Updated: Feb 29, 2020
I’ve got my Graphic Designer hat on today and as I’m contemplating the responsibility of sending little baby logos out into the world, it got me thinking about the importance of fonts and how people might not quite understand how or why a font choice can actually be “wrong”. So I’m going to try and explain it by addressing the issues of the big font elephant in the room, Comic Sans, and explain why designers love to hate it.
Typeface design is quite complicated. There are many subtle nuances that combine to make a typeface and people are very responsive to them There are several separate “personalities” that we ascribe to fonts and this can be distilled into combinations of distinct traits. This was explained in more depth through formal studies in the early 2000s by academics at Wichita State University in Kansas who suggested we judge fonts largely on their “ruggedness and masculinity”, “perceived beauty” and “excitement”. Give any advertising test group (or indeed yourself) a selection of typefaces and they will be able to fairly easily classify the “feel” of fonts in ways such as “relaxed”, “formal” or “loud”.
Interestingly the American studies haven’t quite identified why we feel the way we do about certain fonts or ascribe any “personality” to them - after all, they are really just simple (and often quite subtle) variations on the same letterforms.
It follows then that we tend to respond positively to seeing fonts thus categorised in their appropriate context. For instance, it is accepted that formal letters are better received in a typeface like Times New Roman - the serifs give a more elegant and refined look to the lettering and larger amounts of text read legibly. A bulky, sans serif font like Impact would seem ridiculous - hard to read and overbearing. A looser font like Dom Casual would make it seem like the applicant might not be taking things seriously enough - too casual indeed. And that’s pretty much where our old friend Comic Sans comes unstuck.
It’s been over 25 years now since the Comic Sans font came on the scene. It was 1994 and Microsoft was introducing “Microsoft Bob” a native application meant to help new users discover the new Windows 95 operating system. A friendly pop up dog (Rover)
would helpfully assist you in navigating the “house” that was representative of the operating system. In the beta release it was noticed by one of their font engineers that Rover’s speech balloons were in Times New Roman, a rather stiff and formal traditional font.
“Dogs don’t talk in Times New Roman!” he may (or may not have) shouted.
Anyway, regardless of whether it was shouted (but why wouldn't it have been) the go ahead was given to Vincent Connare to come top with a more relaxed style of font, and inspired by comic book style developed Comic Sans. Unfortunately it was too late to be included as Rover’s voice in the release of Bob, but it was used as the native font for Microsoft’s new MovieMaker software where it totally made sense. It was then included as a standard font in Microsoft software from then on.
Its immediate popularity was understandable. In a 1990s world where we had experienced no font choices before, Comic Sans was the one more expressive, casual, fun font in what started as a fairly limited, conservative times-and-helvetica-ish selection. People started to use it for everything, and much like a popular song that is played on the radio too much, people have become tired of seeing it.
The fact that it is resident on all Windows applications that offer font choices and is now available broadly for the web, means that for people who don’t trawl the internet for “The Perfect Font” for every project in a disturbingly intense way (I know it isn’t just me) ie. practically everybody with a computer, including a lot of non-designers and those who couldn’t care less about font choices, could use Comic Sans. And boy, has it been used.... very broadly for any number of font crimes (including excessive underlining, centering, gross overuse of all-caps) and indeed, the big one: Inappropriate Font Use. Cheeky, happy little Comic Sans pops up on all manner ofserious signs and information posters making everyone feel a little bit uncomfortable. If you want to see a great compilation, click here... https://www.buzzfeed.com/sophiegadd/absolutely-beautiful-examples-of-comic-sans-in-the-wild
I would argue Comic Sans used in the correct context is not openly offensive, It was never designed to be used for everything and anything. In fact, its designer Vincent Cannare has said, “I think people who don't like Comic Sans don't know anything about design. They don't understand that in design you have a brief." His font works well for it’s intended purpose. It’s just been overused and misused enough to have developed it much-maligned reputation. And even you pre-school teachers or owners of Lemonade Stands out there be assured… there are plenty of other fun and friendly font choices out there.
Personally, as a Graphic Designer, I’m not really a fan for a few reasons beyond fashionable opinion. As a font it is hard to customise. It has awkward (and occasionally baffling) kerning - the spaces between the letters are a little variable so it doesn’t always sit easily on the eye. The design is a little erratic - for instance there are things like the little “hook”on the the capital C and S, variations in the “tilt” of letters affecting their symmetry, several letters a,b,c,d are practically round, whilst others (like that blasted capital C again) are not. These imperfections though, are probably intended to enhance its “handwritten look”, but it tied to just disrupt the kerning oddly. It’s still not enough for it to “bounce” along it’s baseline well enough to read like something that is genuinely handwritten. And frankly, it fails as a comic book font. Have a look at a number of good comic books and you won’t see anything really like Comic Sans appear. I find it’s biggest offence there is that it is a wide font. With many characters essentially spherical, it takes up too much room in speech bubbles.
So whilst you might not be a designer and you might not have a large collection of fonts on your computer (I mean, I only have 609 at the moment, a very conservative number to what I’ve maintained in the past), make sure that you consider the responsibility you have when putting out visual noise into the world. For the good of everyone’s eyeballs and delicate sensibilities, select fonts that reflect the intended purpose and meaning of your work. I know I might be making a bit of fun, but there are times when font choices can make the difference between making an impact with your work or whether you do (or do not) get taken seriously.
If you do not really care about typography and have something more serious to put out there, like a logo, flyer, sign, other advertising, resume or publication, consider hiring a professional graphic artist. I like to remind people that graphic design is a “skill job” and we won’t be “knocking something up in Word” *gags slightly*. Your qualified designer should be well versed in typographical design and the many elements and principals of design that combine together to create impactful visual art. As they say, “You never get a second chance to make a good first impression” and often advertising is the first way your “product” (it might be yourself, an actual product, a concept or business) is presented to your potential consumer/funder/boss.
Oh, and if you know someone who abuses the use of Comic Sans, divert them here: