes, consumed without being considered, the amount of thought and design that goes into the creation of a font is anything but insignificant, as I first realized when watching the 2007 documentary on Helvetica. Combining style and expression with readability is no small task. And as important as picking the right font for a website can be, nowhere is font selection more important than as a default font. Any time I see a screenshot on Twitter or Reddit where someone has actually changed the default system font on their phone or PC, it just looks extremely wrong. As such, that’s why I was so interested to see that Microsoft has decided to change up their font game by replacing Calibri as the default font in Microsoft Office, a position it’s held since 2007. 5 new fonts were commissioned with the potential to take its place.

Microsoft has something of a history of making good monospace fonts for coding, with Cascadia Code being something I install on most every computer I use, so I was interested to see what would come out of this. The 5 fonts in the running are:

  • Tenorite
  • Bierstadt
  • Skeena
  • Seaford
  • Grandview

In a Twitter post, they showcased what each font looks like in action and asked the community for feedback:

I spent more time than I care to admit sending IMs back and forth with a few friends of mine who have some degree of font-cred; one rather (in)famously spent his time testing VR gear for a work event in a virtual font museum. After reading Microsoft’s blog post with insight from the font creators and looking at the image above, my initial reaction was that Tenorite was the clear winner. The blocky style made for great readability, and the heavy punctuation was a nice change from commas you almost can’t see. After that, I liked Grandview and Bierstadt about equally with Grandview being a little ahead, as they’re both a bit more vertically inclined with similar vowel shapes, though Grandview runs a bit more narrow. I found Seaford okay, and Skeena was just a hard pass for me; I thought it looked a bit ridiculous, like something that would be good for a heading on a website but that I couldn’t see reading an entire paragraph of it.

Then my aforementioned font-enthusiast friend — who claimed Tenorite the clear winner before even I did — noted that the fonts were available in the current version of Word via Office 365. He had to amend his opinion as he felt that Tenorite was too blocky with a large body of text. I realized the best test would be to check out a paragraph like I would expect to write in Word or Outlook and see for myself. I took a block of text from one of my blog posts and started the comparisons.

Along with the text from the blog post, I did one additional test: comparing an uppercase i to a lowercase L — intentionally reversed here to note the distinction since my site’s own font struggles with this — to see if there was a discernable difference between them.

Tenorite

I almost immediately had to agree with my friend’s assessment that Tenorite is, in fact, too blocky. It’s not exactly a monospace font, but it doesn’t seem that far away. While I can see the benefit for readability, I think just looks bad in a block of text; it’s like I’m reading a comment in some code that is entirely too long. To be clear, I don’t think it’s a bad font by any stretch, but I can’t see it as the default across the Microsoft Office suite.

Bierstadt

Unlike Tenorite, I think Bierstadt looks a bit better in a block of text than my initial impression led me to believe. It looks smooth and clear with decent punctuation, especially the commas. While all of the fonts are sans serif, the slight tail on the lowercase L offers a nice distinction between it and the uppercase i. How does it compare to Grandview, though?

Grandview

I don’t know if it’s something with my MacBook Pro or something with Office on macOS Big Sur (running on an M1 chip, no less), but this is what I got when I swapped to Grandview. I called an audible and performed the same test in the web version of Word to much better results:

In my mind, it’s very close with Bierstadt, with Grandview feeling a tiny bit more reserved. In the end, I would give the nod to Grandview over Bierstadt, but it’s a narrow margin for sure.

Seaford

Seaford doesn’t feel bad, but to me it also doesn’t feel noteworthy. It’s like Calibri 2.0 rather than something of a more dramatic shift in the default Office font. That may be a good thing considering that at least a few of my friends actually expressed dismay over this whole exercise given their affinity for Calibri. I’d personally prefer to see a bit more of a change, though.

Skeena

As I mentioned at the start, Skeena got a “hard pass” rating from me after looking at Microsoft’s Twitter post. However, I think it holds up much better in a larger body of text, as it offers great readability. The i and L bit still suffers, though, and I’d personally like the punctuation to pop a bit more. I wouldn’t be mad if it was selected, though, which is not at all the impression I would’ve had just from seeing it in a single line.

So which font would I like to see selected?

Ultimately, I think Grandview is the best choice. It has solid readability and comfortable feel without being too loose. Bierstadt is also looking like a really good choice, though, and I’d be happy to see either of them become the next default.

I also want to give kudos to Microsoft for handling this in such a cool way. Rather than just picking a new default, reaching out to the community is a neat idea. How much of the decision will actually stem from community feedback is impossible to tell; they may have already selected which font to use internally. Regardless, I think this is a fun idea with some great engagement. Plus, I was surprised at how much effort I ended up putting into discussing this and trying to do comparisons of my own.