Posted by Jennifer L. Bowie, Ph.D. on June 18th, 2012
Courier was designed by Howard Kettler in 1955, as a commission for IBM. Kettler originally planned to call the typeface “Messenger,” but showing his true typographer stripes, went with the name he thought displayed the advantages of his typeface. According to Tom Vanderbilt, Kettler explained his choice, saying “A letter can be just an ordinary messenger, or it can be the courier, which radiates dignity, prestige, and stability.”
Because IBM did not obtain legal exclusivity for Courier, the typeface became a standard in the typewriter industry. In fact, for many people Courier is the typographic emblem of the typewriter, and, as such, an emblem of the increased information distribution that occurred with typewriters. Because of Courier’s widespread use, Vanderbilt goes so far as to say “is perhaps the most recognizable typeface of the 20th century—a visual symbol of typewritten bureaucratic anonymity, the widespread dissemination of information (and a classification of documents), stark factuality, and streamlined efficiency.”
There are many different versions of Courier available for computers today. Courier was not designed for screen readability, but was often used as a default replacement for a typeface not available on the computer trying to access the text. “Courier New” is the default monospaced or modern generic font family for Windows and “Courier” is the default monospaced or modern generic font family typeface for Macs.
Courier is a monospaced typeface, which means each character takes up the same amount of space—the “i” takes up the same amount of space as the “m”. With proportional (or variable-width) typefaces, like Georgia or Verdana, each letter takes up a proportional amount of space—wider letters take up more space, narrow letters less. So, in the proportional typefaces, the “i” takes up much less space than then “m”. Monospacing is common on typewriters, because each typewriter key took up the same amount of space. Thus, monospacing is a typewriter convention and a relic of typewriters.
As a symbol of typewriters and the 20th century, Courier is a dated typeface, and thus it can give texts a dated feel. I was recently told that one should never use Courier in a résumé because it makes the résumé look like it was written on a typewriter; this making the applicant look old-fashioned and outdated. Courier is now used when columns of characters need to be exactly aligned (because it is monospaced, see below) and to represent computer code in texts. It is also the required typeface for screenplays. Roland Stroud, in a fascinating discussion of Courier, gives us a good reason for the continued used of Courier in screenplays, “Because it is a monospaced font, its use in a standard screenplay format allows a fairly accurate estimate of the time that one page will equal out to on screen.” Otherwise, I would not recommend using this typeface on screen or for print, due to the dated style.
Category of the typeface: Slab Serif (also monospaced)
Serifs: Slab style, serifs are flat (“slabs”) and have the same thickness as the rest of the letters
X-heights: High, high-ratio
Width and weight: Wide and light weight. Courier is the widest of the typefaces I have covered so far in my Typefaces of the Week. In fact, it is so wide that it is wider in 12 points than most of the typefaces I covered (except for Verdana, a wide face) set in 14 points.
Structure: No thick/thin transitions, even the serifs are the same thickness
Legibility and Readability: Highly legible. The monospacing decreases readability and the thin strokes further decrease readability online.
Voice-over and ethos: Due to its use as common typewriter face, Courier has the voice of a 1960s business person, secretary, or government worker. More generally, it reminds one of typewriters and business and government in the mid to late 20th century. Think memos and carbon paper. Vanderbilt suggests it has the “voice of raw clarity and transparency” and “it has come to serve as blunt shorthand for secrecy or for the chilling revelation brought to light.” So, it is both clear and secretive. Since it was the standard typeface of the U.S. State Department until 2004, it carries a government bureaucracy attitude. While it comes with a professional business and government ethos, it gives a feel of an outdated time and obsolete technology.
Typefaces that contrast well with it: Courier is a difficult face to find strong contrasts for because it utilizes aspects of both serif and sans serif typefaces. It has the serifs of a serif typeface, but the minimum thick/thin transitions of a sans serif. The best contrasts will be faces with radical thick/thin transitions, such as those in the Modern category (Bodoni, Elephant, and Bernard MT Condensed). The calligraphic flow of the Oldstyle faces (Book Antiqua, Bookman, Californian FB, Calisto, Centaur, Garamond, Goudy Old Style, and Palatino) also provide a decent contrast.
Typefaces that provide conflict: Many sans serif faces are simply too similar with the minimal thick/thin transitions. So avoid faces in this category such as Arial, Helvetica, Verdana, Tahoma, Century Gothic, Calibri, and Bell Gothic. Of course, also avoid other slab serifs like Copperplate.
Likely audiences and uses of the typeface: Anyone who read documents produced by the U.S. State Department prior to 2004 has read this typeface. Also, many documents typed on typewriters between 1955 and the late 1970s (and even later), were in Courier or a similar face. Current uses, as mentioned above, include representing code in texts, screenplays, and when the text columns need to line up. Other uses could be texts when you want a certain retro feel of business or government in the 1950s to 1970s or when you want a typewriter aesthetic. Good two for texts/designs meant to be reminiscent of the 20th century (especially mid to late 20th century). It is a better print than screen face, but its vast width means it will take up extra space (thus paper). Not recommended for people with visions issues. And, please do not use Courier when writing to me; I do not like the aesthetics of Courier.
Resources and References:
“Courier (typeface).” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Courier_(typeface)
“Screenplay Format: Courier Font.” http://www.empirecontact.com/screenplay/font.html
Stroud, Roland. “Courier Fonts: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Courier . . . And Then Some. http://www.rolandstroud.com/downloads/essays/courierfonts.pdf
Vanderbilt, Tom. “Courier, Dispatched: How the U.S. State Department put the kibosh on the typewriter font.” Slate. Feb. 20, 2004. http://www.slate.com/id/2095809/
 See http://screenspace.org/typetable.html
 X-heights: the height of the lowercase x compared to the uppercase letters. The higher the height of the lowercase x, the more readable the typeface. Ideally shoot for more than 50% for print and higher for online readability.
 Width and weight: Widths is how wide the letters in the typeface are. Weight is how heavy the typeface appears on a page the thickness of the strokes of the letters. A heavy typeface will look black and make the overall page darker, a light typeface will look lighter and make the overall page a shade of gray.
 Structure: how the face is built including thick/thin transitions, types of strokes, and more. If you were building the typeface out of materials, what would you use? Pipes? Fences? Thread?
 Legibility: the ability to make out/recognize small amounts of text such as a word or letters. Readability: the ease of reading a long body of text, such as paragraphs
 Voice-over and ethos: Voice over is the voice of the typeface or the style of the typeface. What style does the typeface suggest. If the typeface could talk, what would it sound like? Is it loud? Sassy? Quite? Formal? Would it be a valley girl or a New Your City business woman? Ethos refers to the authority of the text. When would this typeface be appropriate?
 Contrast: For good design you want to use typefaces that contrast. Clearly distinct faces contrast and create a strong design. If the faces are similar neither will “pop” and the similarities may look like a mistake and not intentional. Good contrasts are serif typefaces and sans serif typefaces.
 Conflict: The opposite of contrast. Two typefaces (or other elements) that are so similar they are disturbing (they “conflict”) and not contrasting, thus creating a weak design. Example: Times New Roman & Garamond.