From topography to typography: How a graphic designer’s love of Aptos inspired the next ubiquitous commercial typeface
Steven Matteson’s font Aptos, named for an area of Santa Cruz County he came to appreciate deeply as an escape during a stint over the hill, will be the default for the hundreds of millions who use Microsoft products such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint. “This is kind of like a holy grail situation for people in my line of work,” the 58-year-old says.
Being geographically close to the city of Santa Cruz is much like being the sibling of a movie star. For instance, there are roughly [checks notes] a zillion things in the consumer market named after Santa Cruz — including bicycles, apple juice, perfume, pickup trucks, and a Pepperidge Farm cookie, among many others. But you could lose a lot of bets tracking down some non-place-specific product named Aptos — that is, until now.
Last week, Microsoft announced the software giant’s new default font for programs like Word, Excel, PowerPoint and others. Its name is “Aptos.”
And while there is a constellation of fonts available to the armchair graphic designer — and they all have to have names — its status as the default font for the world’s largest software developer sets up Aptos to potentially take its place alongside the all-stars of the typeface world, a list that includes Helvetica, Times New Roman and Calibri, which Aptos is replacing.
The new font also has a powerful pedigree. Its designer is Steven Matteson, a heavy hitter in the graphic-design world who developed some well-known typefaces, including Segoe for Microsoft and Open Sans for Google.
Reached at his home just outside Boulder, Colorado, Matteson said Aptos was chosen as Microsoft’s new default font from a finalist list of five.
“The user may just have a default typeface that they use,” he said, “and they’ll use it for a garage sale flyer or something. They don’t really pay any attention to what typeface it is. But it’s really nice for the designer to see it being utilized. So yeah, this is kind of like a holy grail situation for people in my line of work.”
Matteson, in fact, designed the Aptos font under a different name. It was originally called “Bierstadt,” after the great landscape painter of the American West Albert Bierstadt. But Microsoft balked at that name.
“One of the reasons why Microsoft didn’t want to use it,” said Matteson, “was because of the [painter’s] estate, and because it translates from the German as ‘beer town,’ which might not be taken very seriously. So yeah, typeface naming can be almost as hard as the design itself.”
So, why “Aptos”?
For several years in the 1990s and early 2000s, Matteson lived over the hill, in Mountain View. During that period, he spent a lot of his free time in Santa Cruz County, and he especially came to appreciate Aptos.
“One of my favorite places was Aptos,” he said, “just because you could go from Seacliff, and across the highway and suddenly you’re up in the redwoods. I would go there for long hikes up to Nisene Marks and then spend the rest of the day on the beach. It was just like the greatest decompression weekend I could ask for.”
If Matteson were a winemaker, perhaps there would be a new varietal called Aptos. Or if he were a musician, maybe his breakout album would be titled “Aptos.” But he’s a typeface designer, so he conformed his love of a certain place into his latest design, finding a common thread in variety and versatility, while translating topography into typography.
“The whole area really appeals to me because of the diversity within Aptos as a kind of sliver of Santa Cruz County. So, for me, it was a way to show the diversity of messages you can use with [the typeface] Aptos. I mean, if you use Comic Sans, you’re implying something about your message. Or if you use a blackletter Gothic typeface, you’re implying something about your message. Whereas Aptos is very clear and succinct, and doesn’t really color the message. It’s very neutral, but also has human qualities to it.”
Aptos, as “Bierstadt,” was first developed in 2019. A year later, the font was chosen as Microsoft’s default font. Between then and last week’s announcement, Matteson and his team of designers worked on different styles of the font and designed it for use in other alphabets such as Greek and Cyrillic. One truism about typeface design is that any given design tends to evolve and change over time as it adapts to its many uses.
Typefaces are generally divided into two broad categories: “grotesque” (sometimes called “Gothic”), which is often concerned with geometric precision, and “humanist,” which tends to be more organic and more like calligraphy. “They’re pretty much polar opposites,” said Matteson of the two styles. “The layman may or may not be able to see the differences. But Segoe, which I did for Microsoft, is a humanist [form], and Aptos is a grotesque. So I’ve done both ends of the spectrum.”
Most people might notice fonts only when they are eccentric or extravagant. But Matteson’s work designing clean, unobtrusive fonts is all about nuance and subtlety. Certainly, the beauty of Aptos the place isn’t subtle at all. But Aptos the font finds its personality in small flourishes, such as a little tail on the lowercase l. Unlike other universally used fonts such as Helvetica and Arial, Aptos opts for the “looptail” over the “open tail” in its lowercase g, for example. Other than those deep-in-the-weeds details, Aptos is not going to draw much attention to itself.
“The idea is that it’s default,” said Matteson, “so it really shouldn’t conflict with whatever anyone’s going to type right out of the box.”
The digital revolution has expanded the universe of available fonts dramatically. At 58, Matteson was able to apprentice in the pre-digital age. In his early days, he said, he even worked in hot-metal moveable type, a technology that has been used in printing for centuries. But today, he’s designing for uses that he didn’t imagine in his earlier career.
“I’m trying to keep up with being able to code animated type, for instance,” he said. “It’s been quite amazing to see the changes to the craft of type design. The tools have gotten so much better even since I started … well, especially since I started. They allow you to create really amazing effects with animation and blending of typefaces and stuff like that, whereas it was very much more laborious in the past.”
However subtle they might be, dominant fonts can have a real influence in shaping the perceptions of their era of prominence. Helvetica is, for many, redolent of the 1970s, when it was at the height of its popularity. Matteson’s own Open Sans was a popular choice for blogs and web design and thus has become associated with the signature look of the decade of the 2000s. Could Aptos play that role in the 2020s?
“Helvetica was like the first type that was converted to the new technology,” said Matteson. “And so it was always present and it still is. That’s one thing that helped its longevity. It was kind of core to everybody’s typesetting system. So, yeah, maybe Aptos has that hope as well since it’s part of [Microsoft’s] Office suite that hundreds of millions or a billion people use.”
Either way, it is shaping up to be a well-known touchstone for the residents of Aptos to share a name with something that might soon be ubiquitous.
“I took my wife [to Aptos], right after the pandemic started to slow down. I showed her Aptos, and we went for a hike in Nisene Marks. And she was taken by its beauty and quaintness as well. So it’s nice to be able to share that years later.”