By Michelle Barnett
04/09/2017
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Is Comic Sans really that bad?

True story: I once beat someone to a job based purely on the fact that my competitor had written their CV in the typeface, Comic Sans. The interviewers didn’t even bother to read it, assuming that someone with the dim-wittedness to do such a thing was not suited to the life of a professional adult.

A full alphabet for comic sans.

Since it’s release in 1994, Vincent Connare’s much maligned sans serif typeface has become it’s very own cliché, and yet remains one of the most popular fonts in the world.  It pops up in advertising, packaging, notices and shop signs all the time.  It’s even part of the Microsoft Office font package, which is probably where you came across it in the first place. Everyone’s used it. My mum has used it. I’ve used it  (I was seven at the time, but it happened). Yes, even you have used it. But despite this unmatched fame, typographers and designers around the globe hear it’s name and roll their eyes. People have spent vast amounts of time breaking down exactly why it hurts their sensibilities so much. There’s even been a call to ban it.

Truly, it is the Marmite of typefaces.

I mean look at it.

The kerning (the gaps between the letters) are all weird and uneven, there appear to be fat bits and thin bits despite the fact that the line they’re drawn with is the same width. It’s unsophisticated, simple, even clumsy, like a kid did it in MS Paint. And it’s just so incessantly, irritatingly friendly.

But here’s the thing… that was more or less the creator’s intention.

Comic sans was inspired by the lettering from old school comic books (the clue is in the title!) which used to be hand-written by the artists. The typeface tries to emulate this. It was originally meant to appear in the speech bubbles of a talking dog who had the same function as the Microsoft Word Paperclip, in a desktop navigation programme called ‘Bob’, but it wasn’t finished in time. The idea was to have something informal that would hold up at a very small size on the screen, which Comic Sans admittedly does.

What’s more, this informality is the reason why so many people like it so much. It doesn’t look like your bog standard textbook typefaces; it looks like actual human handwriting – endearingly, if pathetically, flawed and therefore relatable. When all you’ve got are the fonts your office programme provides, and the option is between super-serious Garamond, clear but tactless Arial, or jolly old Comic Sans, sometimes it really is the best option out of a bad crowd.

My interviewers might have been less quick to throw out my opponent’s CV if they’d considered the idea that people, even non-designers, aren’t stupid about visuals. We all live in a world where everything around us has been designed, and even those people who don’t care about design at all have been immersed in that world and have inevitably picked up a few things. It might just be the basics, but they know enough to recognise a sentence that looks happy and fun from one that looks serious and grumpy.

Is it possible that us designers are just being too pretentious and caring too much? Of course that is our job, but about three and a half minutes into this video on Comic Sans you can watch a guy explain with absolute sincerity how typography is like a wine goblet and wonder if maybe the rest of the world doesn’t take these things so seriously.  Somebody has to, but that somebody is not Average Joe who just wants to make the office memos reminding people to put the toilet seat down look less foreboding. So when poor Joe does abuse Comic Sans, it’s not really their fault, nor the font’s.

Historically, the Comic Sans problem has come from misuse rather than an inherently bad typeface. When I say that my mum uses Comic Sans, I should point out to you that she is a music teacher in a junior school and makes a lot of wall displays featuring short punchy phrases. Comic Sans mimics the way we hand-write our letters, which makes it a helpful typeface for children or people with lower literacy.  Her use of it is therefore entirely appropriate and correct. She has actually chosen the right font for the job!

However on the misuse pile, seeing Comic Sans employed for important notices is always my personal favourite. If you want to communicate a serious message without seeming too forceful, you might think that the answer is a cheery, upbeat typeface, maybe even in bright colours. However what this actually gets you is a level of passive-aggression that I find far more hilarious than I really should.

Slide about the phases of dying written in Comic Sans
Comic sans used on a defibrillator

The rest of the time there’s often a clash of tone. Comic Sans is the typeface that’s always just so goshdarn delighted to see you, but pair that up with messages about danger or trouble and its happy voice comes across as either insipidly saccharine or amusingly inappropriate.

There have been attempts to redeem this poor beleaguered typeface. Digital designer Craig Rozynski has created Comic Neue, a typeface which supposedly takes the original Comic Sans and smooths away the most offensive parts. Now you can keep your friendly whimsical typeface with none of the negative kneejerk reactions!

The Comic Sans Project has decided that you shouldn’t fix what’s not broken, and started replacing the text in famous logos and brandmarks with Comic Sans. Of course some of them do stick out like a sore thumb, but others are honestly not that terrible. Maybe even… dare I say it?… Okay.

The comic sans project - replacing brand typography with the friendly font

As with all design, context is everything. It’s not just about the elements you bring into your design, but how they all work together. As Connare himself says, sometimes the reason people like Comic Sans is that it’s a better option than Times New Roman. And sometimes it is. Maybe, in the right context, there’s still a place for little old Comic Sans.

Then again, maybe not.

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